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Football unites Joplin in the aftermath of tornado

Saturday, September 10, 2011 | 5:37 p.m. CDT; updated 5:53 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 29, 2011

JOPLIN — There's a scar through the middle of Joplin, a mile wide and six miles long. All that's left after a deadly tornado are a few twisted tree stumps, chunks of chewed up pavement and the tattered remains of homes and businesses.

So much of the town is gone.

But, the football stadium still stands.

The storm that churned through southwest Missouri on May 22 forever altered its landscape. More than 2,000 buildings were destroyed, 160 people killed and $3 billion in damage left behind.

Just about the only thing the storm didn't destroy was the spirit of the people who call Joplin home. Not even 200 mph winds and golf ball-sized hail could make a dent in that.

On Saturday night, they'll converge on Junge Stadium for the first home football game of the season. More than 10,000 fans are expected to jam a stadium built for 4,500 to watch Joplin High face Hillcrest. There will be a moment of silence and a concert and flyover, and then the game will kick off. For just a few hours, there will be a sense of normalcy.

"Win or lose, they're going to be able to talk about this for the rest of their lives," said Dan Hueller, Joplin High's assistant principal. "These are the kinds of things we want our kids to remember, not the disaster that's taken place. These are the kinds of memories you want to have for your kids."

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The fact that there's football this fall is a testament to Jeff Starkweather's determination.

The athletics director thought school officials were crazy when, just after the storm, they vowed to start classes on time. The high school had been reduced to a few brick walls, practice fields were ruined, and jerseys, cleats and football helmets had vanished. But Starkweather also knew the best way to get over the trauma was to get to work. So that's what he did.

"It was a lot of logistics, things you take for granted, when you walk right out of school to your practice facility and there you are," he said. "There was no practice field. There wasn't a school."

There are plans to rebuild the 50-year-old high school, but it'll take time. For now, freshmen and sophomores have class at the old Memorial High School, which escaped significant damage. Juniors and seniors attend a makeshift school in an empty department store at the mall.

The building is tricked out with flat-screen televisions and plush lounges, and every student has a laptop thanks to a donation from the embassy of the United Arab Emirates. But all the technology doesn't make up for what's missing: walls that block out noise from neighboring class, a full kitchen attached to the cafeteria and memories of students past and present.

"It's not ideal," Starkweather said, "We're proud that we got that together. And we're competing on time, and athletics are moving forward."

Josh Banwart wasn't sure that would be the case.

The senior linebacker was home with his two younger sisters and a family friend when the tornado sirens went off. He didn't think much of it at first, but as the rumble kept getting louder, he headed for the basement. When an eerie silence finally settled over town, he emerged to find almost everything in his neighborhood gone. His own home had the roof and siding ripped off.

"We were hearing the windows breaking, and you could smell the grass and the dirt, just kind of churned up," he said.

His parents were celebrating their anniversary in Jamaica and learned about the storm on television. They got a text message through, but with cell phone towers down, Banwart couldn't speak to them for six or seven hours. They caught a flight home as soon as they could.

"We walked up to the high school that night," Banwart said. "You couldn't drive anywhere, so we kept walking into town, and as you got farther it got worse."

He knew Will Norton, the teen who was driving home from his high school graduation when tornado sucked him out of the window of his truck. Norton's body was found in a nearby pond, one of seven students and a school administrator killed by the storm.

"The first day of school, it was interesting to hear the stories that people had," said Dayton Whitehead, a senior wide receiver. "At practice, you see construction trucks driving by all the time, and it helps to know that you'll have a football season, just like last year, before anything happened."

Whitehead said the storm brought everyone together. Sure, there are still cliques like those found at every high school, but things have changed. Athletes, artists and everyone in between have been through something they'll never forget.

"You still hang out with the same people you hanged out with, but when you see people you didn't even know, you kind of try to take into consideration that maybe you should say 'Hi' to them once in a while, because you never know what could happen," Whitehead said.

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The first home football game of the season is a triumph for Joplin, said Chris Shields, the 35-year-old coach from suburban St. Louis who'd been hired just a couple months before the storm.

He hadn't moved yet and had only met with his players twice, mostly to organize workouts and fundraisers. When he got a text message about the tornado, those plans went out the window.

"The first few days, football takes a backseat," Shields said. "It's about finding loved ones, making sure everyone is accounted for, seeing what you can do. Then you look around and figure out what to do next."

The goal was to get back on the field as soon as possible.

"High school football is a way to get back to normal," said Dan McCreary, the booster club president whose three children graduated from Joplin High. He lost his home and cars in the storm and could be spending all his time rebuilding. Instead, he spent Friday at Junge Stadium stocking the vending area with hundreds of cases of soda and boxes upon boxes of candy and chips.

"It's time to rejoice over something a little less significant," McCreary said. "I mean, it seems really important when you're a kid out there and you drop a pass or miss a tackle — it seems pretty big sometimes — but I think it helps. It helps all of us."

Everyone affected by the storm has a story, but it can hurt to tell it. Many would rather talk about the outpouring of support they've received and the thousands of people who have helped clean up.

They include country music singer Kenny Foster, who grew up in Joplin and whose parents had their house near the high school turned to splinters. Foster wrote a song titled "Hometown" about the storm and is donating the proceeds from its sale to the relief effort.

He'll perform before the game Saturday. Foster believes something as simple as high school football can help heal the scars the tornado left, or at least make everyone forget about it for one night.

"Who from high school didn't go to football games on Friday night? It's a pastime, a pastime anywhere in Middle America," Foster said. "There's going to be a gap to fill here in the spirit of the people. It's nice to bring that back into focus. If it takes football to do that, so be it."

 


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