This has not been an easy week for the Washington, Illinois High School Football Team. Instead of just preparing for a playoff game this weekend, they have one of the largest distractions imaginable, an EF-4 tornado that hit their community.
The Washington Panthers are practicing at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium in Normal getting ready for Saturday's Class Five-A Semifinal game in Springfield against Sacred Heart-Griffin. At least nine of the team lost their homes in Sunday's Tornado.
"He came over and said you have an appliance on top of you. I didn't think I was going to get out of there for quite some time."
Jake Clark is a running back. He was asleep in his basement room and woke up to loud winds. His father yelled at him to come upstairs and look. His dad was videotaping the twister and its huge dark debris cloud because he didn't think it would come for them. Not so...
"And I yelled at him we gotta get downstairs, grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him with me. Two seconds we were in the basement and everything just exploded. So, I just took cover behind my couch to get out of the way of the windows and stuff and put my hands over my head and I felt stuff starting to fall on me. And my Dad had to come dig me out. There was another person's oven on top of me and roof trusses and all that stuff. It wasn't good."
Jake isn't dressed to practice. He has scratches on his face and arms and a nail hole and bruises in his back. He says he can't run right now because of the debris that fell on him.
"And then we got up and got outside tryin' to help people. All we could hear was kids screamin' for help. It was really scary and we just got out there help people as soon as we could."
By some odd chance, everyone on Clark's block was ok. Clark says he looked at the wreckage and had a bad moment considering homelessness. He and his family have been going back to the rubble every day to look for belongings.
"We found quite a bit of stuff. I made out the best out of my whole family. Probably because my room is in the basement, So I was actually able to get most of my clothes and belongings and stuff and guitars and stuff like that. But my Dad and little sister, their rooms were upstairs and so their stuff is pretty much all gone."
Everyone on the team knows someone who is trying to dig out the remains of possessions from mounds of debris that used to be a thousand homes in the Tazewell County town. Wide Receiver Hayden Bodine is one of the fortunate ones. Bodine says after the all clear he and his dad hopped in the truck without shirt or shoes to drive around, not expecting to see much.
"Brand new houses just destroyed. And we saw people coming outside screaming. And we just went into action, helping. Kid on my football team, I went to his house. He's got a concussion. So I kind of grabbed him, put him inside, laid him down. He had no idea what was going on. His head was pounding, he said. He just had no idea."
Hayden says he and his father drove home, packed water and clothing into their truck and started distributing it that day.
"I don't know what I was thinking about. It's just really adrenaline, just doing whatever I could. I had no idea what was going on, just breaks your heart."
The team met Monday in their locker room and went out and walked, collecting goods strewn around. They found an Ipad, a laptop...both worked...and other things, even one of their own team members' helmets. Two offensive linemen lost everything, including their jerseys and game pants. Bodine says the team scrounged extra. He says there are mixed emotions. You feel bad for the players and proud they are responding well...
"We know after football they are going to be a little devastated again. But, that's what we're here for. We are teammates. We're gonna pick 'em up. We're gonna help this community."
So is football a refuge?
" I would say so. It just gets them away from everything."
How do you work your way mentally into getting ready for the game when you have these other things going on?
"It's tough. You just have to kind of isolate yourself and be thankful that everything is ok. And our coach has done a great job keeping us together as one. Just trying to be leaders. That's all we really can do"
Casey Danley is number 21. He's a running back.
"I was with some of the players and one of the coaches. We all go to church every Sunday."
The twister came right through Danley's neighborhood.
"It was crazy because we went to the locker room and the tornado came right by us. We could hear the locker room shaking and everything. It was real scary. Never experienced anything like it. I don't wish that on anyone else."
Even with a catastrophe like this, Clark, Danley, and Bodine want to win the next game. Washington is 12-0, undefeated for the first time this late in the season. Running back Jake Clark says the team is pulling together...
"I was still shaking from everything that happened and I saw kids from the team in the backs of trucks getting bused over to the bad spots to help out and then yesterday I was digging stuff out of my house and Coach Crouch came up with 20 other football players and it was just great to see."
Clark says he can't even count the number of friends who have offered places to stay. Because of that, Clark says he's not worried about anything right now. While the school is closed because of the lack of potable water, power, and curfew restrictions in Washington, the football team practices at Illinois State University. Washington's defeated quarterfinal playoff opponent University high School in Normal is providing hot lunches and other help. Hayden Bodine seems overwhelmed...
"That's awesome...for them...you are just so grateful for people like that and communities like that just to respond to us and give us things we need. It's just amazing. You give your heart out to them."
The Panthers' next opponent - Sacred Heart Griffin is likewise offering meals and some buses to get Washington fans to the weekend game because many lost their vehicles in the twister. From around the region, water, cash, clothing, and food is pouring in from many sources.
Casey Danley says all the other teams in the conference have sent their support and concern and he believes going forward with the game will help the town as well as the players.
"It's one town, one community, one team. And so, we're coming together as a community even more than we have through this football team. And we're just trying to go out there and get a win on Saturday for the town and our team."