On Saturday, November 16, the Washington (Ill.) High School football team advanced to 12-0 after defeating University High School 41-7 in the state quarterfinals. Coaches and players were already looking ahead to the following Saturday, when they would travel to undefeated Sacred Heart Griffin. But less than 24 hours after the win, Washington County was struck by an EF-4 tornado that destroyed more than 1,400 homes, took several lives, and injured dozens.
“As a coach, I was worried about everyone - friends, players, my colleagues. Some people lost everything. I was getting texts from kids saying they’d lost their homes,” said Washington Head Coach Darrell Crouch. “And right after our win. It was a giant mood swing, if you can call it that.”
As soon as the storm passed, Crouch and one of his assistants spent hours helping another coach sift through the rubble of his house. Afterward, they visited starting quarterback Colton Marshall, whose family’s home qualified as a total loss. From there, they visited each player’s home to make sure the kids and their families were safe, and to survey the damage.
In the hours immediately following the storm, and the day after, players took it upon themselves to break off in groups and help out around town. Once everyone had a place to stay - with a neighbor or nearby family, or at the makeshift shelter Coach Crouch’s wife set up at the football facility - the staff decided to hold a practice on Tuesday.
“It was more about the opportunity to catch up with everyone, figure out who lost what. It wasn’t so much about football at that point,” said Crouch.
After a breakfast provided by other teams within the conference, the Panthers boarded a bus to Illinois State to start prepping for Sacred Heart Griffin. Two days later, school was back in session.
“People couldn’t believe it, but it was more about what the kids needed, not learning but returning to some sense of normalcy.”
But even with practice in full swing and school reopening, the players couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened to their town. The football-crazed community of Washington had done so much for them - financially and emotionally - there was an air of guilt in the locker room that Saturday.
“They wanted to be back home helping,” recalled Crouch. “But this was their chance to get away and think about something other than the tornado. I reminded them of our goals from back in August. The biggest goal was to reach the State Championship and they wanted this accomplishment in life.”
And they didn’t show up to the game alone: Washington fans were able to make the one hour and 15 minute trip thanks to busses provided by Sacred Heart Griffin. On top of that, fans from other conference teams showed up to support not only the team, but the community, as well.
“Just seeing who is reaching out and how, we’re incredibly fortunate. It’s coming from all over the U.S. in the form of emails and letters. It means a lot. Our kids are being treated with amazing respect and, as bad as things are out there, there is still a lot of good in people.”
The Panthers fell short in that game and Sacred Heart Griffin went on to win the state title. While the loss was hard, players’ priorities never shifted, and they got right back to rebuilding. It will take at least six months for partially destroyed homes to be restored, and even longer to reconstruct totaled houses, but “you’re seeing a lot more smiling and things are a lot more regular than they were those first few days where people were just trying to figure out what was going on in their lives.”
“Our players realize how different life is without a home, or when your friend doesn’t have a home. These kids have had to grow up a ton, carrying the town on their back with that game and in the weeks following.”
Crouch mentioned several times how overwhelming the outreach has been - with opposing teams providing meals and transportation and NFL players with Illinois ties throwing together a Monday Night Football viewing party just this week. Our office is waiving the cost of the Panthers’ 2014 subscription, as well. If you would like to help, let us know and we can fill you in.