There are many things I love about sports; but what I love most of all is that sports, which many people deem “unimportant” in the grand scheme of life, have the ability to lift individuals, teams, cities and even countries, out of a proverbial hole. One such team is the Joplin High School Eagles.
On May 22, the town of Joplin, Mo., was brought to its knees by an EF5 tornado. It ripped apart homes, businesses and schools; one-third of the town was obliterated, and 162 lives were lost. How do you return to any sort of semblance of normalcy after such a tragedy? If you are the Joplin High School athletic director, you go to work ensuring that sports will go on for the students; if you are a high school football player, after a summer of rebuilding your life, you lace up your cleats for summer sessions.
By the time summer camps began for the fall season, most of the high school athletes said that everything they had done in the last three months was hurricane-related – either trying to rebuild their own homes, find new homes, or help others who lost their homes. Most people in the town thought there wouldn’t be a football season, but the Joplin High players and coaches wouldn’t let that happen.
“Just being together is a thing that makes us feel at home… and that’s one thing that gets us through it,” junior linebacker Austin Barnett said to ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”
For one player who lost almost everything that day, being with his team has brought him some peace in the face of tragedy.
Quinton Anderson lost both of his parents in the tornado and was himself seriously injured; he was dug out of the rubble on the evening of May 22, and induced into a coma. He fractured his skull, shattered his orbital bone and spine, and he needed skin grafts on both legs. For most of the team, the first time they saw him was when he walked into the parent-team meeting on Aug. 7.
“I knew I couldn’t play,” he said, “but it was nice to know I had my family back at home in the football team.”
Despite coming to Joplin just three months before the tornado hit, the head football coach has been a true leader for this team during a season in which everyone would understand if they just laid down and accepted defeat.
“When you get knocked down in life, it comes down to a simple decision: lay down and feel sorry for yourselves or get up and fight,” head coach Chris Shields said to his team before their first game of the 2011 season. “I have no reservations about what this team will do in the face of adversity. What you’ve done and the things that you’ve gone through – there is nothing that can happen on the football field that we can’t overcome if we stay together.”
Before that first game, junior LB/RB Adam St. Peter told ESPN that the team was aware that many of the people who would be in the crowd were coming to see how the team represented them.
That’s what’s driving me mostly, I feel like that’s what I need to do for all of these people whose lives were dramatically altered – just make them proud to be from Joplin,” St. Peter said.
As a town continues to rebuild, the Joplin High sports teams do the same. They’ve lost athletes, some in the tornado and some in the aftermath who had to leave town, but those who remain continue to do what they did before the tornado ever touched down – they hit the fields wearing their Joplin jerseys. These athletes are forever changed, but on the field, they are able to be normal teenagers.
In the town of Joplin, Mo., football has the power to pick people up and return them to life.
Note: the quotes from this article are from ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”