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At Southmoore High, football provides family, a refuge from devastation

MOORE, Okla. -- We were standing in a driveway, but there was no house. There was an address stenciled on the concrete curbing, verification that a house had once stood on the property, but now that was a five-digit epitaph for a family's life together in this place. There was a fireplace, sheared off at six feet above the earth, crumbling but defiant. There were the skeletal remains of what had once been shade trees, stripped leafless, extending naked branches skyward as if beseeching help or begging for relief. There were pillows, a mattress and a shower curtain, private things now splayed out in the light. And there was rubble everywhere: Sprawling piles of plywood and sheetrock, two-by-fours and garden tools. Cars beneath the stacks, hopelessly crushed. All of this, multiplied by a thousand, a humbling, 360-degree panorama of tornado destruction, deeply sadder and more vast to the naked eye than when filtered through a television or laptop screen.

Eight young men stood in the driveway, football players from Southmoore High School, a five-year-old campus at the south end of this small central Oklahoma city that had been laid open by the storm three days earlier. One of the players was Kade Foss, a thick-legged, 17-year-old offensive lineman with short, dirty blond hair, a scruffy beard and a face that hides emotions. This had been his home. His mother, Ginger Foss, was inside when the tornado hit and she took cover in a tiny cabinet underneath the kitchen sink when the twister touched down at 2:56 p.m. on Monday, May 20. She crawled out of the wreckage alive. Foss's dog, a two-year-old lab-husky mix named Koda, was just a few feet away from Kade's mom. He did not survive. "That was my buddy,'' says Foss. He kicked at some stones in the driveway, eyes cast downward, recognizing little pieces of his life strewn about. "I never thought this could happen,'' he says. And then he was just quiet.

*****

The call came last Tuesday morning, from Sports Illustrated editor Steve Cannella. In the aftermath of the Monday tornado, Cannella asked me to go to Oklahoma and see if there was a connection somewhere between tragedy and sports, as there is often is. (Even far beyond the obvious, Kevin Durant's hugely generous $1 million donation to the Red Cross for tornado relief). The result of that trip is an essay in this week's magazine. This story is a longer version of that one, with a little background on how it came about.

Upon getting the assignment, I tried to hurriedly push myself up to speed on the tragedy. On the day of the tornado, I had been driving home with my wife from our youngest child's college graduation. During her shifts behind the wheel, I read Tweets about the storms in Oklahoma; upon getting home I watched a little footage and then fell asleep. That's essentially where I was when Cannella called me. One of the first applicable items I came across was this very good deadline column that John Hoover of the Tulsa World had written in the aftermath of the tornado. In the piece, Hoover mentions Southmoore High School and its coach, Jeff Brickman. I emailed Hoover and asked if he had any contact info for Brickman, which he did, and generously provided. I texted Brickman and two hours later he called me back.

Brickman, 36, gave me the basics. The tornado had passed relatively close to their school building, which sits just north of the border with Norman. The school had not been hit, but the neighborhood just to the north had been destroyed, and most of those homes lay in the Southmoore district. Brickman was still attempting to connect with many of the 120 players in the high school football program, but it was already clear that many had lost their homes. (Moore has three high schools; neither the Westmoore High School nor Moore High School football programs had as many displaced boys as Southmoore's, one slice of geographic randomness among many associated with the tornado). I told Brickman that I was going to be in Moore sometime the following day (flights were scarce, hotel rooms scarcer, for obvious reasons), and asked if I could meet with him and perhaps with some of his players. He said yes and we agreed on a time. He also said that, for the moment, he was going to "let the dust settle,'' and put football aside. And that made perfect sense. It was a change in that stance, compelled by young men in the throes of tragedy, that would turn my trip into a story.

Upon arrival the next afternoon, I would miss our meeting time by hours. Under normal circumstances it's a 20-minute drive from Will Rogers International Airport in Oklahoma City to Southmoore High School. But the devastation had rendered "normal'' travel times meaningless. The trip took almost 2 ½ hours, via a wide, circuitous loop. I arrived at Southmoore to find the parking lot blanketed with dirt and debris and just a half dozen cars parked by the field house at the back of the property. Brickman met me at the door and took me into his office, where seven young football players and one cheerleader sat waiting to tell me their stories.

*****

The morning of May 20 dawned muggy and breezy in central Oklahoma. "A classic Oklahoma storm situation,'' says Rick Smith, 49, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Norman. Tornadoes form prodigiously in Oklahoma along what severe weather experts call the "dry line,'' a climatic boundary where muggy air from the Gulf of Mexico and dry air from the desert Southwest are blown together by the state's ubiquitous winds. Smith's office had been targeting May 20 for nearly a week, and by mid-morning had issued severe weather warnings.

Members of the Southmoore football team received midday text messages informing them that the day's 2 p.m. practice had been cancelled. Tryouts to find the new mascot -- "Sammy the SaberCat'' -- remained on the schedule into the early afternoon. Students throughout the school heard that tornadoes were likely, but few remember the '99 twister and all had lived through countless false alarms. "There's always talk about tornadoes, but how much can you actually believe?'' says senior tight end Brandon Garrison, 17, "I honestly didn't think it would be that big of a deal.'' In lieu of practice, many Southmoore football players met with their coaches and watched film of the previous day's workouts.

At 2:40 p.m., the NWS issued a tornado warning for Moore and neighboring areas. Coaches pulled up angry radar images on cell phones, giving the warnings substance. Students were sent by teachers, administrators and coaches to designated areas in the buildings. Sierra Cuccio, 18, a senior cheerleader, says, "We unrolled our cheer mats and stuffed as many people as we could into the them, and then rolled them back up.'' In the fieldhouse, football coaches instructed athletes (mostly football players, but also some track athletes and cheerleaders) to put on football helmets, move to the center of the building and assume the "tornado position.'' (Hunched over, head between legs).

Sixteen minutes after the initial warning, at 2:56, the tornado touched down 4.4 miles west of Newcastle, Okla., about 10 miles from Southmoore High. "The storm went severe very, very quickly,'' says Smith, the meteorologist. ``It got really big, really fast and it was quickly apparent that it was going to very bad. About as bad as it gets.'' The tornado would be on the ground for 40 minutes and travel 17 miles in a roughly northeasterly direction across the middle of Moore. It was an extraordinary 1.3 miles wide and carried winds that reached 210 miles per hour. Based on evidence gathered in the days following the storm, the NWS would classify the tornado as EF-5, the highest possible classification. There have been just 59 such tornadoes in the U.S. in the last 63 years, seven of them in Oklahoma. (For extensive background on this tornado and tornado history, go here.)

Brickman watched the storm approach from behind the main school building. "It looked like it was going to miss us to the North, then it looked like it was coming right at us,'' says Brickman. "At the end, it looked to the naked eye like it missed us by about 300 yards.'' (Satellite images indicate that it was closer to 500 yards). Lane (17, a junior) and Drake (14, an eighth grader) Soltero, brothers and defensive backs, were signed out of school by their mother, Angela Maiso, just before the tornado formed. "We were driving while the tornado was on the ground,'' says Lane. "That was a real bad deal, but my mom was flipping out.'' The storm's widest path of destruction occurred directly north of Southmoore, where it took out Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools and a wide swath of homes, mostly in the Southmoore school district. As we sat in Brickman's office, talking, Lane received a text message from his mother explaining that while house had not been flattened by the storm the damage was so extensive that it would have bulldozed to the ground. He shrugged his shoulders resignedly. He had expected this news.

When the tornado ended, students and families sought to reunite. Sean Jarrell, 15, a freshman linebacker, was in the school cafeteria when a girl from his neighborhood told him that their houses were gone. "My mom was home,'' says Jarrell, "and I kept thinking the worst.'' Jarrell furiously texted his older sister, but cell service was extremely spotty and communication difficult. Eventually Jarrell's position coach, Craig Bryant, received a text from Jarrell's older sister: House is gone. Mom is OK. "I was ecstatic telling him that his mom was okay,'' says Bryant, "But that's a one-two punch right there. 'House is gone, Mom is OK.' I've never had to deliver news like that to a young man.'''

Junior cornerback Brandon Dick drove his truck into his neighborhood and found his house in ruins. "Tears just started flowing,'' he says. Players with younger siblings in the flattened elementary schools tired to confirm their safety. Junior Darius Joseph, who lives with Dick (and who also moved to Moore from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2006) found his brother, Hezekiah Darbon, safe at Briarwood, where he had been captured in an already iconic photograph reuniting with a neighbor.

Thomas Evey, 16, a sophomore defensive back, discovered his sister, Miranda, in the Plaza Towers parking lot with a gash on her head, but safe. Bryce Hatton, a junior nose tackle, walked more than two miles to Plaza Towers and arrived just as his father got there, and together they came upon Hatton's third-grade sister, Allison, wrapped in a blanket, unhurt. Zac Hernandez, 17, a junior defensive back, walked a mile into his neighborhood, but didn't recognize it. His family had ridden out the storm in Evey's storm cellar and now they all met on devastated street. Shocked beyond words, Hernandez noticed that while Evey's house had fallen, there was still a freezer in the rubble. He walked over, opened it, and began eating from a half gallon of neopolitan ice cream. "I don't know why,'' says Hernandez. "I didn't want to be sad.'' In the end, a total of 22 football players had lost their homes (and 40 athletes in all from Southmoore).

In the days following the tornado, the displaced Southmoore players bounced among friends, family members and hotels. Blake Bills, 16, a junior outside linebacker, stayed with four different friends in the first four nights after the storm. Most of the players had to borrow clothing; many spent long hours at the school, accepting supplies from benefactors. Almost of all of them felt a deeper affection for their teammates and coaches. "Football is the only thing I'm thinking about,'' said Garrison, 48 hours after the tornado. "These last couple days, my coaches have shown they would give me the shirt off their back, literally. My teammates are my family. I'm so fortunate to have these guys.'' Brickman met with players who had lost homes (one Southmoore player, freshman Taylor Neely, lost his mother) and heard similar language. One after another, players told him that didn't want to put football on hold. They wanted to get to back to football, in search of stability and friendship and support. "Every time I met a kid who lost his house, he said to me 'When can we get back to practice? When can we get back to the weight room?'' said Brickman. "They wanted football, so they could get away from the devastation.''

So Brickman decided not to let the dust settle. He set up a donations page on the team website from which cash will be distributed every Saturday morning in equal amounts to every displaced sports family in the school. (Last Saturday $10,461 was given to 40 families in an emotional ceremony just hours before Southmoore's graduation). He made plans for the team to get closure on spring football this week by conducting a two-day "mini-camp'' on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, and on Thursday night from 7-9 p.m., to play their spring game, an intrasquad contest. T-shirts would be sold at the game, inscribed with Southmoore Strong, and proceeds will go to tornado relief. It would help the community heal.

To solidify the plan, Brickman called a team meeting for last Thursday at 1 p.m., almost 72 hours after the tornado hit. Players gathered in their locker room in the one-story brick field house. Some of them sat neatly in rows of folding chairs, others on the floor and still others in the college-quality, navy blue metal dressing cubicles that lined the walls. Brickman entered the room and stood in front of his team. He wore a grey T-shirt, wind pants and knee-high rubber boots, his uniform for the outdoor cleanup detail that would follow the meeting. The tornado had dropped hundreds of pounds of debris on the Southmoore campus, including the football field.

Brickman was born in Moore and attended Moore High School; when a powerful tornado struck the city on May 3, 1999, he raced home from college at Central Oklahoma University in Edmond, ditched his car in stalled traffic by the side of I-35 -- "Almost like an Armageddon movie or something,'' he says -- and rushed past National Guardsman to find that his family's home was heavily damaged but that his parents had heeded warnings and left in advance of the twister. Four years later, Brickman's 91-year-old grandmother, Laura Titsworth, was pulled alive from the wreckage of yet another tornado that struck Moore. Three major tornadoes have hit Moore in Brickman's lifetime; he has an abiding appreciation for the physical and emotional damage they inflict. He also understands that high school football is important in Oklahoma. He saw the annual "Moore War'' between Moore High and Westmoore High School, and last year, his first as Southmoore's head coach, swept the other two city schools en route to a 7-3 season record. His program regularly sends players to Division I colleges. It is a serious business.

Here in the locker room, Brickman said to his team: "Raise your hand if you're all in with getting back to football next week.'' Every hand shot skyward.'' Brickman said, "That's what I thought.''

The plan didn't unfold exactly as they had hoped. Last Friday afternoon, Brickman and his assistants were told that utility crews would be in full power-restoration mode later this week, re-placing poles and stringing electrical wires. Most of the roadways near the school will be closed. (The school year ended last week in Moore). It became impractical to hold the practices and spring game. Instead some 40 members of the football team will go to camp together in early June.

It's foolish and naïve to suggest that football can rebuild lives. Football won't do that. But in this city, at this school, football has given young people a break from pain and a reason to embrace the power of community and friendship. Eight of the players walked into the storm zone late last Thursday afternoon for a photo that appears above. We parked on a side street near the start of the damage and walked past police officers only after several of the young men produced identification proving that they live there. They made small talk among themselves, already numb to the destruction; they talked in wonder about how long it was taking just to drive around town. A Salvation Army truck stopped, full of free food, and they flocked to its windows. Hatton snagged a pizza and sat down on the ground to eat it. I asked him about playing football. He looked up from the pie and said, "Football is all I've got now.''

So they will gather this week as a team, not because it's more important than the lives lost or the lives changed, but because it's a piece of life that's left intact, vibrant and breathing. "It's an escape,'' says Foss, "it's a chance to put your emotions into something. We're in this together. One big family.''

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