Illinois town's playoff opponent provides tornado relief
NOV 19, 2013 3:13p ET
Crouch is the football coach at Washington (Ill.) High School, which won its biggest game in nearly 30 years on Saturday. Leonard is the long-time coach at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, one of the state's more successful football programs. At 8:30 a.m. Sunday they were discussing the minutiae that consumes football coaches in preparation for this Saturday's semifinal matchup.
"Then a short two hours later," Leonard said in a phone interview Tuesday, "this happens."
"This" was an EF-4 tornado that ripped through Washington, a town of 15,410 located 12 miles east of Peoria and 80 miles north of Springfield, with winds that reached 190 mph. The devastation left one person dead, more than 100 others injured and nearly 500 homes either damaged or destroyed.
Seven Washington High football players and one assistant coach were among those who reportedly lost their homes.
"Just want to let everyone know that we are ok," Crouch posted on his Facebook account Sunday. "Our town is destroyed, so sad. Players and coaches have lost homes as have many.
"Very proud to see my players and coaches out helping people of town dig out. We helped an assistant coach and our QB's family dig through what was left of their destroyed homes. Many have lost their homes and town will be without power for days. The town looks like a bomb zone.
"We are blessed to have a strong community that will step up and help each other when the sun comes up tomorrow. Our town could use your prayers."
And that's how a high school playoff game has united two schools and communities and is helping to begin the town's rebuilding process.
"I texted Darrell late (Sunday) afternoon," Leonard said. "I just told him, 'Is there any way our football team or school can help out? Let us know exactly what we can do and we'll try to get this thing going and working.'"
Word of their opponent's needs spread quickly. Theresa Smith, a Sacred Heart-Griffin football mom and a member of the booster club, started receiving texts and emails from other moms in the football program asking how they could help.
"We're a Christian school," said Leonard, who is also SHG's athletics director, "and the motto of our football team is our goal is to be champions and our purpose is to be Christ-like."
Leonard met with a group of parents of football players Monday night to discuss ways they could help the Washington community. After hearing that transportation, food and water were needed, the Cyclones' football community -- yes, Sacred Heart-Griffin's nickname is the Cyclones -- arranged to provide all of that and then some.
"It's amazing to us, the community support right off the bat," said Michele Reavy, another SHG football mom and booster club member. "It just started and everything has ran from there. It's gone way beyond SHG. It's awesome the tremendous amount of outpouring from individual businesses and restaurants from all around the community and our surrounding towns.
"It's very humbling, and it shows that people care so much about each other and are so willing to help in time of need."
By midday Tuesday, the SHG booster club had arranged for six charter buses to pick up Washington fans and make the four-hour round-trip to and from Springfield for the 1 p.m. Saturday playoff game. The group is providing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a pregame ritual for the Washington players, on Saturday morning and meals from Jersey Mike's Subs shop after the game. Food also will be provided for Washington fans who travel to Springfield.
The SHG community also is collecting donations for Washington's relief fund as well as water that will be driven north to the damaged community.
Anne Dondanville, another football mom, said they were originally planning to send one semi truck full of water to Washington on Sunday. Instead, they will send a truck of water on Thursday and then it will come back to make another trip north.
The Sacred Heart-Griffin and Washington communities have been united by this tragedy, along with several other Illinois communities and football teams reaching out to help.
"It's just grown," Leonard said. "It's just expanded. Our community, our school community, has just been unbelievable. Our town. Springfield. And all the high schools. I'm getting several calls from high schools and football teams that are donating. Jacksonville High School donated $500. That's just one of many. Teams are getting calls from their conference teams asking what they can do."
The SHG and Washington football programs also want to make this Saturday's game as normal as possible. Both teams are 12-0 after winning in the quarterfinals last week, and Saturday's winner will advance to play for the state championship a week later at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
"Saturday is going to be about football," Leonard said. "It's going to be a three-hour period of time when we can all get back to reality and their team and our team is playing in the semifinals. Wanting to get to the state championship is a lifetime goal for all these kids and their parents and their communities. We're really excited because it's a great time of need and we're trying to take care of that before and after, but it's a great time of excitement. We're trying to get that back. That's what they want."
Playing for a state championship is not unusual for Sacred Heart-Griffin, which won back-to-back Illinois Class 5A championships in 2005 and 2006 and then captured the Class 6 title in 2008. Washington, meanwhile, is in the semifinals for the first time since winning the Class 4A state title in 1985.
"Football here is such a community thing," Washington athletics director Herb Knoblauch told the Chicago Tribune. "Players' dads played here. For us to get over that hump and reach the semifinals was such a joy. People were so high from that game. People were so happy. Then, by 1 o'clock Sunday, it was the worst devastation that ever could happen. I can't tell you the emotion."
Said Leonard: "We wish this didn't happen, but we're going to try to make the best of this."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.
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