This story originally appeared in the October issue of ESPNHS magazine
Jeff Starkweather didn’t think anything of it.
The Joplin (Joplin, Mo.) athletic director had seen countless storms and tornado warnings come and go. So when the alarms started going off just hours after the members of Joplin’s Class of 2011 received their diplomas, he went about his business.
Back at his house, Starkweather was watching television when the storm knocked out his DirecTV. But his part of town wasn’t directly affected, so he still didn’t know the extent of the damage. With his satellite out of commission, he turned on the radio and got a sense of just how bad things were.
“A guy is driving up and down Range Line Road, which is where all the shopping areas and restaurants are, and he’s saying, ‘The Home Depot is gone, Walgreen’s is completely gone,’” Starkweather says.
Chris Shields was still living in Wentzville, Mo., about five hours away from Joplin. He had been hired as the school’s new football coach but wouldn’t be moving for another week. He got a text saying there was a tornado in Joplin and immediately put on The Weather Channel.
“When you see a reporter a couple hundred yards from where the house you’re supposed to live is, and everything is flattened and destroyed, you just start trying to contact everyone you know in the area.”
Within two days, Shields and his assistants traveled to Joplin to help. They tried to contact players and started the long cleanup process.
“It was mind-numbing,” Shields says. “No picture could prepare you one bit for what we saw.”
The school was demolished. The gymnasium was destroyed. The baseball dugouts, press box and scoreboard, along with soccer goals, disappeared.
“We didn’t see it a block away,” Starkweather says. “We still don’t know where they’re at.”
Once a few days passed, and coaches and administrators had checked on loved ones and neighbors, they turned their attention to sports. There might not have been places to work out or play ball, but Starkweather was determined to keep things on schedule. Webb City, a neighboring high school, and Missouri Southern, a local college, offered use of their weight rooms and gyms.
“It gives kids a sense of normalcy,” Shields says. “You’ve got kids who have been displaced from their homes, some staying in hotels or with friends and family. They have to be reminded of that constantly. But when they’re at football practice, they don’t.”
Now Joplin is on the road to recovery.
It will take years for the town’s residents to rebuild its damaged structures. And no amount of time will let them forget the 153 people killed. But Joplin and its people have been resilient. The high school has been divided into two groups, with the freshmen and sophomores at an old middle school and the juniors and seniors using a converted shopping mall. The basketball team will use a local YMCA for its open gyms and then an auxiliary gym at Missouri Southern for the
So far, football has been bringing the town together. Joplin’s Junge Field was undamaged by the tornadoes, ensuring that at least one staple of local life remained. After starting the season with two road games, the Eagles had their home opener against Hillcrest (Springfield, Mo.) on Sept. 10. Junge Field seats 4,500 people, but Starkweather had more than 2,000 additional seats shipped in to accommodate the crowd of more than 6,000. The game was a fundraiser for the athletic department, bringing in more than $5,000. The Eagles lost that game, 21-9, but rebounded in front of their home fans the next week, earning a 31-24 win over Parkview (Springfield, Mo.) to even their record at 2-2. Just as importantly, it gave fans and students a chance to have fun for a few hours.
“Each home game has that potential to be something special for the community,” basketball coach Jeff Williams says. “It’s something to look forward to.”