From dust and debris, sports help a small Kansas town rise and rebuild

GREENSBURG, Kan. -- Somewhere in the muck, a candle flickered. The roof was gone, the rain was pelting, the devil had just swept over, but this candle … kept … burning. So what do you do, with natural gas fumes filling your lungs, glass cutting your feet, rain pouring on your head? Do you run, with another tornado just a few blocks behind the "house?" Do you stay, and get blown to bits?

Hold onto that thought.

The cake raffle/homecoming game/town meeting is about to start on another Friday night in Middle America. Cowboys strut by in their Wrangler jeans, gossips gather near the homemade pies, and toddlers skip up and down the old carpeted bleachers. It is just the way Randy Fulton remembers the town, his town, only this night is played out under a quiet, moonlit sky 10 miles to the west, in someone else's gym.

"We are back to normal," says Fulton, the principal at Greensburg High School, almost convincing himself.

"I guess I'm an optimist. I think we all persevere and we take what we get and we work with it."

No, you do not run from Greensburg. Not after an EF-5 tornado flattens 95 percent of your town, and the world -- and simple arithmetic -- tell you it's illogical to rebuild.

It seems sort of strange that in a place where life moves so slowly, everything was gone so fast. Ears popping, people running, houses disintegrating. Life decisions, ones that are never supposed to be made, are plotted out with bleary eyes and no sleep.

That's where Fulton comes in, on a Friday night last spring, scrambling home from a track meet, telling his bus driver to punch it because he grew up on a farm and never saw the sky on fire like it was that May 4.

Fulton and his superintendent made it back to Fulton's subdivision and hunkered in his basement. They survived the tornadoes, the gas leaks, the burning candles. And at 5 a.m., before the sun peeked over the grain elevator, virtually the town's last standing building, they made decisions that would affect roughly 1,500 lives.

They'd stay and rebuild in Greensburg. They wouldn't just have a school -- they would open on the scheduled start of the fall semester.

"If we wouldn't have been able to get the school going when we did," Fulton says, "I'm not sure what would've happened to the town. Because once you lose kids, you're going to lose families.

"When people see the Greensburg bus pull up, and people go to Greensburg games … it's a part of rebuilding. … That's hope. That's showing the determination that this town has got."

How do you describe something so perfect, so real and simple, that is then suddenly erased off a 1.5-square-mile map?

It is the summer of 2006. The Starlight Theater is playing a $4 movie, a whiff of popcorn hangs in the warm summer air, and Greensburg mayor Lonnie McCollum is standing on Main Street, outside his old truck with his old dog, gabbing about nothing particularly interesting. In Greensburg, they call this "shootin' the breeze."

A Lexus with Illinois plates slows down. Inside are newlyweds just passing through.

"Can I ask you something?" the guy says. "Do you do this sort of thing often … stand in the middle of the street, parked like this, just to visit?"

McCollum says yes.

"This is our town," he says.

McCollum grew up in Greensburg, left as a man to join the state patrol and returned in 1999 to retire. Here, with both feet inside this Norman Rockwell painting, everything stayed the same. Same doctor's office upstairs over the old store building, same soda fountain, same cracks in the pavement from 50 years ago.

"The only thing we did wrong," McCollum now says, "is that all of us had lived here for so long, we didn't realize what a good thing we had."

The tornado skipped by several dots on the map the night of May 4, 2007, then grew to nearly two miles wide when it bore down on Greensburg. In 10 minutes, every business in town, every element of infrastructure and nearly every house was destroyed. There was no electricity for weeks. No sanitation, no water supply. The flat, solitary Kansas landscape was replaced by mountains of debris.

For two weeks, old men who had lived six decades in Greensburg had no reference point to find Main Street, let alone their homes. They compared it to Hiroshima.

McCollum, living off two hours' sleep a night, searched through a scrap heap for something that was never coming back. He was 62, too tired and too invested. Three weeks after the tornado, he resigned as mayor and left town.

"Stuff doesn't roll off my back easy," McCollum says. "I'm just afraid that, the way I am, it would've killed me. It's going to be a long, hard fight to get things back.

"I decided this time, the young folks are going to have to do it."

The letter to Fulton's players said come to Mullinville for the start of girls volleyball camp. Fulton had no idea who he'd get. It was the last week of July, three weeks before school was supposed to start, and his players were scattered in towns throughout southwestern Kansas. One was bunking with her grandma 30 miles away in Pratt. Some headed west on Highway 400. If half the town decided to pack up and drive until the grain elevator was a white speck in the rear-view, Fulton wouldn't have blamed them.

He had a volleyball net and his two teenage daughters. It was a start.

Ten miles down the road in Greensburg, the town was still moving at a postapocalypse pace. The Kwik Shop became the first business running again in June. Four giant lines formed behind humming cash registers. People lived off egg rolls, candy and gas-station burritos. They held neighborhood reunions near the shrimp rings by the front door.

Back at the old gym in Mullinville, Fulton waited. His team straggled in, one by one, then hugged and cried.

"It gave everybody a chance to hang out and be with each other," says Cheyenne Morehead, a junior on the team. "I think that things go a lot better whenever you have someone to go through it with you. It was kind of reassuring."

All but one player came back to Greensburg for the 2007 volleyball season. Each day was a new lesson in patience and making do. Ten minutes to practice, 10 minutes back, two hours on a crowded court with the junior varsity team.

"It was hard," Fulton says. "But it was such a release to go there and get away from all the other things. For two hours, I had some normalcy."

A pep rally ends on the campus of trailers now known as Greensburg High, and David Cesmat has three stops to make at places he calls home. The first is a white double-wide on the south end of town. He has to duck when he enters. He's 6-foot-4 and perpetually stretched between football, basketball, student council, track and yearbook. Most nights before the boys basketball game, Cesmat can be found in the middle of the school's band, belting out jock jams on the trombone.

But in this trailer, his life is far more confined. He's hunched over, cold and cramped. When the pipes freeze, the water doesn't work. But Cesmat passes by a fish tank in the living room and remembers how lucky he is. The fish, which is unnamed, survived May 4. Chinook and Kesha didn't. They were his Alaskan Huskies, his loyal sledding dogs. Chinook was found dead in the middle of the road, sliced by debris. Kesha stopped eating and died a couple of weeks later.

Cesmat talks about it almost matter-of-factly, as if dwelling on anything in this push-forward life would be counterproductive.

"This is not how I thought my senior year would be," he says. "I knew it was going to be quick, that I had to crank it down and get the good grades and start to do all the college applications. I had no intention of it playing out like this."

His next stop is on the north side of town, down Olive Street. It's a muddy lot where his house used to stand. His family moved here from California when he was 5, and little David perfected his shot on a hoop outside the garage.

That house, he says, had been his life. It wasn't built the best and, because it was a rental, it wasn't even theirs. But inside the big, tan house, Cesmat felt safe. They cannot rebuild here. They didn't have insurance.

Cesmat scrapes his muddy shoes against the asphalt and steps into the car. He wants to show off his new place. It's on a brown patch of earth, and has boarded windows and old, warped floors. Cesmat walks downstairs to the basement, where the walls are crumbling and covered in spiderwebs. This, he says, is where his new room will be.

The place was supposed to be bulldozed and burned. But a friend heard of the Cesmats' plight and offered to donate the house as long as it was structurally sound. A building inspector named James Bond -- David loves that -- gave them the OK to keep the fixer-upper. And when the ground finally thaws and the concrete can be poured, Cesmat will finally be home.

"He's a good boy," says Greensburg boys basketball coach Dave White. "He'd give you the shirt off his back. He'd do anything to help.

"He's really energetic. I tell people all the time, 'He's not Wilt Chamberlain, but he's Bill Russell.' He blocks shots, runs the floor and defends people. He's as good as there is in western Kansas at that."

Near the end of a girls basketball practice just before Christmas, a player asked coach Marshall Ballard if, instead of shooting free throws, they could play a game. They sat in a circle and clapped hands. Ballard thought it was kind of goofy. He let them do it, anyway.

"I just think everybody was so worn out mentally and physically," Ballard says. "If everyone is so intense and so serious, then, I think, we run into problems. Emotional problems."

When a sharp wind hits the trailers, it howls and rattles their white-metal world. In some spots, like the library of all places, it's hard to hear anything else but the wind. The first time a storm hit, Ballard could see that some of the students were visibly shaken.

They met that first day school started, on Aug. 15, and that whole week they talked about everything except school.

In November, a steel, three-story practice gym with a faux hardwood floor was built. It doubles as a cafeteria for 12 classes and a workout facility for the boys and girls basketball teams.

They played their home games in Mullinville and Haviland, former rival schools on opposite ends of the highway. They held their homecoming dance in a large classroom a town away. The girls whispered in clusters and giggled at the boys with the funny dance moves. They two-stepped, then shifted into rap. It almost seemed normal.

Still, Fulton wonders if it's normal enough.

"I think it's harder on the seniors," he says. "They don't have their school they had, they don't have their own gym, all of the things they grew up having in Greensburg … they can't go down to. They can't go to the drugstore and get a soda, they can't go Taylor Mart and hang out. Everything they do, they've got to go out of town."

As he passed a pack of storm chasers at a gas station late in the afternoon on May 4, Luke Derstein wondered if at some point, just to be safe, he should videotape his family possessions. The thought had never crossed his mind before. He has no idea why it hit him that day.

For years -- no wait, generations -- residents of tornado alley have sat on their porches when the sirens went off, waiting to see something then leaving after only a few dark clouds and some sprinkles. But something felt different about that day.

Derstein is Greensburg's custodian, a proud man with beefy arms who goes short-sleeved when the thermometer hits 50 degrees. He's almost reduced to tears when he thinks of everything that was lost; the pictures, the memories. That night, he opened his door to a stranger who had nowhere to go. The young man's name was also Luke. They still talk. Derstein didn't know it then, that he probably saved the other Luke's life.

"Yeah, you were scared," Derstein says. "I prayed for God to save us."

He lost nearly everything, and takes little comfort in the fact that he wasn't alone. After the high school was razed, each student and employee received a chunk of their beloved gym floor as a memento. This is Derstein's memory now.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, he cleans the glass on the front door to the gymnasium in Mullinville. It's homecoming night for Greensburg. He wants everything to be perfect.

By halftime, Cesmat is doing his best Bill Russell impersonation and Greensburg is rolling. His teammates are in the locker room when Cesmat runs out in his warm-ups with a camera. He has to shoot pictures of the homecoming court for the yearbook.

A young man named Cooper, who's maybe 3, walks across the court with a flower girl. Cooper, an announcer says, wants to be a farmer when he grows up.

Near the top of the bleachers, Bill and Helen Savely rise to their feet. They spent more than 60 years in Greensburg, were high school sweethearts and remember the days when the biggest thing that defined the town was the state basketball championship won in 1948. It's the only team title Greensburg has ever won.

"There was nobody in town that day except the night marshal," Bill says.

"That's a figure of speech."

After the tornado hit, the Savelys, like McCollum, came to the harsh realization that they couldn't rebuild. They were forced to move to Pratt.

On weekday mornings, Bill and a couple of Greensburg transplants started meeting at the McDonald's off Highway 400. Within months, the coffee group had grown to 20. To the group, it's a daily reminder of where they're from and what they've been through. To the Savelys, it's Greensburg.

It's gathering in a small, crowded gym on Friday nights, with no kids or grandchildren on the team, because it's the place to meet and see people. It's knowing all 21 boys on the roster and calling them your own.

"All of these kids are mine," Savely says. "They know me, they kid me. … We've got a good bunch."

Greensburg is 16-5, went undefeated in its league and has a shot at a rare trip to the state tournament. But Coach White downplays any sort of triumph-through-tragedy spiel. He always thought they'd get here.

Observers say this isn't necessarily the flashiest team in Class 1A; a fourth of the roster is 5-foot-6 or smaller. Maybe they're the scrappiest. Earlier this month, one of Greensburg's stars played with the flu in an overtime win against South Central. They rotated practice time with the girls team, stuck at school most nights long after dark, but White never really heard a complaint.

"Everybody makes fun of me when I say this," White says, "but it's not the walls that make the school, or the gym that makes the school. It's the kids and the people. They're special because they did have a commitment. To each other. They came back, and they wanted to be here."

On a clear day in Greensburg, at its highest point, you cannot see the future. It is brown and flat with gaping swaths of missing earth and jagged toothpicks that won't grow leaves.

Curious out-of-towners sometimes ask to stand near the top of the grain elevator and take photos of the aerial scene. On good days, maybe, a worker at the Southern Plains Co-Op will tell them a few stories. Like how they found two car bumpers 120 feet up the grain elevator. Or how another one flew 40 feet above that and left blue skid marks.

At least 100 times, McCollum has asked why this happened to his town. The bigger question might be this: Why would this town, another piece of rural America that was dying long before May 4, even consider rebuilding? Why can't they run?

"It wasn't a huge town, a huge city," Fulton says. "But to me, there was just no choice. My kids were born here. I want my kids to graduate from here."

The phone on his belt rings, and it plays "Sweet Home Alabama." There is work to be done. Greensburg will never be the same, and it really doesn't matter.

This is their town.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.