WASHINGTON, Ill. -- The ride home was quiet. A few kids mumbled here and there, but for the most part, nobody said a word. Then, a few miles outside of town, everything changed when the players noticed something strange on the horizon.
A line of 33 fire trucks and ambulances from all around Central Illinois was waiting to welcome the Washington Panthers home. The caravan, which stretched some three-fourths of a mile, waited for the Washington buses then pulled in front and escorted the team back into town, lights flashing, sirens blasting.
The wail of the sirens echoed throughout the community of 15,000 ravaged by an EF-4 tornado six days earlier. They were heard at the Five Points Center, where volunteers passed out hats, coats, food and other essentials for families that had lost everything. And they were heard in the destruction zone, where more than 1,400 families had been displaced, and had spent another mind-numbing day digging through the rubble.
As the motorcade rolled into Washington along Main Street, residents stepped out of their homes to see what was happening. When they realized it was the Panthers, they screamed and yelled. They jumped up and down and waved. One family unfurled a giant American flag. It was their way of saying thank you. Their way of lifting up the 80 young men on the varsity football team who had just returned from the Illinois 5A state football semifinals.
Like much of everything that had happened here this week, the players and coaches couldn't believe it.
It's Thursday morning, and Washington coach Darrell Crouch is sitting behind the desk of his football office, searching for a sense of normalcy. There are no adjectives to describe the week. He's tried to protect his players, tried to do everything he could to limit the distractions before the biggest game of his 25-year coaching career. But it's been impossible.
The half-mile-wide tornado that sliced through the heart of this central Illinois town on Nov. 17 divided this community into two groups: those who were lucky and those who weren't. Crouch's home was untouched. But 10 of his players, including five starters, weren't as fortunate. When he gathered his team together on Tuesday for the first time, he wrote three things on team's dry-erase board:
Who needs clothes? Who needs equipment? Who needs a home?
His wife, Kathleen, took notes and calls went out for help. The response was so overwhelming that in a day, the team's film room was transformed into a virtual store, where the families of football players and others affected could pick from banquet tables overflowing with everything from jackets and socks to underwear and pajamas.
So as Crouch sits behind his desk a few minutes before Thursday afternoon's practice, Kathleen stops to check on her husband. He's keeping it together. For now. But she knows the truth. Late at night, when the chaos finally calms, when the phone stops ringing and the questions stop flying, he, like so many others in these parts, will lie awake in bed and think about his players, his town and the game. Inevitably, tears will fall.
"All day long you try to hold it together with the kids," Crouch said. "But then it comes out. You think about the people without homes. The long haul we have ahead of us. The news is going to go away and this will still be on our shoulders. Come March, I worry people are going to forget about us."
Crouch opens an envelope one of his assistant coaches handed him earlier. Inside is a handwritten note addressed to "coach and wife," wishing the team good luck on Saturday. Kathleen tells her husband there are people who lost their homes and don't feel they can make the trip to Saturday's semifinal. But they want to follow the game. So they'd asked if it could be broadcast over the high school stadium speakers. There was also a nearby church, Kathleen said, that was trying to get a projection screen so people working on their homes could still watch.
It's all too much. A tear streaks Kathleen's cheek. The coach wraps his hand around his wife's waist and nods. Neither says a word.
For the Gundy family, Washington Panthers football is everything. Scott, 54, played in the 1970s. His father played in the late 1940s. And so did his son, Drew, who graduated in 2009. So on Monday morning, when "Today" show host Matt Lauer asked Scott Gundy where his town would go in the wake of such devastation, Gundy said: "We've got a bad-ass football team ... So hopefully that picks us up a little bit."
Word of Gundy's candor spread quickly through town.
"Made my day," the coach said. "Out of all the sh---y things that happened, those words helped pick me back up. He lost everything. His car was thrown halfway down the street. And he's on the 'Today' show bragging about our football team. It just shows what this team means to the community."
Four days after his brush with fame, there was Gundy, under an overcast sky, picking through the rubble of his former home, looking for keepsakes. The photos on his man-cave wall from his nine city softball championships. The 30 one-of-a-kind golf balls his mother collected. Instead, he finds a Washington Panthers flag. He hangs it from the carcass of the oak tree in his front yard.
He hasn't missed a single Washington game this year. But he's unsure if he'll be in the stands come Saturday.
"I'm just not feeling it," he said Friday. "I want to be there to support them. I've been there all year. I just don't know. I just don't think I'm ready to go to that place yet."
Back in the summer, when the Panthers first got together during two-a-days, Crouch asked his players to write four goals on a dry-erase board in the locker room. A 41-7 win against University High in the state quarterfinals took care of most of that. That gave the team its first ever 12-0 season and its first trip to the state semifinals since 1985. This past week, only one goal remained: To play for the state championship.
Crouch has coached here for nine years. But this is the first year his family has lived in Washington. He was one of the lucky ones. He spent the week stunned by the outpouring of support for his team and his town. His phone hasn't stopped ringing all week with people who want to help. On Tuesday and Wednesday, it was Illinois State University inviting the Panthers to practice at its stadium. It was University High -- the team that Washington eliminated in the state playoffs just a few days earlier -- lining up to feed the players and pass out donated clothing. Another night, it was Joliet Catholic High School -- the team that has ended Washington's season three of the past four years -- serving dinner.
After Thursday's practice, the kids filed into a classroom to watch film. But this week's tape had nothing to do with Sacred Heart-Griffin, Washington's opponent on Saturday. Instead, it was highlights from Washington's 1985 state championship. When the clip ended, Crouch flicked the lights on and all eyes were immediately on him. He desperately tried to get his exhausted team to re-focus.
"How long have you been fighting to get to this game?" Crouch barked. "And you're just going to say this sucks, our town is torn up, forget it? No way."
He asked his players: "How many of you helped on Sunday?"
Everyone in the room raised a hand.
"You want to help," he said. "Win on Saturday."
He pressed on, trying to somehow erase the guilt he knew some of his players felt about focusing on football in the wake of tragedy.
"I'm mentally tired. I know you guys are mentally tired. But you have a unique opportunity that no one else has," he said."Look, that stuff is not going away. For the next six months, it will still be there. When you look in February, it's still going to be there. You want to help your town out? Show up, play your heart out and let's see what happens."
Players in the room began to nod. Coach was right. One by one they filed out of the classroom and headed to the cafeteria for a team dinner. The coaches followed. Crouch quietly confessed he didn't know what to expect from his team.
"We may or may not be ready," he said. "I have no idea."
As the Panthers warmed up for their game Saturday morning, Andrew Eddy had one thought on his mind: an autographed Drew Brees football. The 36-year-old wanted to take his football-crazy son Drew to the game but he couldn't. It just didn't feel right. So instead, they went to his son's girlfriend's leveled home, helping the family dig through piles upon piles of rubble in search of a football. See, the family loves Purdue. And when their son Christopher was born, mom and dad -- both Purdue graduates -- sent a picture to the school telling Brees he now had a new No. 1 fan. The quarterback's response left them stunned: an autographed football.
For 13 years, the ball stayed in Christopher's closet, properly wrapped and protected, so that nothing would ever ruin it. It was his most prized possession. Then last Sunday happened. Debris stretched as far as the Chicago suburbs, some 150 miles away. But that didn't stop Eddy, his son and some 30 volunteers from digging for the football.
"I wanted to go. I would want nothing more than to be there at that game. But how can you go?" Andrew Eddy said. "How can you go and support your community when you have 1,000 people who don't have homes?"
By the time kickoff came Saturday, there were no signs of football anywhere in the destruction zone. No roar. No cheering. No crackling radio broadcasts. The plan to broadcast the game at the stadium never happened. In its place, the hum of construction. Bobcats beeping as they reversed to scoop up more destruction. Chainsaws ripping through tree trunks. And a warm voice beckoning through the American Red Cross loudspeaker: "WE HAVE HOT CHOCOLATE, CANDY BARS, HOT COFFEE, WATER. PLEASE COME AND GET IT, FOLKS."
Eddy and his son stopped on the edge of the destruction zone, at Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church, to warm up and get some food. There, demolished cars sat in the lot where they were parked for last Sunday's service. A blue tarp covered part of the roof. And Shop-Vacs lined the back of the sanctuary. But in the front of the church stood a projection screen. And on it, the Washington football game. There were only a few people watching. But two of them were overjoyed middle-schoolers, including Drew Eddy, who had found some way to take his mind off the fact he couldn't find that Drew Brees football for his girlfriend. Even a 23-7 Sacred Heart halftime lead couldn't dampen his enthusiasm.
"I didn't think I was going to get to watch the game today," Drew said. "So this is fantastic. I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to be right here for the big comeback."
From the time Scott Gundy climbed out of his basement and saw the torture Mother Nature unleashed on his home, there was a moment he dreaded -- the day the demolition crew would tear down the rest of his house. And that day, he found out, would be Saturday. Before the Bobcats began tearing down his home, he took one last look at the shell that was left. He and his wife cried. And then he decided he had to watch the game. So he headed to Kep's, the most popular sports bar in town.
"I couldn't watch them tear it down," he said later, his fingers taped and bandaged from the pokes and gouges from glass and wood. "It's so damn depressing. That's something we built, we paid for and we nurtured for the past 20 years."
Midway through the third quarter, Washington trimmed Sacred Heart's lead to 23-14, and Gundy is all smiles. He wrapped his arms around two of his friends and they chugged a shot of whiskey. He bumped into Mark Wells, whom he hasn't seen since the storm hit. Wells recorded a gut-wrenching YouTube video of him and his daughter, Josie, riding out the storm.
"I'm so glad to see you," Gundy said, squeezing Wells' shoulder. "After that sucker destroyed my house I saw it heading towards yours … man, it's good to see you. Can you believe all this?"
As the game entered the fourth quarter with the Panthers trailing 37-14, it became clear that the afternoon wouldn't be about winning a football game, but rather rallying a community. A chance to see one another and catch up. A chance, for a few hours, to get away.
When the 44-14 score became final, everyone inside Kep's stood and applauded. A group of women started chanting, "PAN-THERS, PAN-THERS, PAN-THERS!"
"This team has given me one hell of an afternoon," Gundy said. "They're tearing my house down today. It's killing me inside. But I don't need to think about that.
"I want these boys to know the way they've helped our town, the way they've helped all of us. I don't care what the score says. They won."
The parade of fire trucks and ambulances rolled past the school and stopped next to the football building. Firefighters, police officers and paramedics climbed out of their vehicles and formed a line to shake the players' and coaches' hands. They said thank you. Congratulations. And they told them, "You're our heroes."
"And we lost," Crouch said. "Here are these people from all over the area, supporting our team, doing what they can to lift our kids. And we lost. Like so many other things this week, it's hard to have the words. It's just incredible."