Tuesday, November 4, 2008

What matters is that they're playing at home

Moving story out of South Texas where the High Island High School Cardinals returned to the football field recently for the first time since Hurricane Ike all but wiped out their tiny town.

[Here's video from the NY Times of High Island after the hurricane.]

I won't do the story justice, so here it is in its entirety:

Just a few weeks earlier, no one knew if the school would reopen. No one knew how many of the 221 students – among them, 31 football players – or 43 staff members would return. Or if any would have homes to return to.

Most, as it turned out, did not. About 85 percent of the students and half of the staff lost their houses. Many of the homes still standing were unlivable. And the families, once woven so tightly in the beach towns of the peninsula, had run to the far-flung corners of Texas.

Then, Coach Paul Colton put out a call to his players: Anyone who wanted to play ball should come back for practice. Anyone who needed a place to stay could bunk with him.

In a flurry of text messages, online messaging and cellphone activity, the High Island Cardinals brought their team back to life.

Now, with the minutes ticking to a Saturday afternoon kickoff, the stands outside were filling with family, friends and faculty, all eager to welcome the Cardinals home.

All Coach Colton needed was 13 players – 11 on the field, two on the bench. With that, he would have a team.

At the first practice, two weeks after the Sept. 13 storm, 14 Cardinals stood on the field.

These students had lost their homes and their clothes, their family photos and other cherished keepsakes, their four-wheelers and trucks, their iPods and PlayStations.

Their parents, still reeling from the devastation, had moved in with relatives or rented motel rooms in towns an hour or more away.

Yet, the boys had come back to the school most had attended since kindergarten.

Several of the boys had moved in with Mr. Colton, and his assistant coach, Justin Charrier, who share a house near campus. A couple of players were rooming with another coach, John Hughes, and his wife, who had also taken in two high-school girls. Others found space with friends or family or faculty members.

The school, so small that elementary- and middle-school students share the cafeteria with high-schoolers, now seems even smaller.

Only 130 students have returned. The Class of 2009 now numbers only 13.

"It is getting to the girls first. It will get to the boys later," said high school science teacher Maria Skewis.

"Right now, they can rally around football. Sports is keeping them together."

So is their coach.

Since the storm, as many as seven boys have roomed in his small taupe house just down the road from campus.

Here, Mr. Colton suddenly becomes den mother and homework wrangler.

"You've got homework to do when you get home, all my little children who are staying with me," Mr. Colton called out at the end of one practice, as the players plodded to the locker room.

The day of the High Island Cardinals' game against the West Hardin Oilers, Oct. 18, dawned sunny and bright. By game time, the thermometer would reach a temperate 80 degrees.

Outside, parents and siblings, teachers and long-graduated alumni, displaced homeowners and school boosters waited. For many, this game was the first community gathering since the hurricane five weeks earlier.

A few weeks ago, this game had seemed like an impossibility. Now, no matter the final score, it already felt like a miracle.

The Cardinals lost, 36-22, though they came back from a 28-0 deficit.

"It doesn't matter who wins," said [one parent]. "What matters more is that they're playing at home."