BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind - For an athlete, game day means everything. At noon on Aug. 24, as Howard County students were eating lunch, players from high school to IU Kokomo to youth football squads were discussing that night’s game plans and practice schedules. A mere 210 minutes later, instead of heading to a locker room to get ready, most were in storm shelters wondering if they still had a home as the first of four tornadoes ripped through Howard County – including a powerful EF-3 that roared near Kokomo High School and into the gut of the City of Firsts.
As the scope of the devastation became evident – more than 80 buildings destroyed and 1,000 damaged – coaches and athletes realized sports would take a back seat because they were now needed in the community. For the second time in three years – twin twisters hit Kokomo in November 2013 – the sports community placed rivalries aside, put on gloves and went to work clearing debris.
“It was crazy,” said Kokomo junior quarterback Kyle Wade. “Everybody is coming together to help. We all have support for one another, especially since some of our teammates lost houses. Community is more important that football.”
For the Kokomo Wildkat football team, that meant canceling a game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis against Hamilton Heights. Instead of preparing for the Huskies in a pre-game walk-through on Thursday, the Kats were cleaning up the heavily damaged Police Athletic League football and soccer complex on West Boulevard – a place many had played at years earlier.
“That was all Austin’s idea,” said head coach Brett Colby of his son, who is also an assistant coach at Kokomo. “I told him that was an outstanding idea. We had 30 guys at the PAL Fields and spent two, two-and-a-half hours there clearing the debris. The last thing we did, on the field that still had goal posts standing, was line up and walk the field – we picked up every stick so if they wanted to play, they could.”
The next evening, instead of engaging the Huskies on the Lucas Oil turf, and Wildkats boarded buses and headed for the severely damaged Cedar Crest neighborhood. And they were not alone – joining them were three busloads carrying the Hamilton Heights football team followed by several carloads of parents and others wanting to help. Together, instead of playing football on Friday night, the two gridiron programs spent hours clearing debris for strangers they only knew as fellow Hoosiers in need.
“We could have played, we really could have,” said Colby. “But it is just an unbelievable opportunity we have now. We preach life lessons, and this is a big one.
“To be able to have (Hamilton Heights head coach) Mitch Street and (principal) Jarrod Mason – two quality guys who have the same principals as I do – call me and ask what they could do and how could they get here to help is something. It is amazing that Heights wanted to come here – and they brought a $5,000 donation for the United Way and food to feed all of the kids. This is the kind of people we are dealing with – they are a great school corporation.”
The orange-clad Huskies joining the red-and-blue Kats is somewhat ironic. While the two programs have never met in football, the Huskies are well-known in Howard County as a power in the former Mid-Indiana Conference and now Hoosier Conference. For many in the local sports community, they are the on-field enemy. Colby said that will change.
“A lot of people around here might not like Heights because they beat them a lot,” said Colby. “But this is a new way to look at this team and this school; I know I will – there are a lot of good people there. When I coached at Frankfort, they were always the thorn in my side. They were always that team that was a little above everyone. But to do what they are doing, it speaks wonders about their administration and coaches and players.”
The Wildkat football squad was not the only team to offer assistance to the community. In fact, nearly every high school and college program was doing something to dig the city and county out.
Western tennis coach Kristine Miller had her program in the community Saturday morning.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my team,” she said in a tweet. “Collected $750, then shopped for bottled water, canned food, diapers, wipes and formula to deliver to the Kokomo Rescue Mission.”
Stories such as the Northwestern and Twin Lakes cheerleaders quickly collecting $415 for tornado relief efforts became the norm.
Kokomo High School basketball coach Matt Moore had his basketball team in the community assisting. Days earlier, Moore and his family had suffered a personnel loss not related to the storm, but he still felt the need to get out and serve.
“Looking forward to getting the guys together today to go serve our neighbors,” he said. “Nothing more powerful than helping someone who needs it. I have lived in Logansport, Warsaw and Mt. Vernon and all have special aspects about them, but Kokomo stands the tallest when life demands it.”
All of the IU Kokomo teams were getting their hands dirty as well. The volleyball team canceled its season opener at Marian University as the campus was plunged into darkness and classes were canceled.
“So proud to be a part of this team and community,” said IUK volleyball player Nicole Sandmann. “I am forever thankful.”
“After helping those in need from this tornado, I am counting my blessings,” said IUK basketball player Beau Dedmond. “The Lord was watching over me.”
It wasn’t only the Kokomo sports community that pitched in – schools such as Franklin Central High School raised money and sent it to Kokomo and the Anderson University football team arrived in force to assist in clean-up efforts. Kokomo graduate and Ball State University basketball player Tayler Persons was once again back in Kokomo helping with cleanup efforts. In 2013, he was instrumental in organizing students to assist.
“Some people really do understand the meaning of life,” Persons said in a tweet. “Helping your neighbors in need, and doing it without asking for anything – thank you!”
Rebuilding Kokomo will take months, but the rebuilding by professional contractors could not start if not for the volunteerism that began immediately after the tornadoes hit. And once again, the sports community stepped up and became a large part of the story of #KokomoStrong.