Football a return to normalcy here

Washington High School senior quarterback Colton Marshall (10), whose family lost their home in last Sunday's tornado, embraces teammate Kyle Stratton after Saturday's 44-14 loss to Sacred Heart-Griffin in a Class 5A semifinal football playoff game. AP Photo/Peoria Journal Star/Ron Johnson

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Kim Brownfield was numb. But it was the good kind, if there is such a thing.

The kind that came from the biting wind chill whipping across a football field here Saturday afternoon and not from the shock that overtook her after emerging last Sunday from her Washington, Ill., basement, where she had huddled with her husband and their teenage son and daughter while a deadly tornado wreaked havoc above.

"We lost everything," she said. And then, as if once was not enough to fully convey the enormity of it all, she repeated herself. "We lost everything."

Her son Brogan's high school career was playing out before her and the several thousand fans who packed the unfortunately named Cyclone Stadium for the Illinois Class 5A Illinois state semifinal game between Washington and Sacred Heart-Griffin.

For a while, she explained, she felt as though she had lost Brogan too.

Soon after they surfaced from their basement to a house reduced to rubble and their four cars totaled, the 18-year-old senior took off running to check on the elderly couple across the street. After that, he ran around the corner to see how his girlfriend's house was, and then to where his Washington football coach, Darrell Crouch, and his family lived.

He picked up teammates as he went, surveying, helping, checking, in a scene being replayed all over town.

"It was like, where is he?" Kim said. "We knew all the kids were together and going around the neighborhood checking on one another, but we didn't know."

The rest of the week was like that, as well, as families were separated, staying with friends and relatives and classmates, the players on the team finishing practice and then, because there were post-tornado curfews, bunking with teammates.

"We were with my in-laws in Peoria, so those nights, crazy as it sounds ... I mean, he's 18 years old and he's a tough kid but it was like, I just wanted him with me," Kim said.

They all came together Saturday, first sending the Washington players off in the morning with a rally that encompassed neighboring towns and highways in a scene their coach said he had never before seen in his life, and then again for the game at Sacred Heart-Griffin.

The opponents had reached out and helped carry Washington throughout the week, with food and much-needed water and, finally, seven buses to bring fans to the game.

Sacred Heart-Griffin coach Ken Leonard was genuinely thrown by the attention.

"I want our players to be better men than football players," he said Saturday after his team advanced to the state finals with a 44-14 victory that could have been worse had Leonard not jerked the reins of his offense with six minutes remaining. "It shouldn't be a story, what we're doing.

"I grew up down the road, 15, 20 miles from Washington. That's how we were raised. When I was 14, my father's grain elevator burned down and that's when I learned how adults should act. If someone goes down, everyone comes to their aid. It's not a question. When I called Darrell and asked, 'What can our football team do?' it was a no-brainer."

Crouch, another veteran cut from the cloth of usually mythical high school coaches, also displayed a deft touch.

The first time the team came together on Monday, he explained, with 10 on the varsity squad and 20 more in the football program having lost their homes, not a word about football was spoken.

"It was about trying to take care of basic human needs," Crouch said. "For our kids, [Saturday] was probably the only time all week they weren't thinking about it."

The tornado reportedly killed one person, injured approximately 100 people and damaged more than 1,000 homes in a city of some 15,000.

They worried, both the townsfolk and the coaches, that the Washington players would feel unnecessary pressure and, indeed, the kids spoke all week of soothing the wounds caused from such horrific damage by playing extra hard.

"But a lot of people told us, 'Win or lose, we're going to be behind you guys,'" said senior Chris Friend. "That tornado didn't change anything at all. Our town is awesome."

They were all there Saturday in the biting cold. Parents and friends and alumni, some who lost homes and others who felt guilty they didn't. Two spectators came from an hour and a half away to see the game and root for Washington.

"We just came for support," said Amy Durre. "I just felt like I needed to be here. You know there are people here who lost everything, but you'd never know it by looking at them."

Brooke Wisher, wife of Washington's sophomore coach, spoke, like so many others, of growing up in Washington and never wanting to leave, and then of the horror of seeing its destruction.

"There is no way to describe it and what you see on TV," she said. "I've always felt badly for the town on TV. Your hearts go out to them. But when you actually walk through your own neighborhoods ... these were houses I used to sell Girl Scout cookies to, and they're gone."

Byron Buck, a father of three children who attend Washington High, described pulling a 90-year-old man out of six feet of rubble last Sunday. On Saturday, he was trying not to generalize the emotions swirling through their community.

"Everybody in town knows dozens of people who were impacted by the devastation," he said. "And I think there's a need to see our way through this and to rally together as a community and come back stronger and even more united. On the other end, it's going to be tough and take a lot longer to claw back than a lot of people realize."

For Kim Brownfield, she was "unable to process anything," until Tuesday.

"And then [Friday] changed things for me," she said. "It was kind of my turning point. I guess it was Day 5, Day 4, I don't even know, but I was able to kind of suck it up and put it all in perspective that we are incredibly fortunate, not only because we have our lives but because I was actually able to recover a ton of my pictures.

"I'm a 'scrapbooker' and my scrapbooks were saved. Not that we don't have the memories, but that's my kids' legacy that I want them to be able to share with their kids when my husband and I are gone."

She stared off as the team reassembled for the second half, receiving occasional hugs, simultaneously tearing up and smiling.

"On Thursday, I found both of my kids' baby plates and they were in my china cabinet with every piece of china broken -- but two baby plates that did not have a nick in them," she said. "There were just certain things that happened, like my grandma's bible, in which she saved every engagement, every wedding picture and obituary from the newspaper. And it was found completely intact with all those papers in it, which is crazy.

"And then yesterday, going back, it was kind of like, this is just stuff. It really is just stuff now. I am not going to look for another thing. I'm not going to try to salvage another thing because it's just stuff, and we're here."

She wants to make sure her kids "fully grasp" all of this. And yet at the same time, she said, "I'm elated and thrilled Brogan has been able to focus [on football]."

Milo Mordhorst, whose son Seth is a senior lineman, described the enormity of the situation hitting him early on.

"These are kids [Seth] has played football with since they were 10 who lost their homes," Mordhorst said. "And for him to see that firsthand and help clean up and help people find their belongings ... if he wasn't a very strong man before, he is now."

After Saturday's game, the Washington players responded as so many passionate athletes before them have when ending their high school careers with a loss. They cried for themselves. And hugged their coach. And talked about the love they had for each other and always would.

"I'll never play a football game again," said wide receiver and defensive back Casey Danley. And in that moment, even the cameramen covering the event teared up.

Crouch tried to reassure them.

"Unless you win that last game, you feel like that defines what you've done," he said. "But these guys have done so much more -- community-wise, program-wise. They did all the things we asked them to do."

Even in defeat, they did that. If only for a week. If only for a few hours and for only some of the people who face months -- perhaps years -- of rebuilding their lives.

Kim Brownfield said she never felt this past week that football, even in the face of such enormous loss, did not matter.

"No, never, it never happened," she said. "As a matter of fact, one minute I would be thinking, 'Somebody wake me up from this nightmare,' and the next minute I was thinking, 'I can't wait 'til Saturday. Just to have a normal game, a normal day.'"