Commentary

Joplin Eagles forever changed

A town recovers, but how do you restore a teenager's youth?

Updated: October 16, 2011, 10:36 AM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

JOPLIN, Mo. -- On May 20, the biggest thing in Mariah Sanders' life was soaring through the air on a pole. She'd trained for this, for four years, since a track coach spotted her playing football with the boys and sensed that she was fearless enough to try the pole vault. Sanders was somewhat of an All-American girl -- straight A's, prom-queen looks, a star of the Joplin High School softball team. She was stubborn. Nothing was more important, on that day, than qualifying for state.

On May 20, fetal pigs were spread across a science room, ready to be carved up, and all around the school teenagers were eager to close the books on 2010-11. A teacher jokingly told his class that unless the school was destroyed, they would need to squeeze in two tests before summer. The class sighed.

[+] EnlargeJoplin High School
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelThis photo taken May 24, 2011, shows a damaged Joplin High School. The school was one three schools in the city destroyed by an EF5 tornado that wiped out much of the community.

On May 20, one of the biggest stories churning in the national media was about an 89-year-old televangelist who pegged the next day -- Saturday, May 21 -- as Judgment Day. A small percentage of the world's population would be lifted off to heaven, the man said. It was supposed to be the start of the end of the world.

On May 20, Evan Wilson walked out of Joplin High, eager for summer break. The defensive back for the football team didn't have plans to travel anywhere; the plan was to just hang out and be social. He passed by the parking lot that had become some sort of gathering place for his team on fall nights. They'd sit in their truck beds as the sun went down, blasting car stereos, listening to "Teach Me How to Dougie."

Wilson and the rest of them got in their vehicles that Friday and drove away, some of them quickly. In 48 hours, their school would be gone.

Lost in the storm

It has been nearly five months since an EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, and the TV news satellite trucks have pulled away from a town that lost 162 people in one of the deadliest tornado events in U.S. history. A sign near downtown says the Hardee's is reopening on Tuesday morning at 10 o'clock, and every time a business is rebuilt, it is celebrated in this southwest Missouri town of 50,000.

Joplin, a gritty, God-fearing community where people clasp their hands together to say grace at fast-food restaurants, will repair this giant hole in the heart of the city. But how do you restore a teenager's youth?

Evan Wilson and the other three captains of the 2011 Joplin High football team pile into a car Monday after practice. They want to show you their town. They go to school now in a renovated building that used to be a Shopko, and try, when they can, to avoid the damaged parts of town. The parts that remind them of what Joplin used to be.

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Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comJoplin football captains: junior Jarad Bader, senior Evan Wilson, junior Chris Payton-Barba and senior Dayton Whitehead.

Wilson turns the key to his ignition, and the song "Forever Young" plays on his stereo. He turns it down.

"I want to take you down Jackson Street," he says. "All of a sudden, the trees just stop.

"It was so easy to get lost after the storm because there were no signs and everything was just the same. Just piles of heap."

In his back seat is Jarad Bader, a big defensive end for the Eagles and the only one of the group who hasn't lived in Joplin his whole life. Bader is originally from Minnesota. Dayton Whitehead, a receiver, and running back Chris Payton-Barba are also in the back. We'll start with Payton-Barba, because he says the least during the ride. He says he's a distant relative of Walter Payton. Last Friday, in the homecoming game against Camdenton, Payton-Barba, all 140 pounds of him, rushed for a career-high 237 yards and four touchdowns in a Joplin victory.

Every time the Eagles win, Wilson says, it gives the town hope. They put that pressure on themselves.

So the tour winds past a dentist's office and a church that are gone, save for a giant cross. It goes through neighborhoods that are wide-open fields now and seemingly never existed. This used to be a booming housing addition, Wilson says. It used to be lush-green with trees.

So many memories, good and horrible. There is a flat swath of land that used to be Dillon's supermarket. In that parking lot, Lantz Hare's car was found. Hare was 16 and out driving with a friend when the tornado hit. After four days of desperate searching, his body was found.

"He always had a smile on his face," Bader says. "He was just a cool kid. To this day, I still can't believe he's gone. Especially since he's our age.

"[Our] neighborhood … didn't get touched. My parents were on my front doorstep while the tornado was going on and they thought it was just a bad thunderstorm. After I found out Lantz was gone, you felt it a lot. Because he was one of our good friends. To this day, it's just hard to think about."

Wilson stops his car at the old high school. A fence, maybe 10 feet high, cordons off the building, a mangled mess of bricks and books and computers still sitting on desks. They stare at the rose garden where they used to play Frisbee. They look up at The Hill, which was their old practice field. Tree branches and two-by-fours jutted out of it in the weeks after the tornado.

Over the summer, the captains took their picture on The Hill, then some of them sneaked into the school to grab a few mementos. Wilson went to his locker and got his favorite pair of shoes. They wish they could've taken more.

"I really miss the high school the most," Bader says. "I mean, everything revolved around it. During the season, this is where we'd be every day almost. I want my old school back."

The fact that Joplin was even able to start school on time, on Aug. 17, is nothing short of a miracle. In late May, when Superintendent C.J. Huff set that as the goal, it seemed unrealistic. There was too much to do. But Joplin's teachers and administrators knew how important it was for the students to get back together, to have some semblance of normal.

[+] EnlargeJoplin High School at mall
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelA student walks past a mural of the school mascot on the first day of school at a temporary high school in a converted big-box store in Joplin, Mo.

Thing is, nothing is really normal. The students of Joplin High are separated -- the freshmen and sophomores at an old building that used to be a middle school; the upperclassmen at the mall. At homecoming last week, Wilson and his friends looked around and didn't recognize a number of the younger students. That's because they'd never met most of the freshman class.

At the mall location, their classrooms are separated by partitions. Oftentimes, one class can hear the lesson plan being taught next door. "I still really don't know where all the bathrooms are," Bader says.

We hop into the car and drive past the little league baseball field where Whitehead played. That was destroyed, too. His father and grandfather played there, and Whitehead liked to look at a sign that had his dad's name on it, commemorating a trip to the state tournament. The sign is gone.

But these four were lucky. The tornado was random, skipping one house, demolishing another. None of their homes was destroyed. But they went through a sort of survivor's guilt.

"I mean, not to sound selfish, but it ruined our summer," Wilson says. "Especially for, like, the first month. You feel guilty going out and having fun while people are picking up the remains of their house. It was kind of weird hanging out because you shouldn't."

On the ride back to Junge Field, they talk about college. Wilson says the tornado has changed his focus. He wants to do something in science and innovative technologies now. He wants to make a difference.

Fearing for her family

Mariah Sanders did qualify for state. On May 21, she became the only Joplin track and field athlete to make it to the big meet in Jefferson City, Mo. Still giddy from the accomplishment, and worried that she might get injured before state, Sanders decided to skip softball practice that Sunday. She visited friends in nearby Seneca, Mo., instead.

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Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comJoplin High School pole vaulter Mariah Sanders.

It was a beautiful day, she says. Sanders had no idea that some 20 miles away, tornado sirens were going off in Joplin, and her family's house was about to be hit. Her mom and dad and little sister were huddled in a closet when the twister chewed through their neighborhood.

Upon hearing the news that a tornado had hit Joplin, Sanders checked her cell phone. She had eight missed calls and eight unread texts. They were from her family. She talked to her dad briefly before the cellphone towers in Joplin went down. He said they were OK.

Her 13-year-old sister Miranda sent a text: EVERYTHING IS GONE. Nothing was more important to Mariah, from that moment on, than getting home. She got into town the next day, and found her family, bruised and sore. An entire neighborhood down the street was completely wiped out. Much of Sanders' house was damaged, but the middle bedroom, the one with the closet her family took refuge in, was intact.

"All of me wishes I was there," Sanders says. "I hate that I wasn't here with my family. I think it was worse for me being away. Not knowing was the worst part. I can't help it … I didn't know it was going to hit, but I feel like I just left my family, you know? I wish I was here for my family the whole time."

She is sitting in a classroom at her new school and realizes she's talking too loudly and that the classroom next door can probably hear her. She's embarrassed and lowers her voice.

To be a pole vaulter, you have to be fearless. For years, her coach would tell her about the dangers of her sport, how people occasionally die when things go terribly wrong, but none of that really sinks in when you're 17. She will still compete with a carefree passion, maybe even more so now. But Sanders does have genuine fears now -- of losing what she has, of what happens when the sky gets dark.

She sleeps with the TV on in her room now. She never did that before. She misses her neighbors, her high school and the gas station across the street.

"Sometimes I do cry," Sanders says. "Especially at night, when there's no lights. I'm more afraid now. I don't know … I'm just scared. I feel like it's a ghost town."

The Sanders family decided to rebuild their house on their own, and late this past summer, they moved back. There are still no streetlights on Kansas Avenue, and some of her neighbors are still gone. The other day, Sanders went on Google maps and was able to retrieve a street tour of her old neighborhood, some satellite pictures that were taken a couple of years ago.

It was this time of year in the photos. Halloween decorations hung on her house. And Sanders followed the map down her street, all the way to the high school.

They are still working on the house, and most nights, when Sanders got home from softball practice at 6:30, she climbed up on the roof to help her dad. She is quick to point out that her mom and sister did the same thing after work and school. They bought portable lights and worked deep into the night.

"She never talked about it, never used it as an excuse for being tired," says Joplin softball coach Bruce Vonder Haar.

"She's great to coach because she wants to win, and that rubs off on other people, including coaches. She makes me want to coach harder because I want to win for her."

All that's left

Shortly after the tornado, Vonder Haar went to his garage and found one bucket of softballs. It was all he had left for his team. The uniforms, bats and equipment were gone, and so was their field. One of his star players would leave the team, and the town, after her house was destroyed.

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AP Photo/Paul SancyaJoplin High School players, including Adam St. Peter (22), Cheslie Cook (90) and Rex Shisner (4), stand for a moment of silence before their home-opener on Sept. 10, 2011.

The Eagles had to start over, and do it quickly. If the town was going to rebuild, it would start through the high school. And so much of Joplin High revolves around sports. Athletic director Jeff Starkweather knew, once his kids were accounted for, that they had to be together. So they scrambled to make sure that camps still went on and that fields and weight rooms were secured.

The softball team forged a deep bond during its 14-15 season. And everywhere the Eagles went they were surrounded by support. A month after the tornado, about 10 players from Blue Springs South High traveled more than two hours to Joplin to deliver gift bags and take the team out to lunch. Rolla High bought them a new bat; Lebanon catered a barbecue after a game. One day, after a game with Lee's Summit North High, Joplin's opponents said, "Hey, can we talk to you for a minute?"

They said they'd been thinking about Joplin, praying for the town, and then the Lee's Summit North coach handed the Eagles an envelope. It had more than $300 in it.

"It's something you don't expect," Vonder Haar says. "But it means a lot."

The last day of the season, which came last week with a loss in districts, was emotional, he says. They'd spent so much time together during the past few months, and didn't want it to end. But every day since May 22 has been emotional in Joplin.

All Vonder Haar has to do to remind himself of that is walk into his classroom. There hangs a picture of Will Norton, his TV production teaching assistant. Norton was a senior, so advanced in his classes that Vonder Haar asked him for editing advice on occasion and didn't feel the slightest bit intimidated about getting it from an 18-year-old.

On May 22, on his way home from graduation, Norton was sucked out of the sunroof of his vehicle. He was found a week later in a pond.

Norton was going to be a famous producer or director. The day he was accepted into Chapman University's film school, an elite program in Orange, Calif., Norton came running into the classroom. He was so excited and surprised. Vonder Haar wasn't surprised at all.

"That kid was the most talented high-school kid I've ever come across," he says. "Man, he had a future like you wouldn't believe. He was going to be a name that a lot of people were going to know in the next 10 years."

To carry on

One school year is all the people at Joplin High want to get through right now. One game, one season. The classrooms of the senior high have no windows, and that bothers Bader and his friends sometimes. But they know this setup is the best that could be done to keep them all together. Outside, there are signs that the student body is trying to move on. Last week, a boy scribbled over the windows of a black SUV belonging to a volleyball player. Will you go to homecoming with me? Griffen

Joplin's teachers showed up in droves to homecoming last weekend, trying to lend support. Former "American Idol" winner David Cook, a Missourian, performed at the dance and talked to the kids. They thought that was cool.

Joplin's homecoming theme had nothing to do with rebuilding. It was "Lost at Sea." Mariah Sanders attended the dance, then went home to her dark neighborhood and cried. She's doing all right, but on that particular night, her senior year, one of her last dances, she couldn't help it. It wasn't the same. It will never be the same.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MerrillLiz.