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COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME
FIRST PLACE: FEATURE
"Oh ... my ... God," Gary Pinkel gasped.
Pinkel has been coaching college football players for more than 30 years, and if he ever wondered how to get a busload of them quiet, he unlocked the mystery Friday. Drive them through a war zone.
"Oh ... my ... God."
That's all Pinkel could say as the White Knight coach bus crept east on 15th Street in Joplin, giving Pinkel and his Missouri football players their first view of the town leveled by last month's tornado.
Jaws hung wide open. Camera phones clicked. Thirty -two college football players sat in silence, with sheets of glass separating them from the carnage outside.
They saw houses ripped open, roofs blown off and walls torn down.
Trees were uprooted like weeds in a garden. The trees left standing were stripped down to trunks and shorn limbs, like a kindergartener's stick-figure drawing.
Street signs were scattered across lawns. Stop lights, too.
"Look, there's a mattress up in that tree," Pinkel said, breaking the quiet.
For the group of players who volunteered their Friday to help clean up the tornado's path of destruction, this was their first taste of reality.
"You see so many things on TV, but it's not real until you're actually there," wide receiver Wes Kemp said a few hours later. "Now, it's like, that's where somebody lived. There's thousands of people who don't have homes right now. Where are they right now? They're just scattered with friends and family. It just makes it so much more real."
The day had just begun.
Countless volunteers have descended on Joplin since the May 22 tornado damaged or destroyed more than 8,000 homes and 500 commercial properties in southwest Missouri. Twelve days after the twister tore through more than six miles of the town, Pinkel and MU's contingent made the four-hour bus ride to join the corps of volunteers. The first stop off Highway 44 was Trade X Sales, a home-furnishing store on North Main Street in Joplin. The store's warehouse is being used to store goods donated to tornado victims. And the Tigers brought a bunch.
The previous Saturday, MU packed its 18-wheel semi with donated items collected at D. Rowe's restaurant, owned by former Missouri player David Rowe. On Friday, the semi followed Pinkel's bus of players to Joplin. For about an hour, the players unloaded the pallets of goods and hauled them into the warehouse.
Inside, the walls were lined with rows of diapers, cleaning supplies, bedding, children's toys, clothes and an ocean's worth of bottled water.
Pinkel's party was a cross-section of his 2011 roster. Defense and offense, white and black, starter and backup. Established veterans like All-American tight end Michael Egnew worked alongside walk-ons like linebacker Daniel Carpenter. Soccer players Kendra Collins and Haley Krentz joined them. Friday was the football players' day off between summer workouts, but at 7 a.m., this bleary-eyed group loaded a bus bound for hell.
"This is my home state," Kemp said. "I'm from Missouri. ... How could you not come here and help?"
Among the MU crew was former star quarterback Chase Daniel, who brought along New Orleans Saints teammate Tyler Lorenzen. On Saturday, Daniel signed autographs at a Columba car dealership with all the proceeds — more than $4,500 — going to United for Joplin, the United Way's campaign to help tornado victims.
"The state of Missouri has been so good for me," Daniel said. "I played four amazing years here. The fans have been so amazing the whole entire time. ... They come from all over to watch us. The least we can do is come here and help them."
To help the cause, MU printed T-shirts that read, "One State, One Spirit, One Mizzou," and has sold 16,000 since the storm, raising more than $175,000 for United for Joplin.
Next stop, Forest Park Baptist Church on South Highview Avenue. In the wake of the storm, the church became local headquarters for Samaritan's Purse, an international disaster relief organization that helps with volunteer projects in ravaged towns like Joplin. Missouri's crew stopped there for lunch and an orientation session on the day's next assignment.
To get there, the bus made the chilling drive down 15th Street.
"It's just, it's mind-boggling," Daniel said. "You see it on TV, you see it in the newspapers and on video, and yeah, it looks horrible. But it looks like you're on a movie set. It doesn't look real."
"It was a devastating picture, not even close to seeing it on TV," Pinkel said. "You just think how sad it is. In 20 seconds, people's lives changed."
Including Rachel Greene. The president of the MU Alumni Association chapter in Joplin was standing in her driveway at 25th Street and Connecticut when the tornado sirens went off. As the twister got closer, she ran inside to the crawl space. She had to settle for a closet.
"It started raining in the closet," she said.
Seconds later, most of her roof was gone. Rain soaked everything inside. The wind was so powerful, it moved her house off its foundation. Greene has since moved in with her younger sister. Her car was destroyed in the storm, too.
"It's like a bad dream that you're not coming out of," she said. "But the spirit of the people of Joplin is unlike anything I've ever seen. The state of Missouri has come together to help pitch in. Just seeing what my alma mater has done has blown my mind."
That's why Greene was waiting in the church parking lot for Missouri's bus, to thank Pinkel and the players for visiting the nightmare, even if only for a day.
The blown-out windows and splintered trees didn't impact Mark Hill like it did his teammates. He'd grown numb to the damage after spending four days in Joplin immediately after the tornado. Last summer, Hill's dad and stepmom moved to Joplin from Branson. His stepsiblings are scattered around town, too.
"The first time I drove through, you're just emotionally drained," said Hill, a sophomore offensive lineman. "You're just shocked. It's hard to think. It's like whenever somebody passes away. You think they're just going to come back. You think you're going to drive back through and everything's going to be OK. But every time you turn around, you see a car wrapped around a telephone pole or a big metal beam twisted in half that you'd never think could be lifted off the ground."
Hill's parents' home was spared. His siblings' houses escaped the storm, too. A friend's house was badly damaged, and Hill spent several days ripping through sheet rock and fastening tarps as makeshift roofs.
"We had to use a GPS just to get around because none of the road signs were up," he said. "It was a shock."
After coming back to Columbia for offseason workouts, he started organizing Friday's trip. A handful of teammates quickly agreed to join him.
"That was a big deal for me, too, especially Joplin being a place where I live," he said. "It was almost like they were helping me out. Not that I was affected, but people I know were affected here."
After eating lunch alongside volunteers from all over the Midwest — out-of-state license plates included Iowa, Indiana, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Kansas — the Missouri players headed inside the church to watch a safety video. Pinkel and Daniel had flown back to Columbia — Pinkel was meeting with a recruit in town on an unofficial visit — but the rest were headed to one of the worst areas of destruction. After the video, a volunteer offered one last warning: "You are going into a zone of decimation."
Of all the streets left ravaged by the storm, these Tigers were assigned to ... 1380 Kansas Avenue, enough irony to stir a few laughs on such a somber day.
At the corner of Kansas and 19th Street, they found a one-story white house, battered but still standing. The lawn was littered with memories and debris that came from who knows how many miles away. A tree had been plucked from the ground and smashed into a fence. Household items had to be separated from metal objects and fragments of wood, all of which were to be piled along the curb.
Kemp and wideout Jerrell Jackson hauled a washing machine from outside of the house. Then came a refrigerator. It took no less than five players to unravel a mangled garage door from under a tree trunk. Others carried metal beams, shingles, furniture. Wideout Terry Dennis found parts of a car bumper still attached to the tail light.
Clouds of dust and the smell of rotting flesh lingered everywhere. Hill discovered one source, a dead squirrel embedded in the grass like a lawn ornament.
"Just to have a house, we should feel extremely fortunate," Kemp said. "These people were probably feeling fortunate when" Hurricane "Katrina happened. Now it happened to them, the same type of devastation. You just have to count your blessings and never take things for granted."
As the players worked, a family arrived. For the last 18 years, Carol Mann, 36, has lived in the house with her mother, Sharon, 62. Both suffer from seizures and neither can drive a car. And when the tornado hit, they huddled in a bathroom.
"It sounded like a freight train was coming," Carol said.
Neither was hurt. They've since moved in with Sharon's sister, Patricia Williams, and her husband, Patrick. They live 10 blocks south, and their house suffered only minor wind damage.
"When you see this devastation, you realize how fragile life is," Patricia said. "Possessions at this point don't mean anything."
Carol works part time at McDonald's and carries a coin purse that holds her lunch money. She'd lost it in the storm, but sure enough, one of the players found it while clearing through rubble in the house. He returned it with her $5 inside.
"So much of the news you hear is so negative," Patricia said. "But those boys renewed my faith that there are so many good people in the world."
Once the players turned what had been a junkyard back into what resembled her sister's property, Patricia broke down in tears.
"Where do we begin without all of these people coming in, like the football team, everyone?" she said. "Where does a person begin without their help?
"Yesterday this stuff was strewn everywhere. And in just a few hours ... look what they've done. It's amazing. All I can say is I love them all, and I wish I could send a thank-you card to each one of them."
Once a volunteer crew has cleared a property, it's the Samaritan's Purse tradition to give the homeowners a Bible and join them in a group prayer. With piles of debris lining the street, the players joined hands with Carol Mann and her family. One by one, the volunteers then signed the first few pages of the Bible. The first signature came from a man who arrived by caravan midway through the cleanup.
"Jay Nixon, the Governor of the Show-Me State," he signed in big looping letters. "God bless."
By 4:30, it was time to pile back on the bus. The players had cleared a couple lots. Thousands were still untouched. Safety Kenronte Walker looked out at what seemed like a horizon of rubble.
"Man, we did all that work, but it doesn't seem like we've done anything," he said. "It's like one drop in the ocean. I wish we could come back."
The players were pooped. A Prius with Kansas plates pulled up, and the driver rolled down his window and playfully yelled, "Rock Chalk Jayhawk!"
The players smiled as he pulled away. Some barely noticed. Others sat quietly, scraping at the crust of grime covering their arms and legs. This neighborhood could have been any of theirs back home. Will Ebner's in Friendswood, Texas. Matt Hoch's in Harlan, Iowa. Kemp's in St. Louis.
"It's stunning," defensive end Jacquies Smith said. "It's a sight to see if you've never seen anything like this. For me, I've never experienced or seen any type of weather like this. It can take away a lifetime of memories."
Sitting at the corner of 19th and Kansas, Smith leaned on a stop sign and watched his teammates climb aboard the bus. An elderly woman had lived in a small house just a few feet away. Her house was sucked into the twister and destroyed. She was missing for a few days, Patricia Williams said, and later pronounced dead, one of 141 lives claimed by the country's deadliest tornado since 1950.
"It's sad to see this type of thing happen to a community," Smith said. "Right now, I'm just trying to soak it all in."
For a few hours, though, Smith uncovered something beneath the wreckage. He wasn't sure what it was, but it felt good.
"We're working as a team, building unity," he said. "It all carries into the season. It creates a lot of lifetime experiences. Guys like me, this being my last year, we can look back at this, this experience. Going through it with my fellow teammates, this is great."
Comment by the judge, Gene Duffey: The writer's superb description of the scene makes you feel as if you are on the bus with the players. Great quotes from Pinkel and several Tigers. Includes interviews with the president of the MU Alumni Association in Joplin and one of the player's whose family lives in Joplin.
• Second Place: Chris Tomasson, FOX Sports Florida
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