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Home Field Advantage

In Parkersburg, Iowa, football and faith brought the community together. Then last summer a tornado wiped out the town.

Football Players

To me, there’s not a patch of God’s earth more beautiful than a high school football field. And the one here in Parkersburg, the small Iowa farm town where I live, is the loveliest of all.

Sometimes on summer mornings I park my pickup on the hill overlooking our field and just sit for a while gazing out the window at the thick green grass, the bright limed lines, the bleachers that on Friday nights in the fall fill with fans cheering on our Falcons.

I admit, I’m a little biased about our field. After all, I’ve been coaching football and teaching history and economics at Aplington-Parkersburg High for 33 years.

But it means almost as much to the other 1,900 people who call Parkersburg home. Our football field is like our town square, the place where we connect with each other and with something greater than ourselves. It’s kind of like church that way. There’s a reason folks have nicknamed the field “The Sacred Acre.”

After church one Sunday last May, I bypassed the field to drop by my classroom. Yes, Sunday. The school, three blocks from my house, is like my second home. “Not ‘like,’” my wife, Jan, says. “It is your second home.”

I’m one of those coaches who believes it’s my responsibility to be there for my players—my students—any way I can. One of my returning seniors had asked for the key to the weight room so he could get a head start on his summer training program.

I opened my desk drawer to get the key, thinking what a hardworking young man he was. He epitomized the all-for-one, one-for-all spirit of our team. That’s when the town’s emergency siren went off.

Anyone who’s lived in rural Iowa for any length of time has heard the wail of a town siren. Here in Tornado Alley, it’s the soundtrack of our summers—our early warning system for an approaching twister. I’d heard that sound often enough that it no longer alarmed me. No tornado had ever struck Parkersburg as long as I’d lived here.

Still, I stuck the key in my pocket and headed home. Jan was an EMT and took these things seriously. “Hi, honey,” I called as I walked in the house.

“I’m in the basement,” she yelled. “Get down here right now!” Years ago we’d built a basement—our safe room in case of a tornado. It wasn’t much, just a cubbyhole dug out beneath the stairs. I went down.

Jan had carried in bottled water and some pillows. “Do you think we’ll need those?” I asked. Before she could answer the wind picked up big time, like a freight train rushing toward us. The house shook. Then came a tremendous roar, like nothing I’d ever heard. The air felt charged.

We crawled under the steps and pulled the pillows over our heads. I took Jan’s hand and held it tight. “Lord, have mercy,” we prayed. “Protect us from harm.”

The roar lasted probably less than a minute, though it seemed forever. Then it was quiet again, eerily quiet. I crawled out and climbed the stairs, stood at the top and looked all around me, turning in a complete circle. In the cloudless sky, the sun was shining, strangely bright.

“Jan, our house…” I said. “It’s gone.” One bedroom wall was partly standing. The kitchen wall sagged against the car in the garage. The rest had collapsed or blown away. It was like a bomb had fallen on our house.

We’d lived there three decades, raised our two sons, planted deep roots. Virtually all we owned was in shambles. Jan climbed the stairs and looked around. She threw her arms around me, took a deep breath. “We can rebuild,” she said.

“We will,” I agreed. “Right here.”

Then Jan’s EMT training kicked in. “We’ve got to see if anyone needs help,” she said. We went door to door, checking on neighbors. The twister had blown through at 200 miles per hour, flattening our part of town.

I turned in the direction of the high school, looking for the gymnasium, the tallest building for miles. Now there was nothing. “I’m going to the school,” I said to Jan.

I picked my way through exploded trees, broken glass, caved-in trucks. All that was left of the gym was the floor. The main school building next door was a pile of rubble. The field, I thought. What about the football field? I stepped through the rubble to the rise that overlooked The Sacred Acre.

Debris was strewn everywhere. The bleachers were a tangle of crumpled metal. The goalposts, gone. The scoreboard, shattered in pieces on the ground. And the field, our meticulously groomed field—ripped to shreds. Metal shards, wood beams, tree branches impaled the playing surface from goal line to goal line, sideline to sideline.

I stood there, unable to tear my eyes away from the devastation. Jan and I could rebuild our house. But what about my second home—the high school, the football field? The place where I’d told my players, “The only way we win is if we look out for one another,” and tried to instill in them a shared sense of commitment and trust? The place that brought everyone in town together? What would we do now that it had been scraped from the earth?

I’d faced challenges in my life as a father, a teacher, a coach. My faith was tested and I’d met those challenges. But I’d never seen anything like this. My faith, my principles, my belief in myself and my community were all about to be tested as never before.

I must have been there about 45 minutes when one of my players—I can’t remember who, I guess I was in shock—walked out on the ruined field with his dad, stepping carefully. Near midfield they turned to each other. Then they dropped to their knees and touched their fingers to the ground. What are they doing? I looked more closely and realized: They were hard at work clearing the field, picking debris from the ground.

More players and their families arrived. Then other people from town, people who didn’t have any kids on the team or even in school. They’d been drawn there just as I had, just as that first player and his dad had. That’s when it struck me. It wasn’t just our team that had an all-for-one, one-for-all spirit. It was our whole town.

I walked down to the field and set to work alongside everyone else. No one said much. They didn’t have to. All my years of coaching I’d preached strength in togetherness. Out here on the field, I was seeing that principle in action, like never before.

We worked until dark. Later that night I met with the principal and school superintendent. We made the decision: We would rebuild the school right where it stood. “One more thing,” I said. The others turned to me. “We need to play football here this fall. Our first home game is September 5th. We’ve got till then.”

We’ve had so many help us, it’s impossible to thank them all. Some 40 players and their families worked on the field over the summer—every free minute, it seemed, when they weren’t busy rebuilding their own homes.

They came with saws, and cut and stacked the broken fencing. Carted rubbish away in their pickups. Spread fertilizer, then grass seed. Toted in snacks and water for us all. Guys who’d graduated 15 years ago came back to help. Four of our former players are now in the NFL (that might be some kind of record for these parts). Without any fanfare, they showed up, rolled up their shirtsleeves and pitched in.

It didn’t end there. I got a call from the football coach at the high school in Dowling, two hours away. “I’ve got 95 kids and coaches,” he said. “We’re coming up. Just tell us what we can do.” A local businessman set up a weight room in his horse barn so that our players could get ready for the season.

It’s August as I write this. Our team is ready. So is the field. The grass has grown in; the bleachers are up. Even though they’re still rebuilding their homes and businesses, people tell me they can’t wait to come to the game September 5 and cheer for their Aplington-Parkersburg Falcons.

By the time you read this, our football season will be over. Maybe we’ll end up making the playoffs. Maybe we’ll have one of those rare off years. Sitting here in my pickup on this bright, beautiful August morning, looking out at the thick green grass and the bright limed lines, I don’t see wins and losses. What I see are the many hands that helped resurrect our home field, including those of the One who brought us all together. Gives a whole new meaning to The Sacred Acre, doesn’t it?

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