Lone Star Gridiron

Storm victims find solace in football

A high school team in High Island, Texas, is resurrected, helping the community to overcome losses inflicted by the wrath of Hurricane Ike.

HIGH ISLAND, Texas - Inside the High Island locker room, thick with the residue of sweat and socks and the struggles of countless football games past, there was no pretense, no show of bravado, no empty boasting.

Here, there was only a high school football team — 27 boys in maroon and white, shoulders padded, helmets in hand, eyes fixed forward or darting anxiously around the room. There was only family — a clan scattered by the forces of nature and reunited through sheer will and desire.

Here, against all odds, were the High Island Cardinals, shifting their weight on weathered wooden benches, tapping their toes, checking the clock.

In a few moments, they would play their first home game since Hurricane Ike pummeled the Texas coast, decimating their working-class communities on the Bolivar Peninsula and putting the fate of their team and their school in jeopardy.

Just a few weeks earlier no one knew if the school would reopen. No one knew how many of the 221 students — 31 football players among them — or 43 staff members would return. Or if any would have homes to return to.
Most, as it turned out, did not. About 85 percent of the students and half of the staff lost their houses altogether. Many of the homes still standing were unlivable. And the families, once woven so tightly in the beach towns of the peninsula, had been dispersed to far-fl ung corners of Texas.

Then, Coach Paul Colton put out a call to his players: Anyone who wanted to play ball should come back for practice. Anyone who needed a place to stay could bunk with him.
In a fl urry of text messages, online messaging and cell phone activity, the High Island Cardinals brought their team back to life.

These high school boys, who had already lost so much, did not want to lose the season they had just started. They needed that, just like they needed each other, just like the community — so badly wounded by the storm, so much in need of a little hope — needed them.
Now, with the minutes ticking to a Saturday afternoon kickoff, the stands outside were fi lling with family, friends and faculty, all eager to welcome the Cardinals home.

All Coach Colton needed was 13 players — 11 on the field, two on the bench. With that, he would have a team.
At the first practice two weeks after the Sept. 13 storm, 14 Cardinals stood on the field.

Ike had taken nearly everything from them.
In the towns of Crystal Beach and Gilchrist, where many High Island students live, most of the roads have been erased and are still mired in sand and debris. Abandoned cars lie entrenched in muck. Row after row of houses are splintered and shattered, reduced to twisted pilings or concrete slabs.

These students had lost their homes and their clothes, their family photos and cherished keepsakes, their four-wheelers and trucks, their iPods and PlayStations. All gone.
Their parents, still reeling from the devastation, had moved in with relatives or rented motel rooms in towns an hour or more away.

Yet, the boys had come back to the school most had attended since kindergarten, to the field where they could prove that their dreams had not been dampened by the storm.
Several of the boys had moved in with Colton and his assistant coach, Justin Charrier, who share a house near campus. A couple of players were rooming with another coach, John Hughes, and his wife, who had also taken in two high school girls. Others found space with friends or family or faculty members.

This was only Colton’s second year as High Island athletic director. Yet, the gruff-voiced man with a handlebar mustache had already come to love these kids as he loves his own.
Colton, a 44-year-old father of three, divides his time between his home in Kountze, about an hour north of High Island, and the house he shares with Charrier. In his 23 years coaching at schools around East Texas, Colton had counseled players dealing with the darkest of adolescent traumas — absentee parents, sexual assault, physical abuse.

He had always kept his door open and his sturdy shoulder ready to lean on. But he had never dealt with the kind of destruction Ike had left behind.

And that day, as Colton groped for the right words, he thought of the boys on his roster:

Since the storm, as many as seven boys have roomed in his small house just down the road from campus. Inside those walls, the rooms burst with youthful chaos. Clothes tumble out of plastic bins and duffel bags. Twin beds are shoved into tight spaces and covered in a tangle of sheets. A collection of horror movie DVDs and video games crowds the coffee table.
Here Colton, the broad-shouldered commander of the football field, suddenly becomes den mother and homework wrangler.

“You’ve got homework to do when you get home, all my little children who are staying with me,” Colton called out at the end of practice as the players plodded to the locker room.
On most nights, he is in the kitchen whipping up chicken fajitas or hot dogs, which the boys sometimes gobble up straight out of the pans.

Colton has made sacrifices for his team. He can’t go home as much as he’d like to, and like the other coaches and teachers looking after students, most of the money for food and other expenses comes out of his own pocket.
On the practice field, where grunts echo across the gridiron and bodies thud against pads, the scars of Hurricane Ike seem far away. Inside this rectangle of grass, there is no room for grief or introspection, no time to ponder what was lost or the enormity of what lies ahead.

For two hours a day, there are only hits and tackles, gristle and swagger. There is goodnatured ribbing and tough-asnails coaching.
And there is solidarity — not just from wearing the Cardinal colors, but from sharing calamity.
“We’re all one! We’re family,” Holden Sievers yelped during practice as he bumped fi sts with Joey Manuel. “That’s what’s up. Show love.”

The day of the High Island Cardinals-West Hardin Oilers game, Oct. 18, dawned sunny and bright. Mosquitoes were biting, and dragonflies swirled in clusters across the football fi eld. By game time, the thermometer would reach 80 degrees — perfect Texas football weather.
Inside the locker room, Colton had gathered his players around him.

“It ain’t time for rah rah right stuff now. Good things going to happen today, really good things. We are going to have great plays made on the fi eld today, and some bad plays. You can’t have all good and no bad,” Colton said.
“Stay together as a team. You’ve been together all year, never been more together than since after the storm. You stay together, and let them know we’re a family.”

Outside, the rest of their family awaited. Parents and siblings, teachers and long-graduated alumni, displaced homeowners and school boosters. It seemed like all of Bolivar Peninsula was streaming onto the aluminum bleachers for the team’s first post-Ike home game.
On the sidelines, the High Island cheerleaders rallied the crowd: “C-a-r-d-i-n-a-l-s! We are the best!” In the stands, maroonshirted fans whooped and hollered and stamped their feet.

For many, this game was the first community gathering since the hurricane churned through their towns and blew them away. Five weeks to the day since Ike, they were sitting side-by-side in the bleachers, waiting for High Island to take the field.
Rhonda Althauser-Jackson struggled hard to hold back her emotions. Her son, James “Leli” Lupeheke, 15, a sophomore, was on this team. Since the storm, Althauser-Jackson has been living in Texas City, her husband is in Beaumont, and James in High Island with the coach. Their house still stands, but the fi rst floor and James’ room were washed away.

“This is a breath of fresh air. We need it. The storm has been tearing families apart ... ,” she said, gulping back tears. “It was important for all of us to get the boys back together.”
A few weeks ago, this game had seemed an impossibility. Now, no matter the final score, it already felt like a miracle.

“It doesn’t matter who wins,” said Althauser-Jackson. “What matters more is that they’re playing at home.”
And in fact, the Cardinals would lose on this day, 36-22, though they came back from a 28-0 deficit. But there would be other games, other practices, other chances to get back up after being knocked down — on the field and off.
The boys in maroon and white had made sure of that.

By: The Associated Press

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