Around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, November 17, 2013, Sacred Heart-Griffin High School (SHG) football coach Ken Leonard placed a call to Washington High School football coach Darrell Crouch. The two men, who have known each other since the early 1980’s when Crouch was assigned to student-teach at Chenoa High School (Chenoa, Ill.) where Leonard was a teacher and coach at the time, exchanged pleasantries and congratulations. There was still a palpable euphoria that carried over from the previous afternoon, when Leonard’s program had punched its ticket to the semifinal round of the IHSA Football Playoffs for the third consecutive year and Crouch’s upstart team had clinched a semifinal berth for the first time since 1985. They eventually got down to the business of finalizing film exchange and setting the game time for their semifinal matchup, which would be hosted on Sacred Heart-Griffin’s campus in Springfield the next Saturday.
What can we do?”
That was the lone question Leonard had for Crouch when he dialed his phone number again about eight hours later.
After their morning conversation, Leonard maintained his normal Sunday routine, heading to 10:30 a.m. mass. Many of the 15,000 residents in Washington did the same, something that would be credited with the fact that there was only one casualty caused by the EF-4 tornado that ripped through the town early that afternoon. The tornado leveled more than 1,200 homes, causing damage in excess of six million dollars, but none of the churches that housed most of the town’s population at that time suffered significant damage.
During that second call, Crouch revealed the sobering news that at least eight of his players, including his starting quarterback, had lost their homes. However, cancelling the game was never a thought for the Panthers. They knew the town wouldn’t be rebuilt in a week and chose to play for the people who had supported them so adamantly throughout the season. At the same time, Crouch knew they would need help.
“It would have been very easy to simply make a courtesy call and then go ahead with his preparation for the week,” said Crouch. “Ken did all in his power to help us out spiritually, emotionally and financially.”
By Sunday evening, Leonard and SHG Assistant Principal/Assistant Football Coach Bob Brenneisen had scheduled a Monday parent meeting to discuss how they could assist with Washington’s three most urgent needs surrounding the game: water, food and transportation.
Countless individuals from the team, school, community and beyond played a part in Sacred Heart-Griffin’s efforts that week, but it was Brenneisen and a pair of moms with freshmen sons in the football program, Anne Dondanville and Michele Reavy, who proved to be the engine behind them.
“Priorities change so quickly,” said Dondanville. “Thinking about the families in Washington and the euphoria they had on Saturday and then what occurred on Sunday. We didn’t know what to expect out of that meeting or week, but we realized it was an opportunity to step up.”
Through the generosity of the Springfield and SHG communities, coupled with the outpouring of support from fellow Central State Eight Conference schools like Jacksonville and Chatham-Glenwood, the water issue was solved within hours. SHG had three semitrailers full of it, with the city of Washington unable to even accept the entire amount at that juncture because of the flood of generosity bestowed on the town.
“Our gameplan for the food was to hit the phones and go out to local places to try and get donations,” said Reavy. “It was incredible, just as we did that, the phones exploded. Donations started pouring in. Everyone wanted to volunteer or know how to help. Because of the support, it snowballed from a goal of having a sandwich and chips for 300 people to having a full meal for over 1,500, pre- and post-game.”
With much of the Washington community immobilized by damaged vehicles, impassable roadways and a law-enforced curfew, Brenneisen and company also began to solicit funds to provide transportation. Three charter buses providing free round-trip access to the game for Washington fans grew to four, five and eventually seven total buses.
“The media made a big deal about what we were doing, but we didn’t think it was a story,” said Leonard. “In the Midwest, in Illinois, in central Illinois, this is how we were brought up. When someone needs help, everyone does what they can to help.”
With a biting cold in the air on Saturday, November 23, the Washington High School football team and its fateful fanbase trekked 75 miles to the high school in Springfield located on Washington Street, whose Cyclone nickname is represented with a large tornado logo. Those odd coincidences aside, on one hand it was like any other game, yet on the other it was unlike any other game.
On one hand, the SHG team gathered for its traditional team meal the night before the game, while on the other, SHG also fed their opponent its pre-game meal, leaving the Washington team the ingredients for its traditional PBJ lunch prior to kickoff.
On one hand, SHG’s team attended mass together on the morning of the game, while on the
other, Washington’s players and fans boarded buses that their opponent had paid for without a second thought about forfeiting a homefield advantage.
On one hand, students ignored the weather and wrote messages of support on frigid bare skin, while on the other, fans from both schools signed a large banner containing a message of unity as they entered the stadium.
On one hand, SHG conducted its traditional 50/50 raffle during the game, while on the other, those in attendance that day came together with SHG to raise over $75,000 for the Washington community.
“We wanted our guests from Washington to be as comfortable as possible, for things to be as normal as they could be,” said Reavy. “This wasn’t pity or charity. It was doing what was right. They were so grateful and it was really hard knowing what they had to face when they got home. The game was their distraction.”
SHG jumped out to a 14-0 first quarter lead and 23-7 halftime advantage, before Washington cut the lead to 23-14 early in the second half. The Panthers appeared to be on the verge of making it a one-score game minutes later, but SHG’s defense responded and the Cyclones eventually pulled away for a 44-14 victory.
“This game felt different,” said Leonard. “It felt like high school sports should. No hostility or anger between the teams or fans. It was a game, and then it was over, and both sides were supporting each other.”
One question remained among Dondanville, Reavy and the other SHG organizers as the outcome of the game became clear, one they had worried about in the back of their minds throughout the week. If Washington lost the game, would its fans want to stay and eat after the game?
“For hours and hours and hours,” recalls Brenneisen. “They hugged and they ate and they hugged and they cried and then they hugged some more. The one thing we had failed to realize was that because of the inability to get around town, many of these folks were seeing each other for the first time since the tornado. They could finally see that their friends and neighbors were okay. It was a community gathering.”
On the field after the game, both teams gathered around Leonard as he led them in prayer. He closed by telling Washington’s players that SHG would “represent them well and carry the banner for them” in the following week’s state championship game.
SHG carried a piece of Washington both figuratively and literally at Northern Illinois University that next Saturday.
“The Monday after the Washington game, our quarterback (Gabe Green) found one of Washington’s footballs in our bag,” explained Leonard. “He loved the feel of it and asked if he could use it that week. I called Darrell to let him know we had accidentally ended up with one of their balls, that my QB liked it, and asked if it would be ok if we used it in the game. The next day, five or six more balls showed up from Washington in my office.”
The title game got off to a rocky start for the underdog Cyclones, as they fell behind 14-0 and 21-7 to undefeated, four-time defending state champion Montini. But with the Washington High School team football in tow, Green ran for his second and third TDs of the game in the third quarter, as SHG scored 17 points in the frame en route to a 38-28 state championship victory.
Later that afternoon at a gas station just off Route 39 in central Illinois, a woman from Wisconsin who had spent the day volunteering with clean-up in Washington approached a car full of SHG-clad fans on their way home from the championship game.
Fighting back tears, a choked up Leonard has to stop and collect himself before finishing the story.
“The woman from Wisconsin told them that when the (state championship) game ended, the people in Washington started to cheer and honk their car horns. That doesn’t happen very much for us.”
More than the money raised or the water or the food or the buses or even the state title, the life lesson has been the biggest takeaway from the 2013 season for Leonard.
“I’ve been around so long, almost 40 years, and people ask me about this generation of kids and how much they have changed and they want to know how do you coach them. I tell them that the kids are no different than yesterday, it’s the adults that are different. I am so proud of how our parents took charge and the adults showed the kids how we are supposed to act.”
Perhaps no one summed up the events of that week better than one of those adults, as Dondanville put pen to paper to record her feelings on the “emotional rollercoaster” that was the week of the Washington-SHG game:
“If you were there, you saw a public school principal present a Catholic school principal with a handmade quilt of thanks.
If you were there, you saw two groups of high school football players play their hearts out. Some of them in new equipment because a tornado had scattered theirs days before.
If you were there, you saw courage and commitment and sportsmanship and spirit.
If you were there, you saw the best of sports and the best of people on display in a high school stadium and a high school cafeteria.
We are grateful for all of you who were there.”
-Above, posing with the quilt given to SHG by Washington HS's administration, now on display in the lobby outside SHG's gym, are (L-R) Ken Leonard, Bob Brenneisen, Anne Dondanville & Michele Reavy
-Below left, a sketch of a photo that appeared in the Springfield State Journal-Register of Michele Reavy hugging Darrell Crouch after the SHG-Washington game.
-Below right, a note of thanks from Washington HS Superintendent/Principal Dr. Jim Dunnan that is framed on the wall outside the SHG gym.