It was the second game of the season. The Kokomo Wildcats were scheduled to play the Hamilton Heights Huskies at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday night.
“Big game at the big place,” says Brett Colby, head coach of the Kokomo High School football team. “It was a crazy thing. They asked us to do it and, ‘Yeah, we’ll take advantage of that. That’ll be a great opportunity for our kids.’”
Then, Mother Nature struck.
“We were at practice on Wednesday night watching film and all of the sudden our coach says, ‘Everybody to the tunnels, something is coming,’” says Kokomo quarterback Kyle Wade. “And everybody thought it was just a warning. But when it was done, everybody was like, ‘My work got hit. My house is gone.’ A couple kids on our team have nothing left.”
While the team took cover, a massive tornado ripped through their town. Amazingly, no one was killed and the injuries were relatively minor. The damage however, was not.
Mitch Street, head coach of Hamilton Heights, knew the situation was bad.
“We have a coach that lives in Kokomo and he kind of caught wind of what was going on (there) and the devastation and just the magnitude of what was happening. So, Coach Colby and I almost simultaneously reached out to each other.”
Just as Street was reaching for his phone, it rang.
“It was Wednesday night, I called Mitch on the way home,” says Colby. “I said, ‘Mitch, we are a mess right now. We are not in a good place.’ I said, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I just want to let you know it’s not a good thing up here in Kokomo.”
The storm moved out. The sun came up. And the support started rolling in.
“Pat McAfee immediately on Twitter, and the Colts came up and wanted to help out and they’re putting a lot of their time in personally for our community and our kids and families. And it’s just heartwarming,” says Jason Snyder, athletic director for Kokomo High School.
By Thursday, it was clear. A football game just wasn’t possible – and wasn’t a priority.
With no game on the schedule, the Huskies had Friday night free. And they knew exactly what they wanted to do with their time.
“We had kids Thursday, not even knowing the situation, coming to me and asking, ‘What can we do?’” says Street.
“We weren’t even sure what was going on in our community and where everybody was at because there’s so much power loss and they were contacting us, ‘If we’re not able to play, we still want to come up and be a part of this and help out,’” Snyder says.
It wasn’t on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the Kokomo Wildkats and the Hamilton Heights Huskies kept their matchup on Friday night. They met on the streets of Kokomo. Together, they went into a neighborhood destroyed by the tornado and worked side by side to clean it up.
“The sad part is, we have to be here,” says Street. “But the awesome part is that we’re all doing it together and the streets are filled with blue and red and orange and it’s all working together.”
It wasn’t just the players.
Rick Brown’s officiating crew was scheduled to work the Kokomo – Hamilton Heights game on Friday night.
“One of the guys on my crew shared a Facebook post, I think it was from Kokomo, that said that Hamilton Heights was coming to help,” he says. “Then all that night, I laid awake in bed and I kept feeling this gnawing feeling that we really need to be there too. The next morning I got up and sent my crew an email and I said, ‘Anybody can come. I think we need to come and show support and clean up as well.’”
There were parents, students, cheerleaders, and team managers. The principal of Hamilton Heights High School, Jared Mason, showed up with his chainsaw and started cutting up tree branches so they could be hauled away.
It was a coming together of two teams and two communities.
“That makes me cry. It really does. That’s great,” said Jerry Cooper, a homeowner in the Cedar Crest neighborhood, as he shed a few tears looking on.
“It’s neighbor helping neighbor,” says Captain Kevin Summers of the Kokomo Police Department. “Our young kids have a tendency to be stereotyped that they’re just about themselves. This proves that they’re about others.”
In response, the Colts gathered 440 tickets so players, coaches, and family members from both teams could come see the Colts play the Philadelphia Eagles the next night.
“It just furthers that mission of reaching out, especially during Play Football Month where we’re celebrating football,” says Colts Youth Football coordinator Phil Andrews. “This is a different side of football that you don’t see all the time. Not everything football related happens on the football field.”
It wasn’t Friday night. And they weren’t wearing helmets. But on Saturday night, the Kokomo Wildcats and the Hamilton Heights Huskies took the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. They were greeted by Colts players and honored with a standing ovation during a video presentation that followed the National Anthem.
The ultimate display of sportsmanship, coming together for a community in crisis taught these players a new definition of team.
A teammate is someone who shows up for you, works with you, and supports you – no matter what color jersey they wear.
Tickets for Pat McAfee’s Cracking Up for Kokomo comedy show go on sale Monday at noon. Proceeds benefit the United Way of Howard County. For tickets go to: http://www.oldnationalcentre.com/EventDetail?tmeventid=05005119D2F7725C&offerid=0