Joplin Athletics and the Aftermath of the Joplin Tornado

There are certain, often mundane, tasks that come with the territory of being a high school athletic director. Meeting with unhappy parents. Balancing the budget. Monitoring the eligibility of student-athletes. These are a few that come to mind.

Virtually starting over with your school’s athletic program, after the deadliest tornado in recent U.S. history nearly wiped it out, is not one of them.

That’s the daunting task ahead for Joplin High School athletic director Jeff Starkweather, after an EF-5 tornado ripped through the southwest Missouri town of 50,000 on May 22 and left a path of destruction that claimed more than 130 lives and left large chunks of the town beyond recognition.

Scott Puryear

Taking a direct hit was Joplin High School, its buildings and adjacent sports fields for the most part destroyed, with very little to salvage. The gymnasium, home to the Eagles’ basketball and volleyball teams? Destroyed. Same for the weight room and training area for all of the JHS teams. The baseball, softball and soccer fields, and football practice fields? Scoreboards and fences blown away, dugouts ripped out of the ground…all damaged beyond repair.

As for all of the athletic equipment stored in the school…well, no one can be sure yet. As of this writing, Starkweather and other JHS personnel were not yet allowed back into the rubble to survey what might be saved for the rapidly approaching 2011-12 season, a warning issued from emergency workers who’d yet to deem the crumbled building and its remaining foundation safe for entry.

All of this mayhem dawned on Starkweather a few days after the tornado, with its initial focus naturally on making sure his coaching staff and athletes were safe and accounted for…which amazingly, all were. Many lost homes or had them damaged, but somehow, no lives were taken in the JHS athletic family.

Starkweather himself felt blessed that—though a brother had his home and business “trashed”—he and his family were spared the devastation. Living on the north side of town, they had just returned from the JHS graduation held at Missouri Southern State University a few minutes before the storm sirens sounded. Like many away from its path, they didn’t know the extent of the tornado and the damage it had done until the next few hours later.

“You almost feel guilty,” Starkweather recalls now, “because we didn’t lose power, didn’t lose electricity…didn’t lose anything.”

But as word circulated of the storm’s destruction, Starkweather’s cell phone began to light up with a stream of text messages. Many came from his friends and co-workers in town, as Starkweather—a lifelong Joplinite—is deeply rooted in the community.

But, to his amazement, a flood of texts poured in from his AD peers and coaching buddies from throughout the Ozarks, specifically from surrounding schools and the more widespread Ozark Conference, of which the Eagles are members along with the Springfield schools, as well as Waynesville, Camdenton, Lebanon, Rolla, and West Plains.

The underlying theme of every message sent to the sixth-year Joplin AD and former Eagles basketball coach seemed to be, “we are here for you…what can we do to help?” For Starkweather, that was nearly as overwhelming as the storm itself.

“That just tells you that in athletics, it is like a family,” he said. “Yes, we want to beat each other, and yes we’re competitive when we’re playing, but it’s also great to see that if there’s a need, people care because we all really do like one another. The human spirit clearly is alive and well in the way everyone has stepped up and showed such compassion.”

That became apparent on much more than just a local basis, as everyone from the state’s two starting NFL quarterbacks—Matt Cassel of the Chiefs and Sam Bradford of the Rams—to new Mizzou coach Frank Haith and other sports dignitaries made their way to Joplin to do what they could to help.

Several organizations offered financial donations, including the Springfield Cardinals and the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association, which presented Starkweather and Joplin principal Kerry Sachetta with a check for $2,500 raised through silent auction and gate receipts at their MBCA Challenge over Memorial Day Weekend at the O’Reilly Family Event Center, after former basketball coach and Springfield R-12 athletic director Mark Fisher, MBCA Executive Director David Fox and others scrambled to come up with fundraising items all week to help their struggling neighbors.

“Their support has been unbelievable,” said Starkweather. “He (Fox) said ‘we just want you to know this is just the beginning, we want to continue to help.’ It’s just a sense of pride from a great group of guys and gals (coaches) pulling together and wanting to help.”

The storm had barely left town before Starkweather received messages from athletic directors John Roderique of Webb City and Jessie Wall of Carl Junction, as well as word from officials at Missouri Southern, all willing to do whatever they could to assist in terms of offering their fields and gyms for temporary homes. And all, no doubt, will be pivotal in that regard over the next few months as Starkweather and the JHS administration attempt to put together a rebuilding plan for the school that includes athletic facilities.

For now, it appears JHS will be reconstructed on its current site off 20th Street, where it was once landlocked by surrounding neighborhoods, and might be presented with more opportunities for campus expansion should others choose to sell their property and rebuild elsewhere. That said, it will be interesting to see how the tragedy affects Joplin’s enrollment in the near future, with some of the displaced families possibly choosing to move elsewhere with the upcoming school year fast approaching and no permanent place to stay—and unfortunately, in some cases, with no jobs to stay around for after several places of employment in town were destroyed.

But that’s all trivial speculation for well down the road. A more pressing nature for Starkweather is trying to get Joplin and its student-athletes back to some sense of normalcy, and to put a plan in place for the Eagles to be ready to practice and compete once the fall sports seasons arrive in just a couple of months.

“They’ve all been through a very traumatic experience,” he added. “The quicker we can get back to normal summer activities, the better off kids are going to be.”

Joplin’s football program lost a practice field, but was largely spared since the Eagles play their home games across town at Junge Stadium, which was not damaged. The football team had practiced a couple of days a week at Junge in the past and stored much of its equipment there, making for a somewhat smoother transition in at least one sport for the Eagles.

Otherwise, fans throughout the Ozarks can expect to visit some neutral venues for their contests with the Eagles when their local teams play at Joplin this coming year. Expect, perhaps, some basketball and volleyball games at Missouri Southern and baseball and softball at other surrounding parks…just about everything seemingly a little off-kilter as a wounded town attempts to move forward from an unfathomable disaster. Thankfully, most of the middle school facilities were spared damage, so the feeder system for JHS Athletics will go on without a major disruption.

Coming up with new equipment and uniforms for the teams who had them stored at JHS will be a monumental task in itself. Starkweather says he will seek donations from companies and organizations to help that cause, as Joplin doesn’t have time to wait for insurance payments, surveys and inventories of the damaged goods before the next school year and a full slate of sports seasons arrive in August. (For those wanting to assist in this area, Starkweather can be reached at (417) 625-5242, or by email at jstarkweather@joplin.k12.mo.us).

“People are clearly ready to help and wanting to help…but right now, it’s just a matter of really identifying those needs,” he said, adding that JHS is operating under the expectation that it will need to replace virtually everything for several of its sports teams. “But we’ve got to get moving.”

You see it all the time around our great country—communities survive a disaster together, only to unite and become stronger as a result. After all, there exists few greater avenues for pulling folks together with pride and a sense of community than, say, a Friday night high school football game against a rival.

And Starkweather predicts the Eagles will follow suit and fly with their heads held high this coming school year as they do their part to help a city heal, move forward and persevere.

“I believe that our kids will be resilient enough to bounce back, to band together and say, ‘if we can do this, we can do anything,’” he says. 

Originally published in the May-June 2011 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.

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