WASHINGTON, Ill. -- Last Saturday night, Washington High School's football team won a big game in the Illinois state playoffs.
By Sunday at noon, no one much cared.
We knew the storm was coming and we knew it would be bad. We even knew when it would happen. We just didn't know where.
My cell phone had lit up with a message.
I remember seeing only three words.
"Take cover immediately."
It had been unseasonably warm in Central Illinois, 70 degrees, and there was cold air on the way. The weather scientists knew this was trouble. For three days, they had told us to expect severe weather.
The tornado arrived at 11 o'clock Sunday morning.
Here's what people said they heard: the devil himself, roaring.
Here's what people said they saw: A black cloud, wide, a half-mile wide, reaching to the ground, light on either side of it, and the cloud, no longer a cloud but a beast of darkness, moving along the ground at 65 miles per hour, and as it moved it hurled the Earth's possessions out of its way.
My wife and I were lucky. We saw the darkness at a distance. We heard rolling thunder that was not thunder at all. It was the beginnings of an EF4 tornado, the designation affirming that winds reached 190 miles per hour. The most powerful November tornado ever recorded in Illinois, it stayed on the ground 45 minutes and left a track 46 miles long.
It struck a little jewel of a town -- Washington, Ill., 15,000 people -- a Norman Rockwell place, gazebo on the square, stately Victorians, farmland reaching to the horizon. It left a jumble of splintered 2x4s and twisted metal. Maybe 500 homes were destroyed, another 500 damaged; dozens of people went to hospitals, one died.
There had been a sign at the edge of town, "Welcome to Washington."
Someone found the sign 60 miles away.
This Saturday afternoon, Washington's high school football team plays a semifinal in the Class 5A playoffs. If football didn't mean much last Sunday morning, and if it's still way down the list of real-world things that matter, football matters now in the way that sports matters most -- as respite, refuge and symbol of gumption in the face of calamity. We've seen "Boston Strong." Now there is "Washington Strong." Three hours north in Chicago, Bears coach Marc Trestman did a press conference wearing a Washington Panthers T-shirt.
The Panthers' quarterback, Colton Marshall, was at work Sunday morning, at Tractor Supply, across town from the EF4's primary path.
"I heard the sirens," he said, "and then I saw tractor-trailers upside-down."
He caught a ride toward home. Slowed by debris and finally stopped by fallen trees, he left his ride and ran the rest of the way.
His house was gone. His father was digging debris away from a stairwell. His mother and sister were in the basement, behind a washer and dryer.
First thing he looked for?
Saturday night's game had been a mud bowl. Players took their gear home to mom.
"Found it," he said.
"In the washer."
Washington is 12-0 for the first time in the school's history. It's in the playoff semifinals for the first time since 1985 when it won its only state championship (two years after losing in the final). An outstanding player on those '80s teams, Scott Underwood, whose son Colton became a star there as well, says football is "where everybody goes on Friday nights in Washington." The town's "12th Man Club" raises money for the school's sports teams, mostly for football. Big games may draw 5,000 fans, some watching from the balcony of the Panther Plex, a new building with offices, team meeting rooms and a suite for Club members.
The team's star is its running back, Casey Danley, a red-headed wraith with 1,977 rushing yards and 164 points this season.
Sunday morning, Danley was in church.
He felt the EF4. The building trembled.
"An awesome shaking," he said.
Tuesday, he was glad to be in football gear again. With no electricity or water in Washington, the team practiced at Illinois State University, 40 miles from home. It was odd, this practice. Danley's house was one of those spared by nature's caprice, just two blocks from those now gone. Half the town was in pieces. Yet there he was, on a football field when there were kids with no place to go. A senior lineman, Brogan Brownfield, said, "We're all kinda numb still and we've got the damage in the back of our minds. But right now, football's one of the only normal things left for us and we'll absolutely be ready Saturday. We have to be. Sacred Heart is a really good team. Tough. Big guys."
For two hours, Washington ran through its fundamentals. The practice was efficient. No doubt it was productive in getting legs in motion. But as practices before big games go -- raucous chatter, trash-talk, laughter -- this one was different. It was silent.
The head coach, Darrell Crouch, a mountain of a man with a gray beard and a teacher's soft voice, had taken his players into Washington's leveled neighborhoods on Monday. In surgical masks, wearing gloves, the players walked through the rubble in search of . . . whatever they might find.
"One lady asked us to find her purse," Crouch said. "And she wanted us to find her keys. I thought, 'No way in hell we're finding any keys.' But we did, we did find 'em."
At practice's end Tuesday, Crouch's players took a knee at the 50-yard line and then came a question that, most likely, had never before been asked of a football team.
"How many of you are homeless?" an assistant coach said.
Maybe a dozen young men raised a hand.
"Be sure to let your parents know about the charter buses."
Springfield's Sacred Heart-Griffin High, the Panthers' semifinal opponent, was sending six charter buses to Washington, 65 miles north. The team's boosters will provide meals for parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts, friends and students.
"There'll be six buses with 280 seats available," the coach said. "We need to make up a list of people who need rides. We'll start with the guys who lost everything."
The game begins at 1 o'clock Saturday afternoon at Sacred Heart-Griffin.
The Springfield team is undefeated in 12 games, averaging 55.1 points, and doing it so easily the local paper carried these sentences about its quarterfinal victory: "Meanwhile, the Cyclones' offense was up to its usual form. After giving up the ball on downs on its first series after the opening kickoff, the Cyclones scored on their next six possessions."
* * *
They ended in tears because that's what high school kids do when they've played together forever and they lose the last game their senior year, lose it two victories away from a state championship, lose it at the end of a week they'll never be able to forget.
It was Sacred Heart-Griffin 44, Washington 14.
In the game's last minutes, Washington's star running back, Casey Danley, sat wounded on the bench, a damaged foot, his bent body hidden under three thermal jackets against the day's freezing cold. Eye-black ran down the cheeks of Washington's all-state linebacker, Chris Friend.
Washington's coach, Darrell Crouch, gathered his team's seniors on the field after the loss to an undefeated team that has won three of the last seven state championships. He wanted a picture of the players who had built his program. They were the first in school history to get to 12-0, the first in a generation to reach the state semifinals.
He said nothing about the EF4.
But it was there when he said the last game didn't really matter. "They've done," he said, "so much more."