Greensburg athletes determined to maintain spirit


GREENSBURG, Kan. -- The state troopers stand on the edge of town, smack-dab in the middle of Highway 54, and say Marshall Ballard can't come in. They don't know that the people of Greensburg refer to him as "Coach." Or that at 3 a.m. on Saturday, when the sky was black and the middle of nowhere was wiped off the map, Ballard paced the floor of a Red Cross shelter, hoping that please, God, one of the kids he knew would stumble through those doors.

To get into Greensburg now, you need one of two things -- a TV truck with a giant satellite dish, or a town address, which gets scribbled on your windshield, a reminder of something that isn't there anymore.

Ballard doesn't have either on Tuesday, so he turns around his blue Chevy Silverado, the one that took him home from work on Friday afternoon, when the high school was still there, and waits.

"It doesn't even look like our town," Ballard says after a friend eventually gets him past the checkpoint. "Everything is gone."

The town was like thousands of others in middle America -- small, proud, familiar. On Friday nights, teenagers parked their pickups at an abandoned old Texaco station on Highway 54, partly because there was nowhere else to go, partly just to sit in the truck beds and laugh and talk about nothing in particular.

On Monday mornings, they'd be back at the center of the community, the high school. Ballard pulls over to the side of Greensburg High School, next to the library. It has been almost a week since an F5 tornado ripped through town, and each day's randomness brings something more stunning.

On Tuesday afternoon, he stares at some giant bookshelves completely intact with the books perfectly placed. A few feet away sit the jagged remains of the football grandstand, which were swept two blocks down the street, bleachers and all, and poke their way through the red brick and cinder block. None of it makes sense, but Ballard and some parents and athletes gather back at the high school, searching the rubble for trophies and plaques and spirit sticks, because when the town gets rebuilt, this is where it will start.

The constant tornado watches and thunderstorm warnings can lull a Midwesterner into a false sense of security, but in southern Kansas, they knew this storm was different.

Ballard had gotten a call from his dad, who was about 15 miles from Greensburg but could see the giant twister in between flashes of lightning.

"Marshall," Ballard's dad said, "stay in the basement. Keep your kids in the basement. It's the biggest thing I've ever seen."

Cassie Blackburn was home Friday night, poking through the dirt of her mom's flower bed. They were going to plant on Saturday. It seems silly and pointless now. Because they live in tornado alley, and the warning sirens are as familiar as the scream of a police car in a large city, the Blackburns developed a drill in which they pack a duffel bag of valuables before they head to the basement.

Cassie loaded the bag with one of her favorite shirts, some toiletries and a senior picture of her boyfriend, Alex Reinecke, a football player who's one of the town's best golfers. Then she huddled with her family in a bathroom in the basement, her parents on the floor and Cassie seated on the toilet, clutching her cat, Midnight.

Midnight started digging her nails into Cassie's arms. And then they all felt their ears pop. The water was sucked out of the toilet, a roar filled their ears. Cassie bent over, and felt rain on her back. The walls were gone, and her mom said there was no house above them.

Cassie refused to look up. She felt guilty when she finally crawled out and was carrying her bag.

"Nobody else had anything," she says.

Cassie will be a senior in August, and she hasn't stepped back into the school auditorium and gym where she used to play volleyball and basketball. Greensburg's students know there will be a graduation, but they don't know when and where. They know that school is canceled for the year, and they're not sure where the games will be held in the fall.

"We're strong, you know?" Blackburn says. "I really hope everybody wants to come back and rebuild in Greensburg. I'd like to see us all stay instead of scattering. We had a strong community. We still have a strong community."

It sounds cheesy, that sports could bring a town together, but that's the way it has been in Greensburg, a town of 1,500 roughly 40 miles north of the Oklahoma panhandle.

Everybody has a tattered old Greensburg Rangers T-shirt, from the 8-man football team or the girls' volleyball squad that nearly went undefeated. Every athlete is a familiar face. You don't do specialty sports in Greensburg. You can't because there aren't enough bodies. The tight end on the football team is also the defensive end, and he plays basketball in the winter and throws the shot put and the javelin in the spring.

Besides being the girls' basketball coach, Ballard is also the English teacher, the journalism advisor and the man who posts the future of the town on the school Web site. He lives in Haviland, a straight 10-mile shot down Highway 54, and he still has electricity and Internet access.

On Monday, in red letters, he posted a note titled: "IMPORTANT GHS INFORMATION." It sounded almost like a message that would crackle over the airwaves in the apocalyptic movie "The Day After." But with cars wrapped around trees and 100-year-old buildings reduced to piles of brick, is it really that much of a stretch?

"The administration of GHS would like to send the message of hope and perseverance," the note said. "In the spirit of not dropping our heads and letting this tragedy get us down, GHS would like to encourage the Ranger student athletes to continue to compete in their respective sports."

There are 10 people dead from the tornado now, the National Guard has taken over the football field, but playing on seemed like a no-brainer to the people of Greensburg.

"We can't roll over and pretend we're dead," says Ron Roe, Greensburg's golf coach. "We can't change what's happened, but what we can say is that we haven't rolled over and quit existing."

For a teenage boy in small-town Kansas, a pickup truck can be as important as a prom date or a game-winning tackle. Everybody wants one, and when you've got one, you show it off. Brenden Jantz is a walking John Mellencamp song, a tall, lean quarterback with a southern twang and Wrangler jeans. Jantz loves his mom, his golf clubs and his 1998 Z71 half-ton, which he carefully parked under a bank awning on Friday night when he got word that hail was on its way.

The dashboard of the truck is splattered with mud, the windows are cracked and the roof of the cab is caved in. Jantz steps in the driver's seat, turns the key and revs the engine.

"It's a Chevy," he says.

He stares at the passenger seat, where his golf shoes sit.

By all accounts, the afternoon hours of May 4 were normal and even somewhat beautiful. The sun poked through, the temperature soared into the 80s, and the Greensburg golf team was on its way to another successful day in Coldwater, which lies 25 miles south on Highway 183.

By about the 12th hole, Roe and another golf coach peered at a massive cloud to the south and decided to cut it short. They loaded into a Suburban, and headed back to Greensburg High School. As they pulled into the gravel parking lot, Roe said, "Man, it looks like we're going to get a good storm."

That's the thing, the randomness. A giant cloud to the south, but the sun was still shining.

Jantz didn't think much of it. Like most Friday nights, he had plans. He was going to see his girlfriend. He wanted to tool around in his truck. But when the clouds started swirling and the sirens went off, he decided to take refuge at a buddy's house.

What happened after that is kind of fuzzy. He crawled out of the basement, then ran across town, in the dark and the rain. He had to find his mother. But with the street signs and the buildings gone, Jantz didn't know where he was. He yelled his mom's name for about five blocks, then stuttered as he approached his old wooden two-story home, partially damaged and cluttered with hunks of plaster wall and fiberglass. For some reason, his voice was gone. He doesn't remember any of this. A friend told him about it.

"To get lost in your own town, on streets you'd been on for years …" Jantz says. "We just kept looking at each other, [saying] 'Is this the street?'"

Most of the street signs are gone now, replaced by spray paint on the road that says "Main" and "Illinois." This is where the satellite trucks are parked, neatly down a row that says "CNN" and "NBC."

Jantz is on the south side of Main Street late Tuesday afternoon, helping Randy Fulton, the high school principal, dig out of his subdivision. The town has been flooded with support over the past week. Titleist is donating golf clubs so that the team can compete in the postseason. A sporting goods store in Manhattan, Kan., is giving the track team new uniforms so it can go to the regional meet, which was supposed to be in Greensburg next week.

Jantz wonders what will happen after his final high school season ends.

"This is where I wanted to raise my kids," Jantz says. "It's a pretty good town. You know everybody. I'd like to see it rebuilt."

They are gathered near the front of the school on Tuesday afternoon, roughly 15 teenagers, and Kelsey Heft laughs at the oddity of it. She was supposed to sign a letter of intent this week to play college basketball at Friends University in Wichita, do the obligatory ceremony in the library, but then the tornado came and the cell phone signals flickered and she wondered whether her friends were even alive.

On Tuesday about 1 o'clock, they pulled a wooden table out of the rubble and set down a couple of chairs. With a tattered Greensburg Rangers banner in the backdrop, Heft signed her scholarship papers in front of a handful of friends.

"Here in Greensburg," she says later, "sports mean a lot to people. This is the center of our town. They keep it going and alive."

When the girls' basketball team made state last year, the town followed in a line of cars to Hays that resembled a scene out of "Hoosiers." They packed the gym that is now reduced to wires and wood and fallen banners, they cried with the girls when they lost.

Down Main Street, they hung blue and red flags every day the athletic teams played. Now, at about noon on Tuesday, some men in uniforms sifting through what was once the post office find an American flag and hang it on a bent pole. The crowd on Main Street stops to watch. The cameras rush in for a photo op.

Ninety-five percent of the town is gone, swept away by a tornado that stretched 1.7 miles. Heft is among the few lucky ones. Her house, which sits on the eastern edge of town, is mostly intact.

"I have survivor's guilt," she says.

The clock on the wall of the high school auditorium reads 9:45 p.m., the moment the 205 mph winds slammed into town. Ballard crawls through the glass, the nails and the water and reaches the auditorium. Three-fourths of the roof is gone, and the hardwood floor is covered with wires, wood and insulation. Gnats fill the air, and a bird hoots overhead. Ballard thinks it's a dove.

"This is the hardest part, I think," he says. "We've had some great games in here over the years. Great successes. This is only my third year here, but this is the hardest part."

There are some who wonder why they even bother, why they jump from one nail-ridden hunk of wood to another, why they poke their arms through shards of glass for a few meaningless trophies.

The answer comes when they reach the front case. The glass is broken, the contents are buried under two feet of muck and rubble. One plaque is still standing. It's of Coach Brandon Evans.

He was the town's football coach, a young man who loved to laugh and hated to be photographed. Sometime before the 2004 season was about to start, Evans' back started to hurt. He thought it was nothing. It turned out to cancer, what Ballard calls "the bad stuff," lymphoma. A tumor wrapped around Evans' spine. Within months, he was gone.

They made up T-shirts for him, with a football on the front and one of his favorite lines from "Top Gun" on the back. "Negative, Ghost Rider," it says. On Tuesday, a handful of the T-shirts, which are more than two years old, were still being worn around town.

And then there is this plaque, the only thing standing, a random, unexplainable hunk of wood in the middle of an unspeakable mess.

"I don't know how," Ballard says. "It's just one of those things that … It's significant."

They pluck at least 10 trophies out of the rubble and carefully pack them into boxes. Then Ballard rolls slowly through town in his pickup, at 10 mph, and stops to talk at just about every block. A sign on one demolished home says, "Future home of Jerry and Kristi." A white sheet draped over a house near the school says, "We Will Overcome … Go Rangers."

"How you doin'?" Ballard says at just about every stop.

"Could be better," says a guy who's pulling a beer out of a turned-over refrigerator.

The song, "Life Is a Highway" plays in Ballard's truck as he passes through Main Street. At first he can't find it. He waves at nearly everyone he passes, helps the principal move some rubble, then steers his truck toward downtown, where both the soda fountain and the town's identity are gone.

He's asked why he does it, why he comes back every day to pull out muddy relics of their athletic past and get splinters of fiberglass in his fingers. He lives in Haviland, graduated from there, but Greensburg is as close to a second home as he'll get.

"It's not only what these kids have won," he says. "It's what their parents and their grandparents have won.

"It's their heritage, a history of the school. It's some sense of normalcy. These will be among the first things they put up when they get a new school. It's just the spirit of the school."

Elizabeth Merrill is a writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.