Commentary

Shelter from the storm

Updated: May 10, 2011, 5:40 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Dave Smith and Rick PattersonRob TibbsDave Smith, left, a Hueytown High baseball player, keeps the team's spirit high by celebrating a home run with coach Rick Patterson.

Baseball is all about getting home. But what happens when you get there and it's gone?

It happened to Hueytown (Ala.) High School baseball head coach Rick Patterson on Wednesday. He walked to his house only to find a tornado had taken it.

Pitchers love making saves. But what happens when the save you have to make is your sister's life?

It happened to 15-year-old Hueytown JV pitcher Brandon Miller that same day. He was hiding under a mattress in the hallway of his house, wearing his baseball helmet, when a twister took the roof off. Then it started to take his 14-year-old sister, Sara. He reached up and grabbed her in the final fraction of the moment.

[+] EnlargePatterson
Rick Patterson These are the remains of coach Rick Patterson's home in Pleasant Grove, Ala.

High school sports is about playing for love of school. But what happens if your school closed for a week because nobody can drive the roads to get to it?

You keep playing is what happens.

In the eye of all that, Hueytown carried on in the Alabama 5A state playoffs Monday, splitting its first two games with Briarwood Christian in the best-of-three second round. Afterward, each Briarwood player donated $20 to Patterson to help out.

And you think your team has distractions?

"Boys, if you wanna help me, keep winning," Patterson told his players before the games. "Because as long as we keep winning, I don't have to think about the rest of my life."

The rest of his life is scattered over blocks and blocks of Pleasant Grove, Ala., where he and his wife, Debra, were supposed to be living. But two months ago, Debra burnt some beans, which set their entire kitchen on fire, which landed them in the Fairfield Inn, which saved their lives.

Just after the tornadoes that killed 236 in Alabama hit on April 27, Patterson called his daughter, a student at the University of Alabama. The tornado missed her by two blocks. Called his other daughter. She was fine, but her house was cleaved in half. Then he drove to his own house and got stopped by fallen trees two miles from it. He was walking the rest of the way when he came upon a neighbor boy.

"Jonathan, how's your house?" the coach said.

"It's gone," the boy said.

"Gone?" said Patterson.

"So's yours," said the boy.

"My house is gone?"

"There ain't nothin' there."

Where would Patterson and his wife have hidden if they'd been in it?

"Under the stairwell," he says. "And that stairwell collapsed. Concrete blocks and bricks are all on top of it. If we'd have been there, we wouldn't be here today."

House flattened. Car crushed. Lexi, his golden retriever, gone.

Equally flattened, Patterson was trudging the two miles back to his truck when he ran smack into the father of a woman from the neighborhood.

"Have you seen my daughter?" the man asked, panicked. "I'm looking for my daughter."

Patterson had seen his daughter, under a sheet, laying on his sidewalk, dead.

The coach took a gulp and the man's shoulders at the same time.

A lot of people ask me, 'Y'all still gonna play?' And when I say yeah, they always say, 'Good. That'll give me two hours where I can forget about all this.'

-- Coach Rick Patterson

"I hate to be the one who breaks this to you," he said. "But your daughter didn't make it."

The man collapsed in Patterson's arms right then and there.

Death could've come for Miller, too, were it not for that mattress.

He was on the couch when his mom came running inside, screaming for everybody to get in the hallway -- fast! -- and lay down. Miller and his dad dragged the boy's mattress off his bed and put it over them.

"We only had about 10 seconds before it hit," Miller remembers. "That tornado sounded like a big ol' freight train coming through. I watched the roof fly right off my house, right above me. And then my sister started to fly off, too. I grabbed her around the middle of her body and just hung on."

When they crawled out from under the mattress, they saw dozens of large, jagged shards of wood and glass sticking into it. "Those things woulda got us for sure," he says.

And in the midst of all this glass-break and heartache and dust-cake, Hueytown must dig in for the playoffs.

"Lately, Coach hasn't been at all like he usually is," says Hueytown starting catcher David Veasey. "He used to be all intense. Kinda hard to play for. But now, he just seems more laid back. I guess maybe he figures there's more to life than baseball."

Says Patterson, "A lot of people ask me, 'Y'all still gonna play?' And when I say yeah, they always say, 'Good. That'll give me two hours where I can forget about all this."

Something he'll remember, though: One day, he was combing through the backyard rubble when he thought he heard a cry. He hunted it. There, trapped under a pile of rubble, was his Lexi, trembling, but fine.

Some wins come with no game at all.

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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive. Feel like taking a detour from sane sports? Try Rick's new book, "Sports from Hell."

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Columnist, ESPN.com