Commentary

Jamie McMurray relives Joplin fury

Updated: June 3, 2011, 5:21 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

JOPLIN, Mo. -- Jamie McMurray sits in the passenger seat of a charcoal gray Chevrolet Tahoe, stoic, as longtime family friend Judd McPherson steers him methodically through what used to be the Village of Duquesne subdivision. McMurray's eyes are glossed with tears and puffy red, an indication of the emotional toll this day is taking.

At this moment, the emotion does not stem from the devastation surrounding him, rather the stories of lives lost and dreams destroyed, and the tangible appreciation for life's fragility. McMurray hasn't been to Joplin in years, not since his mother, Sue, moved to North Carolina to be closer to her son. But a man's hometown is forever his hometown, and carves day by day a permanent, proud place in his soul that he'll staunchly defend.

This is his town. And these are his people. And his people desperately need hope. That is why he has come -- to embrace them amid the futility.

"Anybody who knows me knows how weird I am about shaking hands, and germs," McMurray says from the front seat. "But here I want that. I want to shake their hands. I want to hug them. They need it so badly."

Jamie McMurray
Marty Smith/ESPNJamie McMurray on the destruction in his former hometown of Joplin: "It's not even the destruction that makes you emotional. It's the stories of the parents that lost their kids, or husbands or animals. It's just so hard to explain ..."

Throughout the morning, McMurray toured the mangled lobby of St. John's Hospital, which city officials say must be leveled and rebuilt. The tornado moved the hospital 4 inches off its foundation, and sheared two full stories on the west side down to the pillars. St. Mary's Catholic Church, resting high atop a hillside, is crushed, all but the massive cross out front that stands tall as a resolute symbol of the town's resilience.

In discussing it, McPherson quotes a line his preacher offered the previous Sunday. He had been asked countless times from the congregation how God could let this disaster happen.

"He said, 'If you need reassurance that there is a God, realize that only 140 people are dead, instead of only 140 people left alive,'" McPherson says.

"That is excellent perspective," McMurray responds.

Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, seated behind McPherson in the Tahoe, offers further perspective to McMurray:

"It's amazing how fate works out," he says. "Because of your success, your family followed you. Otherwise..."

He stops there.

McMurray met with volunteers at the main Convoy of Hope rallying point, which to date has distributed more than 500,000 pounds of supplies to Joplin tornado victims.

As Chip Ganassi stands at the Convoy of Hope supply distribution line, describing the chaos as "a cross between a bomb, a movie set and another planet," a lady pulls up in a Ford Explorer. She rolls the window down to apologize for the clutter inside her car, and notes that it may be difficult to find space for the water and Powerade she needs.

Everything the twister left her is stuffed inside the vehicle.

Several feet away, McMurray and Morris meet Crystal Whitley, a young mother whose body is badly bruised, forehead to toenail. Her face and feet are cut badly. But, she says softly, these bruises will heal. She will never get over losing two of her three children that day.

The acute sense of loss for McMurray worsens from here. He slips away and into a Porta-Jon to weep in privacy.

The entire face of his high school is blown out. A church steeple, blown in from down the street, rests in the covered walkway to the front door. In the corner of the schoolyard is a brick sign that once welcomed visitors to Joplin High School. The word Joplin is now gone, the J, L, I and N ripped away in the storm. It now reads "Hope High School," as someone took a roll of Duct tape and added the H and the E.

Duquesne is McMurray's old neighborhood, but in the splintered aftermath of the worst disaster the town has ever seen, he struggles mightily to recognize much.

Directly behind him, in the back seat of the SUV, sits his father, Jim. And behind Jim, in the very back, is Sue. The family banters openly back and forth about what used to be where in this endless pile of rubble that registers 1 mile wide and 14 miles long; 134 people lost their lives in the tornado's fury.

That pile over to the right, littered with the remnants of blue Bud Light boxes and the glint of snack cake wrappers, was the Snak Atak convenience store. And that one, just up the road a bit, was the Dairy Jane burger stand that Jim says had just four seats and sold only burgers and Cokes. Jim speaks of it fondly, but stops midsentence. It is a memory now.

Adjacent to this position is what's left of Frank's Lounge, a bar owned by one of McPherson's family friends. There is very little to find in the rubble. But, McPherson says, days before they found a Jamie McMurray die-cast race car.

[+] EnlargeChurch
Marty Smith/ESPN There's nothing left of St. Mary's Catholic Church -- except the cross that stands tall on the hillside.

As the SUV moves east through town, it passes a two-story house on the left. The roof is destroyed, but the home stands. Sue covers her mouth with her hands and says to Jamie and Jim that her "dream home is still standing." On the right, tacked to a pole, is a flier imploring for help locating a missing dog, alongside a photograph of the animal.

There are families speckled throughout the landscape, sifting through what's left of their homes in hopes of finding even the smallest spared morsels of memories.

Makeshift signs sit at intersections throughout the city, messages spray-painted on ply board or overturned couches. Some provide street names to help folks locate the plots they once called home. Some warn looters that they'll be shot dead on sight. One says "4023 -- ALIVE," to let folks know that the family at 4023 25th St. survived the storm. And one, sitting in the driveway at the Bone residence on the corner of 25th Street and Freeport, boasts proudly among the chaos, "Welcome home Jamie McMurry."

Paula Bone, the homeowner and sign maker, sits in her driveway in a lawn chair waiting on the hometown hero to arrive. She waves to him wildly as he passes.

"It means a great deal that he came back," Bone says later. "Seriously. Because everyone's wanting support, and it's good to know he still remembers us back in Joplin. He still remembers this neighborhood. Everyone is fond of where they grew up, and the house they grew up in. So for him to even remember to come back, to take the time to come back, is great. He's a great guy."

The caravan continues on until it reaches 4471 E. 25th St. -- McMurray's childhood home. It is completely destroyed. The garage where McMurray's career was born is gone, its concrete floor all that's left behind.

Jim is standing in the center of that concrete block as Jamie and Sue survey the rest of the home, reminiscing about his time with his son in that space. He recalls a specific wooden workbench that Jamie built. He searched the perimeter for it, but it was gone.

"We have great memories in this garage," he says. "The [passenger] cars had to stay in the driveway. This garage was for race cars."

Again, he stops short and collects himself. He points to a tree in the front yard, the top of which is sheared away. He and Sue planted it decades ago, on the day they moved in. Jamie is standing in the master bedroom, which has no walls, chatting with local media. Behind him is his sister's room, with the very same purple shag carpet Sue installed years before.

"She just had to have it," Sue says, shaking her head, her hand over her mouth.

[+] EnlargeJamie McMurray
AP Photo/Mike GullettJamie McMurray and Becky Tinker look at what McMurray wrote on his old bedroom door years ago. Tinker's mother, Donna, used the door to shield herself during the tornado.

Beside that room, in the center of the home in the back, is the light blue carpet where Jamie's room stood. There is a shattered mirror atop a chest of drawers. Shingles and nails and other debris are everywhere. Beside the chest of drawers, leaned up against the lone wall standing in the house, is a bedroom door with a Sharpie-scribbled decree on it:

"Rock n' Rool
We're the class you can't control
We drive the teachers out the door
We're the Class of '94."

Jamie McMurray wrote those words in a high school rebellious fit way back when. There once was more graffiti on the door, but Sue worked tirelessly to remove it.

The door was standing there because it saved Donna Tinker's life. Tinker, who with her husband bought the home from the McMurrays years prior, used the door to shield herself from the storm. She and her husband huddled in the hallway as the chaos unfolded around them. She hasn't cried yet, but presumes she will in the coming weeks and months when the magnitude of the moment truly sinks in.

Tinker is a very graceful woman. She is articulate and humble. And on this day, standing in her demolished home, she ponders how this moment must impact Jamie McMurray.

Hurricane Rita destroyed her hometown, and when she returned she was unable to locate her childhood home. So she knew precisely the emotions McMurray was feeling.

"I think it must be devastating for him to see his childhood home gone," Tinker says. "You know, you have roots, and to know that you can't go back to those roots there's a real sense of loss. I just felt this devastating sense of loss, so I know it has to be the same for him.

"He'll never be able to bring his children by to show them where he grew up. It's just so hard for me to imagine how badly it must be affecting him. I'm OK. I'm not going to complain about anything. We're alive."

McMurray is touring the home now, and stands on the bricks where the fireplace once stood. I ask him what types of memories come back to him in a moment like this.

"This is going to be random, but I think about Christmas ..."

He pauses, looks down and shakes his head. He covers his mouth with his hand. He cannot speak.

"It's weird," he continues. "It's just really hard to explain. I don't really know why you get emotional about it. It's weird because, you know, if you lived a thousand miles away from your childhood home..."

Again, he pauses.

It is still home, I say to him. It is always going to be home.

"Yeah, it is," he continues. "I don't know, it probably would have been better for me to come here first. But then, after the stories we've heard, the families. ... It's not even the destruction that makes you emotional. It's the stories of the parents that lost their kids, or husbands or animals. It's just so hard to explain.

"And for people that see this on TV, whether it's here or Alabama, you look at that and you think, 'Man, that's really bad.' But when you're here. ... It probably makes me appreciate when I see a news report from Iraq. You don't really know what's going on over there.

"And to see this, it's crazy, because I really wasn't choked up as I was looking over everything in here. I wasn't too emotional. But when you asked what you think about, that's what makes the emotions. Because you think about Christmas in here, and everything that's gone on."

Moments later, McMurray is standing on that concrete slab where he and his father built race cars together. He turns to me and mentions the one thing he wants from home. He wants bricks.

"I'd like to have the bricks from the fireplace," he said. "I'd like to build a fire pit with them at my house in Charlotte. That would be very cool to have that. It would be a little piece of home that I could hold onto forever."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.