MOORE — In the days after a massive tornado churned across Moore, people in the neighborhood behind Highland East Junior High found shoulder pads in the street and football jerseys in the debris.
They returned them to the school.
It took a lot more to bring back football.
The tornado wiped the program completely from its foundation, destroying the team's locker room, weight room and practice field.
“They didn't have a shoelace,” said Daniel Kitchel, a rival coach turned ally.
But on Tuesday night, less than four months after the storm, Highland East will be on the football field for its season opener. It hasn't been easy. It still isn't easy. But because of the efforts of some adults who rarely get any publicity — or ask for any — a bunch of kids will have a chance to play.
We don't usually shine the spotlight on junior high sports, but the people who got Highland East back on the football field deserve to be celebrated.
On May 20, more than 600 students and teachers hunkered down inside Highland East as a twister tore across Moore. It smashed the Moore Medical Center, barreled across I-35 and having already torn apart Plaza Towers and Briarwood elementaries, the massive storm looked to be on a collision course with another school.
Everyone inside Highland East's main building could hear the tornado growling louder and louder, but the walls around them remained standing.
When they emerged after the storm passed, however, they realized just how close it had come. The gymnasium, less than the length of a football field from the main building, was a wreck of twisted metal and splintered wood. Miraculously, everyone who'd been caught inside the demolished structure survived.
The property of the football program wasn't so lucky.
The locker room and weight room took a direct hit, mangling lockers and weight racks, scattering helmets and jerseys. Every item that the football program had was gone or ruined.
To make matters worse, the practice field behind the gym was littered with debris. Glass. Nails. How could the team practice there?
A few days after the storm, there was a meeting to talk about football at Highland East. Insurance would eventually take care of uniforms, helmets, pads and all the other equipment, but the team needed somewhere to locker and practice.
Kitchel, the head coach at nearby Central Junior High, was happy to share facilities with Highland East. There was an auxiliary locker room at Central that could be renovated for Highland East, and there was enough room on the practice fields for both teams.
Everyone agreed, and everything was set.
Then came May 31.
The tornadic and flooding storms that rolled through the Oklahoma City area sent three feet of sewer water into Central's locker room. The water floated, then dumped plastic tubs filled with hip pads, thigh pads, girdles, jerseys and pants. Stinky gunk coated 90 pairs of shoulder pads and 30 helmets.
Worse, the locker room was in such bad shape, it was condemned. Central would have to use that auxiliary locker room.
“We just got hit twice,” Kitchel said. “You just didn't know what to do.”
Highland East football was without a home again.
It was also without a head coach.
Highland East had just three assistant coaches as summer conditioning started, and with no practice facility and some players displaced by the storm, Keith Mannie, Mike Swart and Daniel McAlister had their work cut out for them.
But they stuck to the plan outlined by their parent program at Moore High. They used the practice field and weight room at Central, which also feeds into Moore High. They set about replacing lost equipment. They tried to make the best of what they had.
The truth is, they knew things could've been much worse — they had players who lost homes, and everyone was aware of the children who lost their lives at Plaza Towers — but they were determined to get football back on its feet. They wanted it for the kids. They wanted to give them some normalcy amid the chaos, an escape amid the mess.
So, Mannie, Swart and McAlister plowed ahead.
Finally, only a couple weeks before school started, they got some backup. Scott Petete was hired as head coach.
He has been in the school district in Moore for eight years and coached a bunch of sports. Junior high softball. Eighth grade basketball. Junior high football. Varsity high school baseball.
“I've always just felt like these kids in Moore, they're special kids,” Petete said. “They're neat to be around.”
So, when Highland East came to the history teacher and asked if he'd be the head football coach, he didn't have to think too hard about it — even knowing what he knew about the struggles that faced the program.
“Yes, it was easy to say yes,” Petete said.
He paused, fighting back emotion.
“I didn't look at the task at hand. I looked at the kids it would impact. Just look at the kids and say, ‘What can I do to impact these kids?'”
That doesn't mean it's been easy.
Every day, Petete and his four assistants — he added Tim Gray and Jake Coody to the staff — leave Highland East around 1:30 p.m., make the four-minute drive to the team's temporary locker room at the field house at Moore High and set up for practice. Then, a couple of them drive five minutes to the district transportation building, pick up a couple busses and head back to Highland East.
When the final school bell rings at 2:16 p.m., dozens of seventh and eighth grade boys pile onto the busses. They go the high school where they change into practice gear, pile back onto the busses, then make the two-minute drive to the makeshift practice field on some extra land that the school district owns north of the high school.
“We've got it down to where we're on the field ... in about 23 minutes,” Petete said. “You're talking about eighty-something seventh and eighth graders.”
The coach beams about the sacrifices that his players are making.
“It takes a special kid to do this,” he said. “You've got to really want to play football.”
But without Petete, Mannie, Swart, McAlister, Gray, Coody and the helpers they had at Highland East, Central, Moore High and all around the district, there would be no football to play.
They saved the season.
Tuesday night, the Highland East Cougars will open their season with new blue and white jerseys, new helmets, new everything.
It's a fresh start for the program and just maybe for the kids.
Most of the players rode out the storm inside the school. Some lost their homes. All of them have been through a lot during these past few months.
But Tuesday night, thanks to some dedicated adults, they will get to be kids running around playing football.
“It doesn't matter what happens,” Petete said of who wins the games. “These kids have paid a price to be able to do this.
“It's going to be neat to watch them.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.