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Meet the people who helped get Moore's Highland East team back on the football field

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.
by Jenni Carlson Published: September 2, 2013
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photo - Coach Tim Gray watches lineman go through blocking drills. Players on the Highland East Junior High School football team practice Monday afternoon, Sep. 2, 2013, on Moore High School's practice field. The May 20 tornado hit the gym at Highland East Junior High School on SE 4 Street in Moore, destroying the football team's locker room, weight room and practice field. Despite the setback created by the EF5 twister, coaches and players gathered on the football field to play their season opener less than four months after the devastating and deadly storm.  Photo  by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman.
Coach Tim Gray watches lineman go through blocking drills. Players on the Highland East Junior High School football team practice Monday afternoon, Sep. 2, 2013, on Moore High School's practice field. The May 20 tornado hit the gym at Highland East Junior High School on SE 4 Street in Moore, destroying the football team's locker room, weight room and practice field. Despite the setback created by the EF5 twister, coaches and players gathered on the football field to play their season opener less than four months after the devastating and deadly storm. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman.

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.

Continue reading this story on the...

by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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