By KOLBY PAXTON
Late into the evening of Nov. 26, 2004, on a patch of grass in the heart of Little Rock, Ark., I began to cry uncontrollably.
I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to be strong, even stoic. What I wanted didn’t matter, though, because my heart was overpowering my pride. Minutes earlier, the clock abruptly struck zero on my high school football career and the finality of it all was overwhelming.
It wasn’t that I wouldn’t play the game again. I would, and I knew that I would. Rather, my lack of composure was a byproduct of the realization that I would never again play for this team, with these guys and those coaches.
I turned away from the playing field and latched onto a diminutive fullback named Brock Posey. Brock and I had been friends and teammates since the eighth grade. We shared a locker at Southwest Junior High and spent countless nights smuggling beers and girls back into the barn behind his parents house on the fringe of east Springdale.
Brock’s dad passed away in August of that year. He got the news just before we scrimmaged Conway, and by “just before,” I mean literally moments before we were scheduled to leave the locker room for stretch lines. Brock didn’t leave, though. Instead, he simply asked me say a prayer for him. So, clutching my friend, huddled beneath a sea of red jerseys, I prayed that God would offer comfort and shield him from grief.
The prayer was answered before I could finish. You see, Brock stayed with us, his brothers, because with us, underneath that helmet, was the one such place in which comfort and the avoidance of grief were possible.
On the evening of May 20, 2013, standing before the television in my apartment, I cried again.
I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to be strong, even stubborn. Once again, however, what I wanted didn’t matter. My heart was filled with sorrow and helplessness for an area that I consider my second home.
My cousin, the one you’ve heard me repeatedly refer to as my sister, did her student teaching at Plaza Towers Elementary. I taught as a substitute at Briarwood. One of her favorite students, now a sophomore at Moore High School, lost his home. A friend of mine and her husband, newlyweds, couldn’t even find the street they used to live on.
Children, parents and family pets, gone; the city of Moore reduced to a vast wasteland. Tornadoes aren’t new to Oklahomans – not by a long shot. Hell, we notice more when there’s not a storm watch in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. But, this. This was different. This was earth shattering and horrifying and catastrophic. Storms aren’t supposed to be sinister.
Twenty-two members of the Southmoore High School football team lost their homes. One player lost his “buddy,” a husky-mix, named Koda. Freshman Taylor Neely lost his mother. That sort of loss, this magnitude of destruction and the enormous task of rebuilding the broken, is virtually unfathomable.
Yet, no more than a few days after the storm, Southmoore players were already asking their head coach, Jeff Brickman, when the Sabercats could get back to football.
Now, you might think a game would be trivial and forgotten under these circumstances, but you’d be very much mistaken. It isn’t that football is somehow larger than life, or life’s tragedies, mind you. Football is a sanctuary. It’s a place to forget the world away from the turf and the stripes.
More pointedly, a football team is almost never a team, but a family; brothers and fathers. More than any other sport, the gridiron breeds solidarity. It teaches discipline and perseverance. Above all else, it instills passion and compassion for your comrades, accountability for often uncontrollable circumstances, and a sense of responsibility for picking a man up when he’s fallen.
These young Sabercats, residents of that Moore, Oklahoma, will rise to meet this challenge, just as they will rise to meet future challenges. They will do so, partially, because they’re Okies and that’s what Okies do. But, also, because they’re a team, a band of brothers, and just as their home state is so much more than lines on a map, their sport is far more than a sport.