CLAY, W.Va. — Among West Virginia communities ravaged by lethal floods, where churches continue serving as shelters until FEMA’s mobile homes arrive, Jimbo Fisher understands many issues take priority over football in his home state.
But high school sports can play a part in the recovery, and the Florida State coach is heading a drive to replace football equipment for teams in the most devastated counties. Inside a humid gymnasium Wednesday, Fisher addressed players from Clay County, Richwood and Herbert Hoover high schools, vowing to help them get suited up to play on Friday nights this fall.
“Just to give them a solace, a normality, and a sense that everything is going to be all right,” he said. “It’s huge in the healing process they’re going to go through.”
Fisher, who grew up near Clarksburg, heard from relatives and friends as flash floods struck West Virginia on June 23. Some 23 people were killed, with 12 counties declared federal disaster areas.
FSU offensive line coach Rick Trickett, a former West Virginia assistant, began urging Florida high school programs to donate helmets and pads, and Fisher jumped aboard to surge momentum.
“Without high school athletics, I couldn’t have done what I’ve done,” Fisher said. “It got me into ball and let me stay in ball. It may lead you to be a doctor, may lead you to be a lawyer, may lead you into teaching.
“You’re in the greatest time of your life, playing high school football, and we would never want any of y’all to miss that.”
Nick Saban fronted a similar donation drive in Alabama. Though the Crimson Tide coach was unable to attend Wednesday’s assembly because of SEC media days commitments, former Alabama assistant and Matheny native Joe Pendry appeared.
“The biggest thing about football that you’ll take with you down through the years, is building trust,” Pendry said. “Now at Alabama and Florida State, were we going to let you miss that because you couldn’t get some uniforms? Hell no.”
Lessons in community
Several Herbert Hoover players lost their homes in Cledenin, where most of the 1,200 residents were impacted.
“Their friends have been there to help them out—given them clothes, given them a place to stay. They’re looking out for each other,” said coach Tim Myer. “They’re all helping each other, they’re working their tails off and nobody’s fighting amongst each other. It shows you how strong a community we live in.
“I’ve always known Elk River people are real tough, and if there’s anybody who can get through this, they can.”
Joel Cruickshanks, a 15-year-old member of the Clay County team, said he expects his home must be bulldozed after 4 feet of water rolled through. His family spent several nights in tents before his father’s friend loaned a trailer, where they’ll likely live this all.
Suddenly, summer football workouts don’t seem so exhausting to Cruickshanks, who said “they’re easier than carrying furniture and refrigerators.”
Clay County coach Jason Nichols was at church when Cruickshanks phoned to tell him about the flood damage.
“He had lost his home, but then he said, Just tell me we’re going to have a football team,'” Nichols said. “And I told him absolutely we were.”
Cruickshanks was among the players wading through knee-deep mud trying to salvage equipment and uniforms. Nichols thanked players from rival schools who showed up to clean the fieldhouse.
“Some of the things we’ve seen over the past few weeks are the most heartbreaking things we’ll ever see,” he said. “But at the same time it has restored my faith in people.”
On the bounce-back
In the wake of the 1,000-year floods, Fisher urged players to show resiliency.
“Life’s going to hit you with so many tragedies, and unfortunately these kids are getting hit with it earlier than others,” he said. “It’s how you deal with those situations that’s going to make your life.”
Trickett, the former Marine and Vietnam veteran, issued the strongest challenge to players whose summer practices were disrupted and their weight rooms destroyed.
“You’ve got your arms, right? How about doing 200 push-ups every day? How about going out and running even day? Your coaches have way too many things going on right now. They don’t have time to do all this organization, so I’m going to lay it on you guys. You’ve got to rally everybody up.
“Don’t have an excuse. You can’t ride those excuses. You’ve got to bow up.”