By Mike Kays
Phoenix Sports Editor
Normal is something slowly coming to Jeff Brickman and Southmoore High School’s football program.
It’s incremental, baby steps you might say, but it’s nonetheless making its way back.
The coach and his players will look around Wednesday at the University of Tulsa’s football team camp and not see the destruction that’s become a daily part of life two hours away where two weeks ago Monday, 24 lives were snuffed out and at least 1,200 homes were damaged or destroyed.
When they return home, they’ll be able to hit the practice field for the first time since mid-May, thanks to 34 athletes and coaches from Fort Gibson who anticipated lending a hand to the residents of some of those homes when they arrived there Monday morning,
Instead they spent three hours, many of them on their hands and knees, sifting through the artificial practice surface on campus, picking up pieces of debris ranging from pebble size to quarters. They also had a half-bus full of water, Gatorade and other supplies to deliver.
“To be honest, when they said this is what we need and we looked at the field, it looked fine,” said Fort Gibson High football coach James Singleton. “But by the time we were through, we had filled one of those industrial-size garbage bags. That might not sound like much in the big picture but when you consider how small the stuff was we were picking up it was pretty remarkable.”
Brickman’s team hasn’t practiced on the field since the tornado disrupted the second week of spring practice at the school, which was out of the direct path of the tornado’s destruction. Students were in designated shelter areas when it struck at mid-afternoon.
“What I was telling (Singleton) was two days after the tornado we went out and picked up about 90 percent of the debris, then went through it with a nail finder roofers use and ended up with a full gallon freezer bag of metal in our turf,” Brickman said. “But the shards of glass weren’t found by a metal detector and there’s wood chips and pieces of shingles out there too. We did what we could but it was still unplayable and we just haven’t had the time or manpower to do it with all the other issues we’re up against.”
A school from Olathe, Kan., had spent a day doing the same thing Fort Gibson’s did on Sunday — and there was still a trash bag full.
“I think we got the playing field taken care of,” Singleton said. “But surrounding that, there’s still lots of stuff still out there.”
Some of Brickman’s players were at the school moving equipment to put a new floor in the team’s weight room. Brickman introduced them to the Fort Gibson kids.
“One is staying with his sister, another is just staying with different people until he can find a home,” said Tiger footballer Avery Rigney.
It hit home for many of the visitors.
“We know when we get on the bus we’re going home and sleep in our beds tonight,” said one of Rigney’s teammates, Grady Mosteller. “There’s a lot of people who right now are in a day-to-day situation in that regard. It’s kind of boggles the mind to think what it’s like to go through that.”
In all, Brickman said, 22 football families lost their homes and one player, freshman Taylor Neely, lost his mother. It motivated the coach to establish a relief fund for the school’s sports families displaced by the storm and in the few short weeks, it’s gone beyond helping those within the football circle to include 91 families in all. Monies are distributed by the school’s booster club every Saturday.
“If we get $20,000 we’ll divide it equally among the families we have in need,” Brickman said. “A lot of people have sent gift cards which we can’t divide up so we tape them under chairs in our locker room and before we’re done, we ask them to check under their seat to see if there’s a surprise.”
Brickman’s been down this road before. Then a student at Central Oklahoma, he was on his way home in 1999 when another F-5 struck with similar results. He recalled how he abandoned his car off Interstate 35 some two miles from his parents’ home in 1999 and walked the rest of the way to find them OK and a house with minor damage. In 2003, his now-deceased grandmother, 91, rode out another twister hunkered down in a closet while her roof was ripped off the frame.
Singleton was a coach at Norman North when the 1999 tornado hit.
“It’s like déjà vu. The destruction you see on TV and in pictures just doesn’t do it justice,” he said.
Coaches and players alike made the trip back east with that perspective — and more.
“It was a quiet bus ride for the most part,” Singleton said. “I think it reminds us how fortunate we are that we haven’t experienced a situation like this. You appreciate what God’s given you and what you’re able to have and not take things for granted.”
Brickman’s Sabercats aren’t. Life is still a day-to-day scramble.
But normalcy inches closer. Seven-on-seven and Summer Pride will resume after they return from Tulsa.
“It’s been a crazy couple of weeks,” Brickman said. “It just proves how unpredictable life can be.”