For a place ripped by Ike, redemption in football
HIGH ISLAND, Texas — Inside the High Island locker room, thick with the residue of sweat and socks and the struggles of countless football games past, there was no pretense, no show of bravado, no empty boasting.
Here, there was only a high school football team — 27 boys in maroon and white, shoulders padded, helmets in hand, eyes fixed forward or darting anxiously around the room. There was only family — a clan scattered by the forces of nature and reunited through sheer will and desire.
Here, against all odds, were the High Island Cardinals, shifting their weight on weathered wooden benches, tapping their toes, checking the clock.
In a few moments, they would play their first home game since Hurricane Ike pummeled the Texas coast, decimating their working-class communities on the Bolivar Peninsula and putting the fate of their team and their school in jeopardy.
Just a few weeks earlier, no one knew if the school would reopen. No one knew how many of the 221 students — among them, 31 football players — or 43 staff members would return. Or if any would have homes to return to.
Most, as it turned out, did not. About 85 percent of the students and half of the staff lost their houses altogether. Many of the homes still standing were unlivable. And the families, once woven so tightly in the beach towns of the peninsula, had been dispersed to far-flung corners of Texas.
Then, Coach Paul Colton put out a call to his players: Anyone who wanted to play ball should come back for practice. Anyone who needed a place to stay could bunk with him.
In a flurry of text messages, online messaging and cell phone activity, the High Island Cardinals brought their team back to life.
These high school boys, who had already lost so much, did not want to lose the season they had just started. They needed that, just like they needed each other, just like the community — so badly wounded by the storm, so much in need of a little hope — needed them.
All Colton needed was 13 players — 11 on the field, two on the bench. With that, he would have a team.
At the first practice, two weeks after the Sept. 13 storm, 14 Cardinals stood on the field.
Ike had taken nearly everything from them.
In the towns of Crystal Beach and Gilchrist, where many High Island students live, most of the roads have been erased and are still mired in sand and debris. Abandoned cars lie entrenched in muck. Row after row of houses are splintered and shattered, reduced to twisted pilings or concrete slabs.
These students had lost their homes and their clothes, their family photos and other cherished keepsakes, their four-wheelers and trucks, their iPods and Playstations. All gone.
Their parents, still reeling from the devastation, had moved in with relatives or rented motel rooms in towns an hour or more away.
Yet, the boys had come back to the school most had attended since kindergarten, to the field where they could prove that their dreams had not been dampened by the storm.
Several of the boys had moved in with Colton, and his assistant coach, Justin Charrier, who share a house near campus. A couple of players were rooming with another coach, John Hughes, and his wife, who had also taken in two high school girls. Others found space with friends or family or faculty members.
This was only Colton’s second year as High Island athletic director. Yet, the gruff-voiced man with a handlebar mustache had already come to love these kids as he loves his own.
Colton, a 44-year-old father of three, divides his time between his home in Kountze, about an hour north of High Island, and the house he shares with Charrier. In his 23 years coaching at schools around East Texas, Colton had counseled players dealing with the darkest of adolescent traumas — absentee parents, sexual assault, physical abuse.
He had always kept his door open and his sturdy shoulder ready to lean on. But he had never dealt with the kind of destruction Ike had left behind.
And that day, as Colton groped for the right words, he thought of the boys on his roster:
Mason Mounkes, the running back with the easy grace of a natural athlete. Joey Manuel, a solidly built teenager with an impish grin. Holden Sievers, the tight end with a toothy, aw-shucks smile. Tiner George, the quarterback with the perfect posture and team captain’s poise.
Beneath their teenage bluster, Colton knew his players were hurting. Their world had collapsed around them, and they needed something to hold onto.
So Colton talked about belief and faith and family. Belief in each other, in what they were trying to do. Faith that the rest of this team — this family — would return.
This story has not been written yet, Colton told the players, you are writing it.
Whose team is this? Colton asked.
Coach, this is our team! the players shouted back.
The next day, 15 players were at practice. By the time school reopened on Oct. 6, 20 players had returned — and the Cardinals had a new slogan, coined by Tiner:
"A Force to be Reckoned With."
Every day, at the end of every practice, the Cardinals assemble in a semicircle around their coach and are reminded of how much they still have.
"I believe in you guys. I hope you believe in yourselves," Colton says. "This is your team."
Then the players hoist their helmets high, clicking the hard plastic shields above their heads, and with a shout, remind themselves of their common goal.
"Hard work on three!"