JOPLIN, Mo. — When the May 22, 2011 tornado devastated Joplin a decade ago, almost every part of community life was affected, including athletics.
The destruction of Joplin High School meant every single school team was displaced and bereft of equipment.
Despite all the obstacles, the football team was able to practice that summer and field a team in the fall.
Chris Shields wasn’t living in Joplin when the infamous tornado hit; he was slated to move to town the next weekend as he would be taking over As Joplin High School’s new head football coach.
He hadn’t even gotten the chance to get to know his players before every plan he had made for his team was destroyed.
Shields says, “When you see the school is gone, your mind goes a million miles and hour. You don’t know, if first off, are we gonna have school?”
The answer? Yes. Then superintendent Dr. CJ Huff made it clear that Joplin would start school, on time, with athletics.
Jeff Starkweather, former Joplin High School athletic director, says, “When he said that, everyone looked around the room and said, ‘Okay. It’s time to go to work then, because we’ve got a lot of work to do.'”
The work started with getting the word out that yes, there would be a football season. Shields called a meeting with the team with Junge Field, the only facility the team had left.
Danny Drouin, former Joplin High School football player, says, “That was so surreal. It’s a sense of relief, like, ‘Oh my gosh, here are my friends, teammates, peers. We’re here. We’re okay.’ You’re mindful of that, the friends that can’t be there, but you’re really grateful to be there at that time, at Junge, and have Junge as a rallying place.”
But the team needed more than just a rallying place. With summer conditioning right around the corner, they needed a weight room.
Starkweather says, “Okay, we’re gonna have summer camps because they’re part of athletics and kids growing up and we wanted to make this as normal a summer as possible, even though we had no idea where we were going to hold those camps.”
Luckily, other people in the community were way ahead of them. Webb City’s John Roderique offered up his team’s facilities for Joplin to use.
John Roderique, Webb City Athletic Director, says, “There was a great sense of community in this area of just helping and trying to help your neighbor. It’s something that you’re supposed to do, something that you expect to do.
Despite all the obstacles they were facing, Shields and his staff tried to provide as normal a season as possible for their players. But within a few weeks of the team’s home opener, they knew it would be anything but.
Shields says, “I’m a simple football coach. I’m trying to keep the guys focused on football and trying to get our team and coaches prepared. It was brought to my attention early that our first home game is going to be a big deal.”
School officials were expecting so many people to attend Joplin’s first home game that season, that they debated moving it to Missouri Southern State University, but after talking to players and families, they decided that it was important to have it at Junge Field.
Drouin says, “We practiced there and that’s where we put the blood, sweat, and tears into, and we were gonna go there and go to battle on that same field, and that was important to us.”
Shields says, “There were thousands of people, there was nowhere to sit, they’re not all from Joplin, there are people from all over, showing support, holding signs, showing their support for our players.”
Though the Eagles fell to Hillcrest that night, there was something much bigger than just a game at play.
Starkweather says, “It was just a really cool night regardless of the scoreboard, we would’ve liked to win that football game, but it was a message for Joplin and the surrounding areas that hey, Joplin is back, here we go.”