Sometimes a game is just a game, but for one Alabama town whose high school was leveled by a tornado last year, the football team’s success is a testimonial to the community’s determination to carry on.
For the first time since 1985, the football team at Oak Grove High School has made it to the state playoffs, thanks in part to the support they have received from the townspeople.
The team was scheduled at press time to compete Nov. 5 in the first playoff round. If they won that game, they will move ahead in the championship series.
After the twister on April 8, 1998, which packed winds up
to 250 miles per hour and killed some 30 people from the area, students in Oak Grove had nowhere to go. The tornado, which also ripped through other parts of Alabama, as well as Mississippi and Georgia, devastated their small bedroom community, located 30 miles outside Birmingham.
Despite the obstacles faced by the 600 displaced students—such as traveling to classes at the Gilmore-Bell Vocational Technical School, 20 miles from the site of Oak Grove High—they are recovering from the loss.
“It was like a shock for a couple of days—the whole community was destroyed,” said 17-year-old Wesley Salter, who plays offensive and defensive tackle on the school’s football team. “It was real sad because you just lost your school, but the community came closer and helped each other out,” he said last week.
Uniting After the Storm
“The only way Oak Grove was going to have an identity was through the extracurricular activities,” said Michael Battles, the school’s athletic director and the coach of the football team. “After the tornado, everybody just went to work.”
Members of the community helped build a makeshift football field on an empty plot of land near the vocational school so that the team could practice.
“The team’s a lot closer. We have to be, because we have to go through so much more than other teams,” said Mr. Salter, a senior. “We don’t have a home field. We don’t have anything of our own.”
What the team does have is an active booster club that supplies the 23 players with hot meals after every game. The team also has devoted fans in the bleachers.
“We’ve been on the road for 20 games, and we have had a crowd as big or bigger than the home team’s crowd,” Mr. Battles said. Fans have traveled up to two hours to cheer for the team.
The community is stronger for having survived the tragedy, according to Tom Burchfield, who was born and raised in Oak Grove, is an alumnus of the high school, and has a son on the football team and a twin daughter on the cheerleading squad.
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but it was tremendous to witness that sort of human kindness,” he said.
Mr. Burchfield, who heads the football team’s booster club, said Oak Grove’s community activities traditionally have revolved around church and the high school. “In a rural setting like ours, athletics are the most visible part of the school that the community can relate to,” he said.
Other extracurricular teams and groups have also done well. The school still sponsors basketball, baseball, cheerleading, band, girls’ volleyball, and girls’ softball, as well as groups such as Spanish and math clubs.
In fact, the baseball team went 21-6 last year, and won the county championship. “It was the best record ever,” Mr. Battles said.
With the new school almost built and scheduled to open next July, Mr. Burchfield says the town has a renewed sense of hope. The students “are all very excited about the new school,” he said, “and they can’t wait to get into their new home campus.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as No Storm Damage To Spirit of Alabama Town and School