Fighting Irish teammates, fathers rally to aid Putnam County community devastated by March tornadoes
By Bill Brewer
Soccer was played after all, just not how the players had envisioned the match. And it was a few days late, too.
However, it was a welcome distraction for Cookeville High School’s boys soccer team, which days earlier had witnessed one of the worst tragedies to hit Tennessee in recent memory.
Priorities changed on a dime for the boys in the early morning hours of March 3 when a series of tornadoes devastated Middle Tennessee, killing 25 people, most of them in Putnam County.
A soccer match between Knoxville Catholic High School and the Cookeville High School Cavaliers was scheduled for the afternoon of March 3. News of the disaster stunned the Fighting Irish players, and in the hours following the scale of the disaster loomed large.
As calls were put out in Middle Tennessee for volunteers to assist in relief efforts, coaches for the Cavaliers, the Fighting Irish, and three other schools that were supposed to scrimmage at Cookeville High School on March 3 — Hardin Valley, Rhea County, and Warren County — decided to join together and assist in the cleanup.
KCHS soccer coach Gordon Heins said one of the team parents suggested the team lend a hand, so the coach reached out to his fellow coach in Cookeville, who was on board.
The response was quick.
Several KCHS players were available, and several dads worked out the logistics.
Austin Naab, a senior captain and goalkeeper for the Fighting Irish, was one of the volunteers, along with his father, Don Naab.
Austin had seen news reports of the tornadoes, but those didn’t prepare him or his teammates for what they saw firsthand.
“It was a shock, but it didn’t actually hit us until we were there and saw all the damage. It was shocking to see all the catastrophic damage that was there,” Austin said. “There were about eight of us who went over along with family and friends.”
Boys from the teams worked on the relief project for Samaritan’s Purse, a Boone, N.C.-based nondenominational evangelical Christian organization that provides spiritual and physical assistance to people in distress around the world. Samaritan’s Purse serves Christian churches worldwide to promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ. According to the organization founded by Franklin Graham, it has helped people impacted by war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine since 1970 with the purpose of sharing God’s love through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Austin’s father, Don Naab, helped organize the Fighting Irish relief effort with several other dads. He, too, was taken aback by the devastation.
“We didn’t know what to expect, nor did we know what we’d see when we got there. And once we arrived it was difficult to comprehend what we were seeing. We found ourselves standing in debris-scattered yards where several people died just a short distant away,” Mr. Naab said.
He noted that according to Cookeville High School’s soccer coach, one woman and her husband were carried a quarter-mile away from their house by the storm but survived with injuries. However, the couple’s neighbors on either side of their house did not survive.
“Debris was strewn everywhere … there was sheet metal, shower curtains, baby blankets stuck in trees 40 feet up in the air … and pieces of insulation, siding, ceramic tiles, shingles, kitchen utensils, and other personal effects were everywhere,” Mr. Naab said. “While we (and hundreds of other community volunteers) were helping to clean up, a man and his wife were foraging through the remains of their destroyed house. Initially, I didn’t even recognize it as a house because there wasn’t a roof or any shingles anywhere … it was completely gone.”
He said that couple was collecting cushions, pans, clothes, dolls, and other items they could find buried under the collapsed floor, any semblance of the home that had been there.
“Whatever didn’t get buried in the rubble got blown away … perhaps miles away. Most of us spent the day picking up debris that got caught in what used to be a tree-line between the neighborhoods. Austin found a note from a daughter to her daddy thanking him for some gifts,” Mr. Naab said.
Austin said he will never forget the tornado-ravaged site or the experience of helping with the relief effort. In addition to the note he found, teammates also recovered household items that intensely personalized the work they were doing.
“We went to a family home to help pick up debris on the property from the storm. The house was in a neighborhood and it was still standing. But homes surrounding this house were leveled,” Austin said. “One of my teammates picked up some family photos, and that was definitely emotional.”
George McCarty, a junior captain on the KCHS soccer team who plays center back, had been looking forward to the road trip to Cookeville to play rival Hardin Valley and the Middle Tennessee competition.
When Coach Heins announced he was organizing the relief project, George and his father, Phillip McCarty, wanted to join.
“We thought it would be a good idea to go,” George said. “I was completely blown away. It opened my eyes to how close Cookeville is to Knoxville and how much destruction a tornado can do.”
George joined his teammates in picking up debris and clearing away downed trees.
They spent much of that Saturday, March 7, working in the Cookeville neighborhood.
And like Austin, the sight of such devastation left an imprint on George.
“My teammates were as surprised as I was. We had our minds blown by the pure awesomeness of what those storms can do.”
KCHS president Dickie Sompayrac spoke with pride and gratitude at how the KCHS soccer community stepped up to assist neighbors in need. He was especially proud of how the players set aside their competitive spirit and picked up their volunteer spirit.
“I talked with Don Naab, whose son Austin is a senior soccer player for KCHS. He said the trip was incredible. They had no idea what they were going to witness, and it was far more devastating than they could have imagined. Homes completely destroyed, and folks walking around trying to salvage any valuables they could. There were teams scheduled to come to the scrimmage, and they all sent players to help the community,” Mr. Sompayrac said.
“I was just really proud of all our players and parents who took time to help a community that was going through such devastation from the tornadoes. Events like these can really remind our students what is truly important in life,” Mr. Sompayrac added.
When Coach Heins and Cookeville’s coach communicated, the Cookeville coach was concerned about having to cancel the scrimmage.
“I texted the coach and he said they were fine, but some of his players had lost their homes in the storm,” Coach Heins said, adding that the thought of what those Cookeville players were experiencing put the situation into perspective. Mr. Heins, who is a volunteer coach at KCHS, was unable to go to Cookeville with the players because on that Saturday he had to manage his family business, longtime Knoxville building materials supplier A.G. Heins Co.
“The work that the players did in Cookeville means so much more than the game itself. Our young men got to know those players, coaches, and the community. We made lifelong friends, which is so much more important than playing the game of soccer,” Coach Heins said. “I learn so much more from the players than they ever learn from me.”
Once their work was done, the boys had enough energy left to satisfy some pent-up competitive fire.
While their soccer scrimmage had to be called off, they found time to play against their peers from Hardin Valley and Middle Tennessee who also were on hand to help in the storm’s aftermath.
“After we finished our cleanup, we went back to Cookeville High School and played soccer. It brought us together and showed that what we were doing was more important than just a game,” Austin said.