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January 1, 2012

Remembering the Storm

Earlier this week, I wrote a story titled "Stories of the Year" for this site. And, according to what this site is--to what my job is--I felt it was a pretty good list. But as important as sports sometimes seem to us, as angry or as elated as we get, there are sometimes stories that make us all realize just how little they truly matter.

For those of us that have called the state of Missouri home for any length of time, that story happened on May 22nd, 2011. Most of you don't need any more than a date to know this story.

On that evening, I was at home with my eight-year-old waiting for my wife and our 13-year-old to get home. We were headed to a barbecue to celebrate the graduation of a friend's daughter. As I usually do, I was scanning the Internet to make sure there was nothing I needed to know before we left. Just making sure I didn't miss some momentous story like a football commitment or a late basketball signing.

A few tweets started surfacing about a tornado near Joplin, Missouri. If you've lived in Missouri, tornadoes in May get your radar up about as much as the fact that the mail was indeed delivered that day. They happen all the time. A few buildings get knocked down, a few people are injured and life goes on. I don't mean to minimize it, but that's the reaction. Tornadoes are common. We assume--usually correctly--that they're not going to impact us or anyone we really know. Or at least we used to.

My grandmother lives in Joplin, in the same house she's owned for 50 years now. My dad graduated from Joplin High School. I tried to call her, didn't get an answer. Tried to call my aunt and uncle in Nevada, about an hour north, and got no answer there. Still, I figured some power lines were out. No big deal. We headed off to the barbecue.

A few seconds before we arrived, I got a text from a friend. The intersection of 26th and Main in Joplin was gone. Just gone. My grandma lives about two-and-a-half blocks from there. At that point, this story became real to me.

Over the next hour, I'd pretty much decided I was getting in my car and driving as far as I could get. Whenever I had to stop, I'd find a way to get to my grandma's house. My parents were on a cruise somewhere between Russia and Alaska. They had sent an email with instructions on how to reach them in an emergency (I can't say I read it, but at least I didn't delete it). But my sister and I had decided there wasn't much point to leave a message saying, "There was a huge tornado in Joplin and we have no idea if Mary is okay or not." (I later found out my dad's sister called and left pretty much that exact voicemail, which he fortunately didn't receive until the next day when he'd already heard about the tornado and talked to his mom).

By the end of the barbecue, I'd received word my grandma was okay. Some friends had walked about a mile, crossing piles of debris and fallen electrical lines, to make sure she was okay. She had taken shelter in her bedroom closet along with a transistor radio. We later asked if she was scared. She said she just kind of figured it was her time. Maybe if I make it to 90, I'll understand that point of view. But I didn't then and, honestly, I don't now.

Over the next three days, I watched pretty much every broadcast I could find from and about Joplin. I read the sports page. I have about 20 bookmarks on my Internet browser, all of which are related to sports. I don't pay all that much attention to news stories. But from the start, this one was just different. This one hit home.

The following weekend, I did indeed go to Joplin. My grandmother's house was more or less okay. Some trees were gone, there were a few small holes in the roof and the siding. But considering the savage destruction all over town, she had been very lucky.

Most of the rest of the town couldn't say the same.

During the week after the tornado, some college friends of mine had put together a collection for one of our fraternity brothers who lost his home. On the way down, another friend drove some 50 miles out of his way to give me boxes of diapers and baby supplies to deliver. After checking on my grandma, I drove out to his parents' house, where he and his family were staying.

I hadn't seen this guy in 13 years. I wouldn't even say we were close friends in college. When I dropped off supplies and a few hundred bucks, his wife was near tears as she hugged me. My fraternity brother told me how lucky they were. This is a guy who had two preschool aged daughters and no house. When I say no house, I mean there was nothing where his house once stood. They never found their bathtub. When I asked if they had a basement, he replied, "If we didn't, you'd be coming to my memorial service." And he was telling me how blessed he was? That's perspective.

Later that day, I was part of a volunteer team at a local grocery store. We spent about eight hours handing out food and essentials to a line of people that never seemed to slow down. There's really no description for the emotional impact of that day. Families grateful for formula or baby food. Mothers and fathers thrilled to get some pasta and rice.

One memory in particular sticks with me some seven months later. A man who had to be about 80 came through with a cart. As we loaded supplies into it, we asked what he needed most. He asked for some toilet paper. I dropped about six rolls in his cart and went to get more. He told me, "That's plenty. I don't want to be a pig." An elderly man who was fortunate even to have a toilet felt guilty taking the amount of bathroom tissue that costs you or me three bucks at the grocery store. Maybe that will teach some of us what's really important in life.

The people of Joplin aren't alone. There are hideous stories of disaster in plenty of other towns. I got an email a couple of weeks ago from a gentleman who lives in Tarkio, Missouri. While the nation and the world have rushed to the aid of those in Joplin over the last seven months, those who were flooded out of their homes and farms in Northwestern Missouri have largely gone unnoticed. Something about Joplin just hit home. It spurred many who have never done such things--and I include myself in that group--to help. Somehow, some way, I wanted to do what I could. It wasn't much. But coming back to your home with heat and air and a roof without holes, somehow it didn't make you feel right after a couple of days in Joplin. It made you feel guilty. I've worked hard for what I have. But so had all those people in my dad's home town. And in six minutes, it was gone.

In late October, I had a chance to return to Joplin, along with PowerMizzou.com videographer Brian Austin. We covered Mizzou's exhibition basketball game with Missouri Southern, where more than a hundred thousand dollars was raised for tornado relief. While we were there, we had a chance to talk with the Miller family, who had lost their 49-year-old son Tripp, afflicted with Down's Syndrome, in the storm (you can watch the story we did here).

Joplin is still torn apart. The piles of garbage and rubble are mostly cleaned up. But there are no trees. You can see the spot the high school used to stand from my grandmother's house. You're not supposed to be able to-or at least you never could before.

But the people, they're still standing. There are too many stories to share. But in meeting people at the First Presbyterian Church and at the basketball game that night, many more wanted to talk about Mizzou's impending move to the SEC than to have you feel sorry for them by hearing about how they'd lost a house or a friend in the tornado. That's strength.

I don't own much Mizzou clothing. I think I have a hoodie and a hat. In my line of work, there's not much opportunity to wear anything that says Mizzou on it. But for Christmas, my parents bought "One State, One Spirit, One Mizzou" shirts for myself, my wife and my kids. Objectivity be damned, I'll wear that one with pride anywhere I damn well please. If that shirt reminds one person about what happened in Joplin, it's worth it.

Tragedy fades with time. Every day, the tornado gets a little more distant in our minds. If you don't live in Joplin, if you didn't know someone who died, you're back to worrying about your own day-to-day problems far more than those of a small Southwest Missouri town that was largely anonymous before May 22nd, 2011. Frankly, even if you did know people who were directly affected, you've probably moved on somewhat. I have. It doesn't make you a bad person. We all have lives to live. But a reminder now and again of those who have it so much harder than we do is not a bad thing.

Joplin isn't the same. It won't be for decades. In fact, it probably never will be. As a friend told me during an interview on my second trip to Joplin, "this storm is part of the fabric of who we are now. Things will never be the way they were on May 21st. But hopefully, over time, we can find a new normal."

The past year was one where a day rarely passed without some sort of big news around Mizzou sports. From Mike Anderson to Matt Painter to Frank Haith to the SEC to Gary Pinkel's arrest, every day brought a new story that seemed as if it were the biggest thing to happen all year.

None of them were. Those stories were big for a week, a month, a year. May 22nd changed lives. Forever. Hopefully, the memory of that day does not fade.

For a list of ways to help with tornado relief in Joplin, click this link

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