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November 23, 2013

Tornado-ravaged Illinois city rallies around football

ROBBINS, Ill. — Just after his team advanced to the Illinois state high school football championship Saturday, Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin's coach had his players take a knee at midfield for a prayer with their opponents, the Washington High Panthers — whose town was brought to its own knees just six days earlier.

Washington was devastated last Sunday by a deadly tornado that flattened hundreds of homes, some belonging to the high school's players and coaches. The aftermath cast a new importance on the town's prized football team as a welcome respite from picking through splintered debris after a storm that cut a path from one corner of the town of 16,000 people to another.

If the Panthers had won, it would have been the school's first trip to the title match in 28 years. But the team couldn't match Sacred Heart-Griffin.

The Panthers never led and trailed 23-7 at halftime. They closed to 23-14 early in the second half before things fell apart in what became their 44-14 loss. As some Panthers cried, Ken Leonard ordered the on-field prayer.

"Thank you for playing your tails off, boys, (considering) what you had to go through," Leonard told the Panthers. "Washington, we're here for you."

Washington coach Darrell Crouch later called it "just a classy move." He embraced the opposing coach after Saturday's final seconds ticked away on Sacred Heart-Griffin's home turf, where Panthers fans outnumbered those pulling for the home team and its ironic mascot, the Cyclones.

As part of an outpouring that Crouch said had him in awe, Sacred Heart gave Panthers fans seven buses they used to get to Saturday's game, swelling the stands with a black-and-orange sea of more than 2,000 Washington faithful. The Cyclones had six other buses on standby, but they weren't needed.

After the game, Sacred Heart ensured the Panther fans didn't go back hungry, hosting them for a dinner of pulled pork and sandwiches in the school.

Collection jars outside the football field's front gates took donations for the town, and Sacred Heart-Griffin's online fan page has displayed a picture of Washington's destruction, along with the bold-lettered banner: "Prayers for Washington from Cyclone Nation."

In the buildup to the game, Crouch and Washington's key players talked of playing for the city at a time it dearly needed something uplifting — a weighty burden for a team made up only of teenagers. In the end, Crouch said, football gave his players a boost before they had to pivot back to picking up the pieces of a tornado-wrecked town.

"Football, for our boys, maybe was the most normalcy they've had all week," he said.

To Washington's Bill Hammer, the Panthers' run was a great ride.

"We played hard and did our best," said Hammer, a 43-year-old teacher of surgical technology at a community college. "We couldn't be more proud of these kids."

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