On Nov. 17, a deadly tornado devastated the town of Washington. Less than a week later, Washington High School and SHG played a Class 5A playoff semifinal. More than 15 Washington football players lost their homes or were displaced. About eight “lost everything,” coach Darrell Crouch said.
But the team wanted to play.
“We felt it was important to our kids and town,” Crouch said. “Some of our seniors had worked so hard and sacrificed so much for our program. We had some great seniors that had earned the right to play the game. They never thought about not playing.”
While SHG won the game en route to a state championship, the school’s players, parents and alumni came together to help their ailing rivals. The SHG community sent water and organized charter buses for Washington fans, as many had vehicles that were destroyed or inaccessible. The Springfield school gave more than $75,000 to Washington, and provided a pregame snack and postgame dinner for the team and its families. Schools from throughout central Illinois, restaurants, churches and individuals also helped raise money, donated food and offered their time to assist in the cleanup.
Because of the outreach, the Illinois High School Association has nominated Sacred Heart-Griffin for the National Federation of State High School Associations Spirit of Sport Award. In the previous five years, the association nominated individual athletes and adults. But this year, IHSA officials decided to honor the Sacred Heart-Griffin community. A Midwest section winner and national winner will be named. SHG’s efforts to help Washington, a town of 15,000, “touched on every element that we want,” said Matt Troha, assistant executive director for the IHSA. “This is a great nominee.”
It’s a great honor, SHG football coach and athletic director Ken Leonard said of the nomination.
“We just tried to do what we should be doing as a Christian community,” Leonard said. “It was a great life lesson.”Leonard has family in Washington, and he has known Crouch since the early 1980s.
“It was just a terrible, tragic thing,” he said “(But) the Lord put us in an opportunity to do something, and our parents and our football team really stepped up.
“We really gained a lot of friends that week, especially the Washington people.”
After learning of the tornado’s destruction, Leonard hosted a team meeting with Bob Brenneisen, an SHG assistant principal and assistant coach. They asked football families to help the team help Washington. Anne Dondanville and Michele Reavy, two freshman football moms, were instrumental in organizing the volunteers.
“It was a huge group effort,” Reavy said. “So many people came forward and helped do everything.”
That didn’t surprise Dondanville, who said it’s incredible how quickly people came together to organize the assistance.
“Sports are more than just sports. People do the right thing,” she said. “That’s hopeful, especially in the face of a hopeless situation.”
Crouch said he wasn’t surprised that Sacred Heart-Griffin reached out. But he was “surprised by the level of their kindness.”
“We can never thank SHG students, administration, coaches and athletes enough, as well as the Springfield community,” the Washington coach said. “As much as we hate to lose, it was good to see them go on and win the state championship. Our town was really pulling for them.”