NORMAL — University High School senior Jamaal Scott never thought he would be having lunch Tuesday with the team that ended his high school football career three days before.
The Pioneers lost to the Washington High School Panthers 41-7 on Saturday in the Illinois State High School 5A quarterfinals, but the Panthers’ celebration was short-lived. An EF4 tornado ripped through the town less than 24 hours later, damaging or destroying the homes of hundreds of residents, including seven football players.
With the Panthers unable to practice on their home field, U High officials invited their former rivals to Normal, giving them access to first-class facilities at Illinois State University, some new clothes and a little time away from the scene of the devastation. On Tuesday, they had lunch together at ISU’s Horton Field House.
“Football is more than just being a game on the field,” Scott said. “It’s about the meaning of being a team and good sportsmanship. Teams can compete and beat each other, and then, when something happens, be there for the other guy.”
All intercity high schools are working together to provide assistance for Washington, said U High Athletic Director Wendy Smith. Central Catholic High school and the Olympia Booster Club will serve meals for the team, and all other schools are in the process of collecting donations, food, and especially bottled water for Washington.
Normal Community High School, which has the same school colors as Washington, has offered uniforms to the school and to donate money for other equipment for this weekend’s playoff game.
“That’s true class,” said Illinois State University senior Colton Underwood, a Washington graduate. “It’s unbelievable how the support from the surrounding areas, the entire state and actually, the entire nation, has been. The schools here in town have all stepped up, including University High and Central Catholic, and it really makes you feel good.”
Current players also appreciated the effort.
“It means a lot to see that people are willing to give their time and letting us use their facilities,” said senior Andrew Holderness. “Even after going to battle with them last week, they are willing to do anything we need.”
U High senior Kane Wildermuth said the visit was a positive experience for the Pioneer players as well.
“It’s nice to just sit back and talk with these guys about what they went through,” he said. “We’re also just talking about regular stuff, too. We talk a lot of football and we’re hoping they do well next week.”
On Saturday, the Panthers will travel to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for what is likely to be an emotional semifinal game. Gov. Pat Quinn has already wished the Panthers good luck and Sacred Heart-Griffin will send two buses to Washington to transport fans to the game.
Locally, the Twin City schools are trying to load a bus with bottled water to send to Washington.
“I woke up at 4:30 on Monday morning and thought, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’” Smith said. “I looked it up, and it is only 38.2 miles between U High and Washington and if that storm would have gone just a little bit our direction, we could have been in the same situation.”
Everything given to Washington High School has been donated, Smith said.
“All of the area schools have called and asked what they can do or how they can help,” she said. “I am working with their athletic director, Herb Knoblauch, and asking him what they need and then I send the information out and the response has been great. Everybody is just willing to help and even though they beat us last week, we’re behind them and hope they win Saturday.”