Tornado built bond for Jefferson City Jays

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JEFFERSON CITY — Barely awake after his 5:30 a.m. alarm woke him for football workouts, Jefferson City Jays quarterback Cole Gresham was confused when he reached over to his night stand and saw the notification on his phone. 

"Are you okay?" Gresham's offensive coordinator William Duke texted him. "Umm... yeah?" Gresham thought, assuming Duke had sent it to the wrong person.

It wasn't until Gresham's Snapchat notifications started blowing up that he realized something was up. He opened a group message with his teammates to see messages about a tornado that had hit the night before while he was asleep.

Gresham couldn't believe his eyes. He swiped over and saw the destruction on his friends' Snapchat stories. Homes and businesses in Jefferson City were severely damaged by an EF-3 tornado, with wind speeds of about 160 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Gresham, who lives about 10 minutes away from Jefferson City High School, had only experienced some heavy rain. 

He closed out of Snapchat and immediately texted his offensive coordinator back. "Yeah, I'm okay," he wrote.

The immediate impact for Gresham and his teammates was that workouts were cancelled that morning. At that point, none of them had any idea how much damage the tornado had done to their community, including their own football stadium and facilities.

MSHSAA track & field state championships had just taken place about a week prior, so the Jays had hurdles and other equipment on the field when the tornado came through. The morning after the tornado, some of the hurdles were sprawled across the field, some were in nearby streets, and some were thrown so far that they were never found. 

The field was littered with other debris as wood and nails were sticking out every which way.

Perhaps most astonishingly, three-quarters of the press box's roof, which sits on top of the bleachers and was about the size of the roof over a three-car garage, was torn away. It still hasn't been found. 

The one silver lining was that the Jays' new video board wasn't irreparably damaged. One of the two posts holding it up was bent, causing it to hang askew over the track that runs on the outside of the football field, but the screen was untouched. The video board will be erected once again before the Jays' first home game against St. Louis University High School on Sept. 20, the Friday Night Fever Game of the Week.

Jays head coach Terry Walker immediately had to figure out how his team was going to continue to practice and workout. In one of the first acts of the community coming together to support each other, Lincoln University offered the Jays use of its facilities until the cleanup/rebuild process was complete. 

From then on, Jays players' summer looked entirely different than what it normally would. After morning lifting sessions, the team would not only help pick up heavy debris from their home field, but also went into other areas of Jefferson City to offer any help they could to their community. Some days, the players delivered and handed out food to people. Other days, they cleaned up rubble and other debris from houses and family businesses that were directly hit by the tornado. They also did whatever they could to uplift their teammates who were directly affected.

Now, as team and fan excitement has piqued in the days leading up to the start of the season, the team has a newfound appreciation for being able to practice on their home turf once again.

Senior offensive and defensive lineman Brandon Backues said the entire experience brought the team together in a unique way. Ordinarily, the junior varsity athletes did not have a lot of interaction with varsity starters like Backues or Gresham, but the rebuild process strengthened the team's camaraderie to a much deeper and far-reaching level. 

Gresham and Backues said they feel the Jays' football team is also more intertwined with the community now. While they're always appreciative of the fans who attend their games during a normal season, they said this season figures to be more special as they'll know whom they'll be playing for on a much more personal level — and hope that the community fills the stands to support the team.  

The Jays know in the long term, the most significant part of the season has already happened. Now, they hope their on-the-field performance can give their community something to cheer about. 

This story is a Missouri School of Journalism collaboration.