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Kevin Hieronymus

Stevens, Panthers dig out from tornado’s destruction

One moment, Todd Stevens and the Washington Panthers football team were celebrating a quarterfinal victory in the 5A playoffs, impressively continuing their push to a state championship. Less than 24 hours later, they were taking cover for the lives.

The town of Washington was in the crosshairs of Sunday’s F4 tornado that ripped a path of destruction throughout central Illinois. Washington took a direct blow, leveling parts of the town and killing one resident.

Stevens, an old pal of mine from the 1989 State Runners-up from Princeton, said it was an emotional roller-coaster.

“You go from cloud nine to ground zero. You go from the up and up and less than 24 hours later you’re digging out players and their families and community members and you’re just worried and making sure everybody’s OK,” he said.

“The emotional roller coaster is something everybody’s dealing with it. I’m sure there will be a point in time they’ll sit back and reflect on it and break down a little bit. So, everybody’s just kind of operating and trying to get the necessary things done and everybody’s OK.”

Stevens, a 1990 PHS graduate, said the town is as bad as it looks on TV, maybe worse.

“It’s just like a bomb went off,” he said. “It’s a miracle more people were not killed. It’s amazing.”

The Panthers football team was deeply affected. Seven varsity players and a coach completely lost their homes.

“I’m not talking structure damage or minor damage, house still standing, windows blown out. This stuff was completely flattened to the ground. But everybody’s safe, and that’s the important thing,” said Stevens, the Panthers defensive coordinator, who has taught history and economics for 17 years at Washington.

When the storm cleared, the football team took care of its own.

Stevens first met up with head coach Darryl Crouch at the high school, and they started walking the streets to assess the damage, unable to drive on any streets because of the debris field. They first found the home of a fellow coach and had to dig him out, their comrade laying beneath a couch.

“We had to dig him out. I mean, he totally lost his house,” Stevens said.

Many of the football team began to show up to lend a hand, arriving by any means possible.

“We just started seeing football players show up, scooters, 4-wheelers anything they could use to get around town going to different players’ houses, community members to try to help out. We went to all seven kids that lost their houses and tried to find as many valuables as we possibly could and tried to give them some support.”

Stevens and his family were spared from injury and mayhem, barely escaping the tornado’s path. He was home sick Sunday morning, when he started receiving text from his wife, Karen, who was with their two kids, Ben and Bryn, at the nearby church.

“It ended up missing the church where my wife and kids were about 200 yards,” he said. “It was real scary. She said you better be watching the weather. As as soon as I got up off from my chair, I could hear the sirens going off. Just like they say, it sounded like a train. I could hear it before I saw it, let’s put it that way.”

My first job out of college was covering the Washington football team for Tazewell Publishing Co. based out of Morton, following the Panthers’ 1985 state championship run. I know from first-hand experience that football brings a source of great pride to the community, much like the folks in Spring Valley and their Red Devil football.

A resident interviewed Monday morning by the “Today” show, a husky man wearing a Washington Panthers ball cap, became emotional when talking about losing his home, but surviving the storm. He said everybody’s going to be OK and proudly adding that, “We have a kick-ass football team.”

“I hope it can be a little bit of a distraction from the destruction attending the game possibly Saturday,” Stevens said of the town folk.

In the worst of times, Washington has found it’s brought out the best of people, many of whom they don’t even know.

Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, which will host the Panthers in Saturday’s semifinal game, has offered to pay for charter busses for the Washington fans knowing many people lost their vehicles and have no means for transportation. They will also feed the Washington football team, before and after the game.

Stevens said Sycamore coach Joe Ryan, whose team is in the opposite semifinal bracket of 5A, is a native of rival Metamora and formerly was head coach at Princeton, called to see how they can help as well at Joliet Catholic Academy.

The very team Washington beat just the day before the tornado, Normal U-High, fed the Panthers football team before and after Tuesday’s practice at ISU. The Panthers also planned to practice at Eureka College with no power, water, etc. available at Washington High School.

Bureau County is teaming together to show our support to the people who were devastated by the terrific event. Visit our Facebook page to see how you can help. It is times like this that we need to help each other. They could use a prayer, too.

Kevin Hieronymus is the BCR Sports Editor. Contact at khieronymus@bcrnews.com.