SPRINGFIELD | 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 — a team from a town brought to its own knees just six days earlier by a deadly tornado.
As tears welled in the eyes of some of Washington High's players, Sacred Heart-Griffin coach Ken Leonard called for the on-field prayer.
"Thank you for playing your tails off, boys, (considering) what you had to go through," Leonard told the Panthers, who came into the game hoping to put aside their town's troubles — at least for a bit — as they chased what would have been the school's first trip to the title game in 28 years. "Washington, we're here for you."
The twister last Sunday left a scarring swath from one corner of Washington to another, killing one person. In the buildup to Saturday's game, Washington High coach Darrell Crouch and some of his key players talked of playing for the central Illinois city of 16,000 at a time it dearly needed some uplifting — a weighty burden for the teenagers.
Amid frigid conditions — with the wind chill, the temperature was 12 by halftime — the Panthers fell into a 14-0 hole and trailed 23-7 at halftime before things unraveled in what became their 44-14 loss to Sacred Heart-Griffin, their mascot ironically the Cyclones.
"Our community's always been behind us. Just because the tragedy happened, the tornado came through, it didn't change at all — it brought everybody closer," Panther senior linebacker Chris Friend said, his voice cracking with emotion. "It was just awesome to have them all come out today you know, when so much of our town is destroyed."
This semifinal was on Sacred Heart-Griffin's home turf. But Panthers fans outnumbered the Cyclones own faithful — thanks in part to help Panthers got from the Cyclones. Sacred Heart supplied Panthers fans with seven buses they used to make the 90-minute trip to the game, swelling the stands with a black-and-orange sea of more than 2,000 Washington faithful.
"Washington was louder than we were," Leonard said, smiling. "For what they went through and to come support their team like they did, I can't say enough about that."
After the game, Sacred Heart ensured the Panther fans didn't go back hungry, hosting them for a dinner of pulled pork and other sandwiches in the school.
Outside the football field's gates, a banner reading "We Care" was near collection jars accepting donations for Washington. Sacred Heart-Griffin's online fan page has displayed a picture of Washington's destruction overlayed by the bold-lettered banner: "Prayers for Washington from Cyclone Nation."
For the Cyclones, Leonard insisted, "this is a great life lesson."
"I want our players to be better men than football players," he added.
For Crouch, the Panthers' post-tornado days of practice and Saturday's game proved "therapeutic."
"Football, for our boys, maybe was the most normalcy they've had all week," he said.
And those boys have no reason to apologize, Washington's Bill Hammer said after putting away the cowbell the 43-year-old surgical technology teacher at a community college had been clanging for much of the game.
"We played hard and did our best," said Hammer, who wore an orange fedora. "We couldn't be more proud of these kids."