Thoughts and prayers going out to Arkansans whose lives were devastated by tornadoes last night. At least 16 people have died, with many more injuries. One of the towns hit hardest was north central Arkansas’ Vilonia, which just three years ago was almost wiped out by another powerful tornado. According to one eyewitness account, about 90% of Vilonia’s Main Street businesses and homes were wiped away last night. If you feel moved to help, please visit here.
Sports, obviously, hardly mean anything when the wounds are still so raw. But three years ago, they proved to one thread in the story of the tornado’s aftermath- a physical recovery, which painfully, was largely wiped away last night. While I’m sure some Vilonia residents will relocate from the town for good, plenty more will stay. They found a way through the devastation before. And they’ll work together to do it again.
Below is part of the recovery story from that first time. It originally published in August, 2011, in Sync magazine.
Cross-county high school football foes in Greenbrier and Vilonia blown closer by April tornado.
If a student of the University of Central Arkansas’ digital film program decided to chronicle a high school football rivalry, this would-be Ken Burns wouldn’t have to travel far from the Conway campus. Just up the road, two Faulkner County neighbors annually stage one of the state’s fiercest showdowns. Vilonia and Greenbrier, which play their first games this week, don’t square off until the last regular season game. Still, our young documentarian could easily frame the next couple of months as mere prelude to the November night when the Greenbrier Panthers and the Vilonia Eagles tussle.
Much, you see, often hangs in the balance when one of these 5A-West schools travels across 14 miles of hilly farmland to play the other: postseason appearances, playoff seeds, a year’s worth of bragging rights. There’s always a postseason-like electricity in the air, with seniors getting amped for one final crack at foes they have seen their whole lives.
“It definitely started back in peewee football,” says Matt Cain, a former Greenbrier football player.
“You grow up not liking them on the field or on the court.”
The week before this game, Vilonia players give motivational speeches to students packed with quotes from movies such as Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights and 300. Vilonia cheerleader Lindsey Agerton has made some Greenbrier friends through her competitive cheer team in Conway, but during rivalry week, you’d think they were competitive debaters: “We bicker about who’s gonna win and fight [for] our sides about why our team’s gonna win.”
In Greenbrier, Panther players, school staff, parents and alumni gather after church the night before the game. In the parking lot of the city’s baseball field, they light a bonfire and give speeches, says Cain, now a Harding University freshman. Parents and coaches tell kids they are proud of them.
On game nights, all sorts come: the lifelong diehard, the random football fan from Conway or Little Rock, the grandpa who doesn’t have much time left for a young man’s game but makes time for this.
“We’re liable to have twice the gate as normal,” says Ed Sellers, assistant superintendent of Vilonia Public Schools. In Vilonia’s stadium, that can mean a capacity crowd of 4,500 people at $5 a pop for adults, $4 for students. That’s a $10,000 uptick in gate revenue as well as extra concession and merchandise sales. This game greases the football engines of both schools.
As in any true rivalry, neither side has totally dominated since the series began in 1967. Greenbrier, which has always had slightly more people than Vilonia, jumped to an 18-7 series. Then the Eagles won 12 of the next 13 games. In those years from 1996 through 2008, Greenbrier failed to make the playoffs, and lost all 10 games in 2006. But the Panthers have beaten Vilonia the past two seasons, and this fall Greenbrier seeks to topple state champion Greenwood with its high-octane passing offense led by quarterback Neal Burcham, one of most accomplished players in program history.
Like every year, Vilonia would love to derail Greenbrier’s hopes. But this year, when the team captains gather at midfield, there will likely be more exchanged than cliched niceties.
“We’re more bonded to them than past seniors,” Vilonia center Zach Ballard says.
It started early last fall, when NFL players wearing pink gear for breast cancer awareness inspired Greenbrier seniors to try the same. When a Greenbrier coach mentioned the breast cancer diagnosis of Vilonia head coach Jim Stanley’s wife, Sandra, his players knew the game in which they would do it.
The Panthers wore pink shoe laces, wrist tape and gloves in honor of Sandra Stanley.
“A lot of their players wore pink just out of respect and encouragement for my wife,” says Stanley. “That meant a lot.”
And Greenbrier high school students wearing pink T-shirts filled the stadium that night.
“We’ve really kind of grown together as a community,” Ballard says.
The night of April 26 bound the towns even closer.
THE TORNADO HITS
Lindsey Agerton, then a Vilonia sophomore, was with her family and boyfriend in her home’s garage off Arkansas 64 when she noticed strange clouds moving above faraway hills. The clouds, she later realized, were slowly forming a tornado.
They went inside as the clouds approached, roaring louder by the mile. “It was the loudest noise ever, unbelievable noise.”
The monster bearing down on Vilonia and the surrounding country nearly sucked the windows off the frames of Agerton’s parents’ bedroom.
“When you put your hands on it, you could feel it pulling away.”
She remembers her dad’s garage shop swaying back and forth in the backyard, that same wind whipping around to twist the trunks of three trees in her front yard into pretzels.
“It was scary. There are just so many things going through your head.”
Cell reception was temporarily out, so all the comforting text messages — ‘Are you alright?’, ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Do you need help?’ — flooded in later, all at once. Facebook status updates through the night informed them which neighbors’ homes were gone. That night four people died in Vilonia, including a couple from Greenbrier. At least five more Arkansans died in storms elsewhere.
The next morning laid bare the enormity of the survivors’ task.
“You could look down the road, and every light pole was flipped over and on the ground,” says Agerton. “You didn’t worry about your house. You just went in and started helping everyone out.”
AFTER THE STORM
By Tuesday morning, Greenbrier High School junior Sydney Worm had seen video of the destruction. She was relieved her uncle, who lives in Vilonia, was okay, but the clips made it obvious how much aid would be needed. Soon, Worm and fellow Future Farmers of America members were collecting canned food, clothes, diapers, water bottles and toiletries to be loaded on a livestock trailer and sent to Vilonia.
“Our ag[riculture] teacher said ‘They’re our rivals, but they’re also our neighbors.’” In those first chaotic days after the storm, Vilonia High School principal Andy Ashley recalls the FFA delivering supplies as well as teens wielding chain saws, ready to cut branches which had fallen on so many homes. Vilonia High itself had suffered relatively minor damage, nothing worse than leaky roofs.
Other Greenbrier schools soon chipped in, too. Elementary students donated backpacks, shoes and school supplies. One day, they wore red T-shirts in homage to Vilonia’s color, and gathered outside in a heart formation for a picture they hoped would cheer their neighbors.
“You care about those people over there,” says Randy Tribble, Greenbrier’s head football coach. “They’re close to you. A lot of family over there that’s connected over here. A lot of people go to church together with Vilonia people, so your heart just goes out to them.”
In all six Greenbrier schools, students and staff decided to take this idea even further by designating a “Red-Blue-Green” day for fundraising. The students were asked to wear blue pants to symbolize Greenbrier, red shirts for Vilonia and to donate green cash.
“We had a lot of football players who wore their red, albeit begrudgingly,” says T.J. Slough, an assistant Greenbrier coach. “One thing we talked about was that it could have just as easily been us.”
Meanwhile, Greenbrier High School principal Susan Jackson called principal Ashley to set up a meeting of student delegations. The plan was to present a check in the amount of money raised by Greenbrier students.
The bus of about 50 Greenbrier faculty and students left with that check on a Friday morning, nearly two weeks after the tornado. The staff wanted their students to see how much damage was hidden from those on Arkansas 64, the main highway entering Vilonia from the west.
“We took a slow roll through there,” Slough recalls. “The kids were still able to see volunteers picking up trash and clothes that were still lying out. You could see where one trailer in particular had been blown across the road and down a hill. It was a pretty quiet drive.”
As the bus approached Vilonia High School, many students there puzzled over their rivals’ sudden appearance. Some of the athletes were especially annoyed, considering the baseball and softball teams were that night scheduled to play a total of four games — each with playoff implications — against Greenbrier.
Ashley recalls baseball and softball players saying, “‘Well, we don’t like them.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna like Greenbrier a little bit. Tonight, you may not, but during school you’re gonna like ‘em.’”
That wasn’t too hard once Jackson presented a giant check with the figure “$10,000” on it. “Our kids raised this for your kids,” Ashley recalls her saying. Ballard, the only current football player who received the check on behalf of Vilonia, thanked his rivals profusely.
“I really couldn’t believe they would go out of their way to do something that magnificent for us. It’s just kind of stunning, there’s that much love,” he said. Ballard, who also played baseball, says although Vilonia’s baseball team lost its games that night, there was significantly less trash talk than usual. Ashley adds: “When you have a tragedy like this, it puts sports in perspective. That ball is not the most important thing in life.”
After the presentation, Ashley led Greenbrier’s students on a tour of neighborhoods most brutalized by the tornado: Quail Hollow, close to town, and the Black Oak Ranch Estates, a rural area of mostly mobile homes southwest of Vilonia where the four people died.
“It was way worse than I expected,” says Cain, who was part of the Panther delegation. “There were buildings that had just been taken up and moved across the road, parts of buildings in trees.” To this day, twisted metal and splintered trees litter the Black Oak area. Locals say reconstruction there has been much slower than in Quail Hollow, whose residents had better insurance coverage.
The tour inspired more Greenbrier students to help. Some later went with church groups to Quail Hollow, where they cleared trees and patched roofs, Slough recalls. These teens joined other student volunteers from across the state and Texas. Meanwhile, the $10,000 donation was divided among Vilonia’s five schools according to student population. The high school received more than $2,000, Ashley says. That has replaced possessions destroyed by the tornado: a soccer player’s uniform, other students’ graduation caps, gowns and invitations.
The past two falls, Greenbrier’s varsity football team has won its big game of the year and made its community extremely proud. Last spring, the favor was returned. “I was really proud of the Greenbrier people and our school district for what they did,” coach Tribble says. “A lot of people were really selfless in the way they gave and helped with the Vilonia people, and hopefully that will be a thing that will be stronger than the rivalries that exist between us.”
A House Divided: Marriage across ‘enemy’ lines
If proximity is the stick stirring sports’ best rivalries, kinship is the spice. Greenbrier and Vilonia are no exception. Roughly 14 miles separates the two Faulkner County towns — far enough to develop distinct, proud communities; close enough to marry across enemy lines and build homes with split loyalties.
Sit on the Panthers or Eagles side of the stadium? It’s a potentially tricky issue in these cases:
THE MILLERS: Jason Miller was an assistant football coach at Greenbrier High for three years before becoming a Vilonia High assistant principal in 2010. He still wears the occasional blue shirt, and takes some students’ ribbing for it, but there’s another cross-county tie he’s much less likely to break. Jason’s wife is a second grade teacher at Greenbrier’s Wooster Elementary School. She kept him in the loop when her kids helped raise supplies for Vilonia after spring’s devastating tornado.
THE HARKRIDERS: This tidbit would be good if it centered on the disclosure that Robert Harkrider, a Greenbrier High alum, had been Greenbrier’s marching band director years before taking his current position as Vilonia’s band director. It gets better, though: Harkrider’s wife, Judy, was Vilonia’s band director when her husband was in Greenbrier. Moreover, since then the two have taken the other’s position — Judy Harkrider is now a band director for Greenbrier. But here’s the kicker: the couple have had their bands perform together at rivalry game halftimes, says Ed Sellers, Vilonia’s assistant superintendent.
THE WINSTONS: All Ed Sellers could imagine was what might have been as he watched Greenbrier running back Hunter Winston destroy Vilonia’s defense last fall. His 221 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries led his side to a 33-14 win over the Eagles, who were quarterbacked by Winston’s cousin Drew Knowles.
Family ties to Vilonia run deep for the now-graduated Winston, says Sellers, a Vilonia principal for 38 years. Winston’s grandfather was one of Seller’s best friends, and his mother was a Vilonia drum major before going to the other side. Sellers says he never let Hunter’s mom forget it, either. “I harassed his mother when I saw her at the ballgames. I said ‘He really belongs to us.’”