Immokalee's football team put its season on hold for two weeks last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. A year later, the Indians say they grew from the experience. Wochit
One year ago, Immokalee High School football coach Rodelin Anthony wasn’t planning for an upcoming opponent. He was worried whether or not his players had food to eat.
Becky Welch wasn’t running practices for her Everglades City School volleyball team. She was making sure the players had places to live.
Lehigh Senior High School coach James Chaney wasn’t concerned with football either. He was trying to help his players find ways in and out of their flooded homes.
Everglades City, Immokalee and Lehigh Acres were among the areas hit the hardest when Hurricane Irma made landfall in Collier County one year ago Monday. For athletic teams and coaches, sports took a back seat for nearly three weeks as Southwest Florida recovered.
Games eventually resumed, though it took much longer for life to get back to normal for the athletes. Some haven’t fully bounced back, especially in Everglades City where the school still is dealing with repercussions of the near total damage done to the gym and some businesses in town have yet to return.
As traumatic as Irma was, coaches say their players came out stronger, having learned the importance of resiliency and community.
“I remember how we persevered,” Anthony said. “We were able to come together and mature. (Football) is not about just getting a ‘W’. It’s about creating a family and making better sons and future husbands. I’m proud of our guys because they became men and learned a lot of life lessons.”
After Hurricane Irma ravaged Southwest Florida, local football players got to work rebuilding their communities. Adam Fisher/Naples Daily News
A helping hand in Everglades City
In Everglades City, Welch’s volleyball team and later her boys basketball team were awed by the support of opponents after the school lost its gym. The players learned that community bonds supersede athletics.
Irma made landfall on Marco Island, just a few miles away from the small fishing town. While Marco sustained damage and flooding, the buildings on the resort-like island fared much better than the old homes and trailers where many in Everglades City reside.
“A lot of our players were homeless,” Welch said. “We had players coming (to school) all the way from Estero and North Fort Myers because it was the only place they could find to live. But the kids themselves, I don’t think I ever heard them complain.”
Collier County Public Schools sports teams resumed practices 11 days after the hurricane hit, and classes started up again four days after that. However, the Gators volleyball team had nowhere to practice or play after Irma ripped holes in the gym’s roof.
Gulf Coast seniors Brandon Hannon and Colton Cormier were elated to practice Wednesday, Sept. 20, after two weeks off due to Hurricane Irma. Adam Fisher/Naples Daily News
The Gators were able to practice at Manatee Middle School, 26 miles away from their school. In the winter season, Manatee has its own basketball teams, so the Everglades City boys and girls basketball teams had to practice on outdoor courts in town.
After the hurricane hit, the Gators had no more home games. Every volleyball and basketball contest was on the road. Often the volleyball team would play its scheduled home and away games against an opponent in that school’s gym on the same night. The varsity would play the “home” game, rest while the junior varsity played, then play its away game.
The first day back to class, Sept. 25, the volleyball team had a home match scheduled against Southwest Florida Christian. Welch asked her players, and they all said they wanted to play. So the Gators went to SFCA and played the first of four home-away doubleheaders that season.
The Gators didn’t win a match last season. They didn’t even take a set. But what the players gained from getting back on the court was more important to them than wins and losses.
In addition to getting back to a normal routine, the Everglades City teams were showered with support from their opponents. Many schools provided a pregame meal to the Gators, knowing food still was scarce in their town. Some also provided a postgame meal for the long ride home after playing two games.
Other teams raised money. Community School, First Baptist and Village School in Naples all donated money to Everglades City School. Welch is hesitant to mention any one school that helped because so many lent a hand that she’s scared she would forget to thank one.
“It was a humbling experience for the girls,” said Welch, now in her 40th season coaching various sports with the Gators. “The outreach and outpouring of what other schools, public and private, did for us is beyond expression. It’s just phenomenal what people did for our school and our kids.
“It showed them there’s still goodness in this world. There’s still kindness and humanity.”
The rebuilding of Everglades City is ongoing. Some players’ homes remain under repair, while some parents work to reopen businesses in town.
Through it all, the city stays strong.
“It’s been a slow process, but our community is very resilient,” Welch said. “We come upon hard times and we work to help each other out. This small town handles tough things pretty well. We take a hard hit but come back just as tough.”
Overcoming adversity in Immokalee
On the first day back to practice after the storm – two weeks since the team had last gathered – the first order of business for Anthony was getting his Immokalee football players fed.
Some Indians players, ones living in temporary housing or trailers, lost their homes. All of them lost power, while some didn’t have clean water. Anthony, then a second-year head coach, gathered up as many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as he could for an impromptu team meal.
It was hard to return to football. The players were thankful to have each other, but their minds were elsewhere.
Football offered them a chance to get away from the tragedy of wrecked homes and flooded streets, if only for a few hours.
“A lot of people (in town) didn’t know where they were gonna live, how they were gonna eat, how they were gonna feed their kids,” senior defensive back Charles Toombs said. “It was good to get our minds off of that and focus on football.”
Toombs recalls that the field still was so flooded on the first day of practice that he saw a catfish swimming in one of the large puddles on Immokalee’s artificial turf.
The Indians entered 2017 with one of their most talented senior classes ever and expectations to match. The players were eager to get back to Friday night lights as they chased a championship.
Anthony said things weren’t truly back to normal for another few weeks, but football helped the team put Irma behind them.
“A lot of times kids need routine again,” said Anthony, an Immokalee native. “They need normalcy. That’s how we persevered. We kept our goals in sight.”
Immokalee won every game in the regular season. That’s despite a three-way layoff and despite playing its biggest game of the year, against district rival Dunbar, on a Tuesday because the original date was washed out by Irma.
It was the third undefeated regular season in school history. Immokalee also won the program’s third regional championship.
The Indians were immensely talented, but they can’t help but think the bond they formed while overcoming adversity together helped them on the field.
“(Irma) kind of helped us because it brought us together and supporting each other,” senior kicker Jose Lopez said. “It helped us get closer to each other.”
A blessing in disguise in Lehigh
In Lee County, Lehigh Acres suffered the brunt of Irma. It was a strong Category 2 storm by the time it reached the county with the eyewall traveling east of I-75.
Lehigh Senior High School saw considerable damage to classrooms and its auditorium. Repairs were way down on principal Jackie Corey’s priority list.
She and her staff worked tirelessly over a two-week period to provide relief to their community, making sure it was fed. In the days following the storm, Corey organized a fleet of trucks to start delivering food to hard-hit areas like Charleston Park. Organizations like the Salvation Army helped get the kitchen at Lehigh Senior up and running so hot meals could be served to over 400 people a night over three days.
East Lee County High School served as a shelter for special needs storm evacuees and returned to the football field later than any school in Lee.
Lehigh coach James Chaney recalled getting back to football was a blessing for a lot of his players. Some who lived off a flooded Centennial Boulevard had to ride boats back and forth to school. Then-senior wide receiver Russell Brown, who now plays at Western Kentucky University, spent weeks at a hotel after his home flooded.
“We’ve grown by leaps and bounds and our kids are fine,” Chaney said a year later. “A lot of times in tragic situations, you have to cut a rose bush back to get the pretty roses. It’s helped us. It was almost a blessing in disguise that it happened.”
Chaney said the adversity his players deal with every day prepared them for the hardships experienced after Irma. The fellowship on the team and the will to help others only increased.
“The thing you’ve got to understand where we are, where you’re standing right now, we have kids here presently who are homeless, who are in shelters, who don’t have lights, who don’t have power, whose AC has been out for a month,” Chaney said. “We hear that every day just on our football team. Kids live with unfortunate situations every day, maybe more than kids do in other communities.
“We live by what we can do as a coaching staff to help our kids at all times because we get it every day. We try to do everything we can for those in the community who are less fortunate. I think it’s a good moral lesson for the kids becoming men. That a part of the building blocks of our program.”