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.”