WEST — There are times when a sporting event becomes more than a game. It usually happens after some tragedy and is representative of a group overcoming adversity.
Ask New Orleans football fans about Steve Gleason’s famous blocked punt in the Saints’ first home game after Hurricane Katrina, and many have said that moment helped them move on, feel normal again and begin to heal.
The city of West suffered a tragedy of its own on April 17, 2013, when a fertilizer plant exploded, killing 15. The blast injured hundreds more, as well as destroying more than 150 buildings near the plant.
West High School’s football team won only a single game in the season following the explosion, but bounced back to narrowly miss the playoffs with a 7-3 record in 2014. But the Trojans finally got over the hump and made the playoffs in 2015, with an 11-2 overall record, including a 5-1 record in district play.
The explosion affected the entire community and also presented a new set of problems for the Trojans’ football team to overcome. The high school’s building and all of the facilities were deemed unsafe. Head coach David Woodard said his team was without a practice field for months after the explosion.
“It definitely presented us with a unique set of problems that we had to work ourselves through,” Woodard said. “Quite honestly, it took us three, four, or five months to get all those problems worked through.”
As hard as Woodard and his staff tried, some of their losses were too great to overcome in one season without it affecting the team.
“I think it gave us a lot of obstacles to overcome,” Woodard said. “The facilities, the way were always used to doing things, we had to change a lot of that stuff because of the lack of facilities that we had or the situation we were in.”
Besides their problems at school and on the gridiron, Woodard and his players had to deal with adversity in their personal lives.
“I lost my house,” Woodard said. “I lived 200 yards from the fertilizer plant. So on top of everything else there was added pressure. I was in the process of building a house at the time and trying to get everything situated personally as well as professionally.“
Woodard, his wife and their two children spent the next six months living with friends and family until his new home was built. Somehow, Woodard was able to persevere through that living situation, provide for his family and still field a football team. It was an obstacle that he credits his wife and staff for helping him overcome.
“You have to separate personal from professional,” he said. “I have a great wife who was able to handle personal things and I was able to separate the professional things because I had so much help here with our staff and administration.
“So, it wasn’t easy, but it was something that, if you were going to get through it, you had to find a way to do it. Luckily we had a lot of help.”
Students used Connally High School until the school district installed a fleet of temporary buildings at West Middle School, which remains the campus for grades seven to 12.
Senior quarterback Mason Tobola said the experience was, and still is, mentally taxing.
“Obviously, we don’t have a building, we go to school in portables now,” Tobola said. “And we didn’t have a field from the end of April almost until the first day of two-a-days, almost until our first game. And now I’m a senior fixing to graduate out of portables.”
The Trojans’ practice field also is located just a couple of blocks away from where the fertilizer plant once stood. A crane is being used to build their new campus and can still be seen towering next to the field. The team faced a constant reminder about what happened to their community and that they would never know a normal high school experience.
For their success in the face of adversity, the Tribune-Herald has bestowed West’s football team with the 2015 Jinx Tucker Award.
The annual honor is given in memory of a man who gained national respect in his 33 years at the Trib’s sports editor. Tucker embodied sportsmanship, fairness and team play. The honor is given to an area team that has shown overall success, improvement throughout the season, sportsmanship, fan support and the will to win through adversity.
This marks West’s third Jinx Tucker honor, but the first since 1980.
In the face of all of their personal trials, the Trojans found motivation to persevere for their community.
“The community was a big rallying cry for us because it affected everybody in town,” Woodard said. We wanted to make sure we worked hard to be able to make the community proud and make sure we were able to represent what our community is and what they were able to overcome.”
Tobola knew how much football meant to some in the community. He hoped to help them forget the tragedy, even if only for a brief moment.
“Yeah, I felt inspired after it all happened, knowing I could try and do something to get everyone’s mind off a tragedy,” Tobola said. “So, I thought (football) would be a good outlet for everyone.”
Senior wide receiver and cornerback Quentin Dancer said the desire to win for their community overwhelmed the team during that 2013 season.
“Sophomore year I kind of felt everybody put more pressure on themselves to try and win games and make the playoffs for the community,” Dancer said.
With so much going on in all aspects of their lives, it’s easy to understand why the Trojans struggled in 2013. It would be understandable if the team was distracted or if the community stayed home to focus on other matters. But that did not happen.
Instead, the West community rallied around their team and everyone was rewarded with a breakthrough season in 2015. Woodard said he could tell the city appreciated his team’s resurgence.
“West has always had great pride in, not just football, but in everything our kids do in school,” Woodard said. “It’s no secret, some of those years in there, they were lean years. So, for us to spark that success again, it kind of got everybody excited. You could definitely see everybody excited. Everybody in town and even the kids at school got a little more excited and have a little more pride about the success our kids were having on the field.”
Tobola said the turnaround more than likely originated in 2014 when players stopped focusing so much on everything else and just bought into their coach’s program. The team started performing better, and the city took note.
“I could tell there was a little more excitement in the fall knowing that we were going to go to the playoffs,” Tobola said. “Once we entered the playoffs, I noticed a lot more people in the stands and a lot more support from the community.”
There comes a time, after any tragedy, where people must move on. Winning may not cure everything, but it helps. This winning season, and a playoff berth, provided a mechanism for the West players to put some hard memories behind them and start having fun again.
“I really enjoyed this season,” Dancer said. “(In 2014) when we didn’t make the playoffs, we still had a good team. I feel like we still should have gone to the playoffs, but things happen. Then this year, I already knew we were making the playoffs. I was just trying to compete for a championship.”
Tobola said this season was fun, but also helped everyone fortify their confidence.
“Our teammates, all the players we had, persevered and had the ability to overcome what we couldn’t have done two or three years back,” Tobola said.
Football can become more than a game because it represents a struggle. Each team must overcome the challenge before them as a team, as a community, or else they will fail. There are good and bad moments in any game. Every team suffers a triumph and a setback, but the ability to stay focused through the highs and persevere through the lows is a characteristic every championship caliber team has. When people observe that struggle on the field, it can inspire them to overcome their own problems in life.
Woodard said he does not know if his team’s success inspired West or provided healing. But he hopes the people in West enjoyed sitting in the stands and having fun again for three hours on a Friday night.
“I think we remember good times and we remember bad times,” Woodard said. “So those good times, it’s always good to reflect back on those and maybe flush some of the bad thoughts from your mind.
“Our success, I don’t know if it did or didn’t help. But if it got people in the coffee shop or downtown or at home around dinner table at night talking about West Trojans football, how well our kids were doing and helped put some of the bad stuff to the back of their minds, then that’s great.”