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Rivals Help Level Playing Field For Tornado-Shattered Team

A Panther Pride sign cheers Washington High School's undefeated football team amid debris from last week's tornado. (MCT /Landov)

Competition and compassion meet on the field in Springfield, Ill., Saturday, when two central Illinois high school football teams face off for a spot in the state championship. One team is a perennial powerhouse, but the other is from a town that was all but leveled by a tornado.

Last week, linebacker Kevin Scott and the rest of the Washington Community High School Panthers were celebrating. They'd just made school history with a 12-0 record, capped off with a Saturday win that sent them to the semi-finals.

But the next morning, Washington was a different place. One person was killed when the tornado hit. Subdivisions were wiped out. Kevin Scott was home alone.

"I heard a rumbling," he says. "I just thought it was thunder and a few minutes — actually a few seconds later — it kept getting louder, and I looked out the front window of my house and I saw the tornado about 300 yards away from me. And I just ran into my basement."

He stayed there, waiting for the roar to silence. When he finally emerged, he says, the second story of his house was gone.

A lot's gone missing: pets, photographs, and Scott's jersey. On Saturday, for the first time, he'll wear number 99.

Scott and his family have next to nothing. They're living in a hotel, and wearing donated clothes. Not exactly ideal before heading into a game against Springfield's Sacred Heart Griffin High School, the school with the best winning percentage in Illinois over the past dozen years.

That team's coach and players say while they'll do all they can to beat Washington, they're also trying to help the team.

Moms of the Springfield players have spent all week arranging to get food for Washington players. They're also sending six buses to Washington to pick up Panthers fans who may have lost their cars in the storm.

Granted, that'll mean more fans cheering against her team, but Anne Dondanville says part of football is to look out for each other.

"We definitely want to win, as do they," Dondanville says. "But you know, there's also human kindness and trying to set it up. If it would have happened to us, we'd hope that our opponent would try to make it as level a playing field as you possibly could under these circumstances."

Circumstances that Washington resident Amy Thompson says has her son questioning priorities. She says he felt guilty about going to football practice when he could be sorting through tornado debris.

"My words of advice to him were, 'Honey, the town needs this right now,'" she says. "'We need to find a positive. And the positive is you guys. And I know that's a lot to put on your young shoulders, but you guys need to go out there and fight the good fight.' "

That won't be a problem for Kevin Scott, the player who's wearing number 99 for the first time.

"I am really motivated for this week, cause I just — I mean, I'm an angry teenager that just lost his home," he says.

An angry teenager who's got the support of not one, but two towns, behind him.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Something more than simple sportsmanship will be celebrated on the field in Springfield, Illinois today. Two Central Illinois high school football teams face off for a spot in the state championship. One team is a perennial powerhouse, the other's from a town that was all but leveled by a tornado. From member station WUIS, Amanda Vinicky introduces us to the Washington Community High School Panthers.

AMANDA VINICKY, BYLINE: Last week, linebacker Kevin Scott and the rest of the Washington Community High School Panthers were celebrating making school history: a 12-and-0 record capped off with a Saturday win that sent them to today's semifinal. But the next morning, Washington was a different place. After the tornado hit, one person was killed; subdivisions were wiped out. Scott was home alone.

KEVIN SCOTT: I heard a rumbling; I just thought it was thunder, and a few seconds later just kind of got - kept getting louder, and I looked out the front window of my house and I saw the tornado just, probably about 300 yards away from me, and I just ran into my basement.

VINICKY: Where he stayed waiting for the roar to silence.

SCOTT: When I walked up the stairs, I mean, there was a little bit of roof over my head and the second - the second story's basically gone.

VINICKY: A lot has gone missing - pets, photographs. As for Scott, his jersey. Today, for the first time, he'll wear number 99. Scott and his family have next to nothing. They're living in a hotel and wearing donated clothes, not exactly the ideal before heading into a game against Springfield's Sacred Heart Griffin, the high school with the best winning percentage in Illinois over the past dozen years.

That team's coach and players say while they'll do what they can to beat Washington, they're also trying to help.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, we need to write down what supplies we need in the kitchen.

VINICKY: Moms of Springfield players have spent a week arranging to get food for the competing team's players and they're sending six buses to Washington to pick up Panthers fans who might have lost their cars in the storm. Granted, that means more fans cheering against her team, but Anne Dondanville says part of football is to look out for each other.

ANNE DONDANVILLE: We definitely want to win, as do they, but you know, there's also, you know, human kindness and trying to set it up if it would have happened to us, we'd hope that our opponent would try to make it as level a playing field as you could possible do in these circumstances.

VINICKY: Circumstances that Washington resident Amy Thompson says have her son questioning priorities. She says he felt guilty about going to football practice when he could be sorting through tornado debris.

AMY THOMPSON: My words of advice to him were: Honey, the town needs this right now. We need to find a positive, and the positive is you guys. And I know that's a lot to put on your young shoulders, but you guys need to go out there and fight the good fight.

VINICKY: That won't be a problem for Kevin Scott, the player who's wearing number 99 for the first time.

SCOTT: I'm an angry teenager that just lost his home.

VINICKY: An angry teenager who's got the support of not one, but two towns behind him today. For NPR News, I'm Amanda Vinicky in Springfield, Illinois.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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