How Washington Panthers football led town’s 2013 tornado comeback

Updated: Nov. 17, 2023 at 6:30 PM CST
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(25News Now) - On November 16, 2013, Washington football celebrated its 12th straight football win. The Panthers rolled over Normal U-High and into the state final four.

Just one day later, on November 17, 2013, no one in Washington was thinking about football anymore. A tornado destroyed neighborhoods and ravaged the city. Panthers head coach Darrell Crouch could not believe the damage.

“We went out to find our players’ houses, coaches’ houses and that’s where it just looked like it had been bombed,” Crouch said. “You see things on TV and it’s nothing like when you can’t tell where you’re at.”

Ten years after the Washington tornado, the 2023 football Panthers are back in the football final four. Despite being just 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds when the tornado destroyed their town, the current Panthers certainly haven’t forgotten that time.

Panthers sophomore defensive back Owen Klein was confused when his family went to the basement on that Sunday morning. He was shocked when his family left the basement.

“I walked out and there was nothing,” Klein said. “Everything was just destroyed. Everything was flat. I was really confused because I didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t understand it then except for I knew that it was gone and that we probably weren’t going to get it back.”

The Panthers were six days away from the football game of a lifetime, but football would wait. Monday’s practice was cancelled as the Panthers team spent the day doing whatever they could to help their town, their fans and their teammates dig out from the tornado.

“We’ve talked about that forever in our program,” coach Crouch said. “We talk about how leaders lead from the front not from the back. They did that and I think they did a good job. They felt a commitment to the town.”

The Panthers did whatever they could to help the town but the best thing they could do was play football. There was never any talk of cancelling the Saturday playoff game at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.

“There was never any of the kids that were like, ‘Why are we playing this game?’,” Crouch said. “Just the normalcy that it gave our town for that four-hour block and our kids. If you went back and asked them that week, the only time they were in a normal situation was when we were at practice. And then they were going back to chaos. We had guys sleeping at other guys’ houses because their house was gone.”

On game day, the Panthers traveled south to Springfield. The 75-mile trip was lined with fans of opposing high school football teams showing their support for the Panthers. The stands were packed with football fans and love that playoff afternoon. Among the fans was current Washington all-state star Kainon McQueary.

“It was that one thing that still kind of brought our community together,” McQueary said. “It was that one hope we had. We still had our football team going. We were still here. Their crowd cheered for us, our crowd cheered.”

Washington lost that 2013 semifinal game but for Washington coach Darrell Crouch, the week after the Washington tornado was the ultimate championship effort for his Panthers team.

“They did a really good job of helping with the cleanup,” Crouch said. “They did a really good job in front of national media and local media of talking about our town and really rose to the occasion.”