Tornado directly affects Packers' Kampman, other NFL players
A tornado struck northeast Iowa a week ago, and seven people were killed. About 220 homes were destroyed, and much of the downtown of Parkersburg, Iowa, (pop.: 1,800) was leveled.
We see these stories in the news an awful lot this time of year, and we feel sad for those who have been affected, but for the most part we move on. This one piqued my interest because four NFL players -- Green Bay defensive end Aaron Kampman, Detroit defensive end Jared DeVries, Jacksonville center Brad Meester and Denver offensive lineman Casey Wiegmann -- come from there, and I read where Kampman had sent out an urgent appeal for help. So I phoned him to hear his story, and it made me stop in my tracks.
"I remember something my high school football coach, Ed Thomas, said to me when I left home,'' said Kampman, who starred at Iowa before becoming a Pro Bowl defensive end in Green Bay. "'Never forget where you came from.' Being from here, you can't forget. When you are from somewhere, wherever it is, it's your heritage. And anyone from there, it's a simpler way of life, a tremendous way to grow up. It's my roots. It was a privilege to grow up there. I'll never forget.''
The tornado happened eight days ago. Kampman was in Kansas City, visiting relatives, and he would have gone there immediately but was told not to because of gas leaks in the area. He drove five-and-a-half hours with his brother-in-law and was there Monday morning, around 10:30, in time to see his grandfather's house, or what used to be his grandfather's house, eviscerated. "In Iowa, you have these fire alarms that go off when severe weather approaches,'' Kampman said. "My grandpa went down in his basement, like everyone does, and when he thought the tornado had passed, he went back up into the house. But it came back. Next thing he knew, he was outside.
"The tornado took his house away, with him in it.''
His grandfather was in intensive care last week in Waterloo, about 25 miles away. When he woke up, he was amazed he'd survived. "God is so good to me,'' were his first words.
When Kampman walked a couple of blocks over to his high school football coach's house, his heart sank. Thomas and his wife were outside ... outside of nothing but rubble.
"I see Aaron coming,'' Thomas said, "and I just started crying. I lost it. And he gives me a big hug and says, 'Coach, everything will be OK.'"
Kampman stayed for the day and was one of a swarm of volunteers who removed rubble, chain-sawed fallen trees and worked the phones trying to raise money for relief efforts. The other NFL guys from the area pitched in too, vowing to come and help the recovery and send aid.
What really touched me was something Ed Thomas said to me Friday afternoon, in the rubble of what once was Aplington-Parkersburg High.
"The outreach from people in the community and around the state is unbelievable,'' he said. "Coach [Kirk] Ferentz called and said he was going to bring up some players from his team to help. I'm standing on the football field at the high school right now, and there's a team from Dowling High School in West Des Moines here, on their hands and knees for the last two hours, combing the field and picking up debris. After something like this, to get a field back in shape, you've got to start by removing all the shards of glass and the hundreds of nails and pieces of shingles and wood.''
"From Des Moines?'' I said. "How far away is that?''
"About two hours,'' Thomas said. "They got on buses today and just came here. Their football coach, Tom Wilson, used to coach in the area, and he's a wonderful man.''
Thomas put Wilson on the phone and he explained, "On Wednesday I decided we had to do something to help, and I put a signup sheet out asking for volunteers to come up after our exams on Friday. Next thing I knew, I had 95 people signed up, including almost all of our football team. We got the state soccer tournament going on, and the baseball tournament tonight, and kids are getting ready for graduation, but everyone really wanted to come. That's what you have here in the state of Iowa. We help our neighbors. And I know if it was reversed, coach Thomas would be there for me. So we got on two buses today and came here. It's the least we can do.''
I asked Wilson what impact the trip was having on his players.
"When we started driving through town, you could hear a pin drop on our bus,'' he said. "Teenage kids think they're immortal. But kids see this ... this immense destruction, this total loss of a town, and it hits them. It's very humbling.''
Thomas has coached at Aplington-Parkersburg for 33 years. In 2005 he was named the NFL High School Coach of the Year by commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who credited his mentoring of four NFL players from such a small school -- Kampman's graduating class was 69 strong -- as a big reason they made it to the big leagues. In fact, the NFL will send aid this week, and some volunteers. "Ed Thomas was like a second father to me,'' said Wiegmann.
Thomas' mentoring today will be far more important in life than it was in football for his players. Thomas told his current crop of players -- also up at the school last week, helping pick up the pieces of their lives -- what a test of character it was for them. "Lots of these kids lost their homes, and they're helping at home and helping here, trying to salvage their football field," he said. "Everything's in rubble. It's a war zone here. But the way we look at it here is that we will rebuild. Physical things you can replace. We lost five lives in this town, and that's what you can't replace.''
Thomas told me, "God willing, we're going to get this field read to play the football season this fall. This community needs it. I'm not sure how we're going to do it, but we're going to get it done. I can't tell you about how good people have been to us. Our lights are gone, but Musco, the lighting company in Iowa, is going to donate all new lights for us. The bleacher company is going to see what it can do for us. We'll have our bleachers back, somehow. We need to rebuild our homes. We'll rebuild ours, I can assure you of that. But we also need to get this field ready for the second Friday in September. We've got West Marshall coming in.''
"If Ed Thomas says they're playing football here in September,'' said Wilson, "Put your money on it. They're playing football here in September.''
Kampman is a giver. He's been on a church mission to India, and he's scheduled to go on one to Africa this year. He's doing everything he can to spread the word about his town. (You can donate to the rebuilding effort, by the way, if you'd like, by sending a check to: Lincoln Savings Bank, Attn: Dave Ragsdale, 932 Parrott Street, Aplington, Iowa, 50604. Write "Parkersburg Relief Fund" on the check.)
"In the end, when a disaster happens to you, you're going to be motivated to help,'' he said. "We know a family there that's had a lot of financial hardship, and has a 9-month-old baby, and the wife just found a job. She just started. They had no insurance. None. They just bought a house, and now it's gone. They have nothing. I don't know that it will motivate people outside of the area, because I understand all the suffering that goes on in the world. Can I say the need is greater in Parkersburg and the suffering great there than with the cyclone in Burma or the earthquake in China? No, I can't. The reality is there's a lot of need in this world. There's a ton of good people can do. I just hope people do something.''
Spoken like a pro -- a pro with a conscience.