Three days after the tornado, football players from Southmoore High, a five-year-old school on the southern edge of the small central Oklahoma city of Moore, gathered for a team meeting in their locker room. Some sat neatly in rows of folding chairs, others on the floor and still others in the blue metal dressing cubicles that lined the walls. Among the players were at least a dozen of the 22 boys (from more than 170 team members) who had lost their homes in the devastating storm that tore through Moore on the afternoon of May 20, killing 24 and destroying 1,200 residences. At a few minutes past 1 p.m., coach Jeff Brickman entered the room and stood in front of his team. He wore a gray T-shirt, wind pants and knee-high rubber boots, his uniform for the outdoor cleanup detail that would follow the meeting.
Brickman, 36, was born in Moore and graduated from Moore High; when a powerful tornado struck the city on May 3, 1999, he raced home from college at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, ditched his car in stalled traffic by the side of I-35—"Almost like an Armageddon movie or something," he says—and rushed past National Guardsmen to find that his family's home was heavily damaged, but that his parents had heeded warnings and left in advance of the twister. Four years later Brickman's 91-year-old grandmother was pulled alive from the wreckage of yet another tornado that struck Moore. Three major tornadoes have hit the city in Brickman's lifetime; he has an abiding appreciation for the physical and emotional damage they inflict. He also understands that high school football is important in Oklahoma. He watched the annual "Moore War" against crosstown Westmoore High, and last year, his first as Southmoore's coach, he swept the other two city schools en route to a 7--4 season record. His program regularly sends players to Division I colleges. It is a serious business.
But in the immediate aftermath of last week's tornado, Brickman felt a strong impulse to, in his words, "let the dust settle," appropriate phrasing given that the Southmoore grounds were littered with debris from the storm. The last three days of the team's spring practice, including the annual spring game, had been canceled. Yet as he met with players who had lost their homes (one, freshman Taylor Neely, who was not at the meeting, lost his mother), he found something else altogether. They didn't want a break from football. "Every time I met a kid who lost his house, he said to me, 'When can we get back to practice? When can we get back to the weight room?' " says Brickman. "They wanted football so they could get away from the devastation."
He sketched out an ambitious plan to bring the team together the following week for two practices and a spring game that could serve as a fund-raiser and perhaps a healing moment for the community. That plan would ultimately be torpedoed because of onging utility work that caused road closures throughout the area, but in the moment it gave players hope. Here in the locker room, Brickman said to his team, "Raise your hand if you're all in with getting back to football next week." Every hand shot skyward.
An hour after the meeting a stocky junior nosetackle named Bryce Hatton, whose home was destroyed by the tornado, sat among the ruins of what had been a middle-class Moore neighborhood, eating pizza and drinking Powerade handed out by the Salvation Army. Asked why, in the middle of all this, he would keep playing football, Hatton said, "Because football is all I've got now."
The morning of May 20 dawned muggy and breezy in central Oklahoma. "A classic Oklahoma storm situation," says Rick Smith, 49, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman, just south of Moore. Tornadoes form prodigiously in Oklahoma along what severe-weather experts call the "dry line," a weather boundary where muggy air from the Gulf of Mexico and dry air from the Southwest are blown together. Smith's office had been targeting May 20 as a potentially dangerous day for nearly a week and by early afternoon had issued severe weather warnings.
Members of the Southmoore football team received midday text messages informing them that the day's 2 p.m. practice had been canceled. Tryouts to find the new mascot—Sammy the SaberCat—remained on the schedule into the early afternoon. Students throughout the school heard that tornadoes were likely, but few remember the 1999 twister and all had lived through countless false alarms. "There's always talk about tornadoes," says senior tight end Brandon Garrison. "I honestly didn't think it would be that big a deal." In place of practice many Southmoore football players met with their coaches and watched film of the previous day's workouts.
At 2:40 p.m. the NWS issued a tornado warning for Moore and neighboring areas—meaning a tornado either has been detected or is imminent. Coaches pulled up angry radar images on cellphones and Smart Boards, giving the warnings substance. The school implemented its tornado protocol: Students were sent by teachers, administrators and coaches to designated areas in the buildings. Sierra Cuccio, a senior cheerleader, says, "We unrolled our cheer mats and stuffed as many people as we could into them, and then rolled them back up." In the fieldhouse, football coaches instructed athletes (mostly football players, but also track athletes and cheerleaders) to don football helmets, move to the center of the building and assume the "tornado position" (hunched over, head between legs).
Sixteen minutes after the initial warning, at 2:56, the tornado touched down 4.4 miles west of Newcastle, about 10 miles from Southmoore High. "The storm went severe very, very quickly," says Smith, the meteorologist. "It was apparent that it was going to be very bad. About as bad as it gets." The tornado would be on the ground for 40 minutes and travel 17 miles in a roughly northeasterly direction, across the middle of Moore. It was an extraordinary 1.3 miles wide, and its winds reached an estimated 210 mph. Based on evidence gathered in the days following the storm, the NWS would classify the tornado as EF-5, the highest possible classification. There have been just 59 tornadoes of that severity in the U.S. in the last 63 years, seven of them in Oklahoma.
Brickman watched the storm approach from behind the school. "It looked like it was going to miss us to the north, then it looked like it was coming right at us," says Brickman. "At the end it looked to the naked eye like it missed us by about 300 yards." (Satellite images indicate that it was closer to 500.) Lane Soltero (a junior) and his younger brother, Drake (an eighth-grader), both defensive backs, were signed out of school by their mother, Angela Maiso, just before the tornado formed. "We were driving while the tornado was on the ground," says Lane. "My mom was flipping out." The storm's largest path of destruction occurred directly north of Southmoore, where it took out Briarwood and Plaza Towers elementary schools and a wide swath of homes.