Joplin youth soccer contingent is craving 'normal'

  • Article by: CRAIG MALVEAUX
  • Star Tribune
  • July 16, 2012 - 12:23 AM

A tweed frock-wearing, swashbuckling Johnny Depp flashed before the eyes of Lisa Williams, her son, Eli, and the rest of their family 14 months ago. "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" was playing at the local theater.

Outside, a few miles away, an EF5, multiple-vortex tornado bore down on Joplin, Mo.

"It didn't look like it would hit Joplin, so we really didn't worry about it," said Williams, who lives in Joplin.

That tornado did hit Joplin, and this week Williams, Eli and Eli's teammates from the Midwest Select Soccer Club are using the Schwan's USA Cup soccer tournament at the National Sports Center in Blaine as another step in their recovery from that storm. The club will light the cauldron in an Olympic-style ceremony to kick off the annual event Tuesday night.

The tornado threw neighborhoods into tumult throughout Joplin, especially in the southwest corner of the city of nearly 50,000. Houses and buildings crumbled. Roads were wrecked, schools gone. More than 100 people died.

"It looked like a war zone," Williams said.

A month later, Eli's soccer coaches were contacted about participating in the 2011 Schwan's USA Cup. They declined then but accepted an invitation to participate this year.

"There was no way we could make it out there," said Sean Lauderdale, coach and co-founder of the Midwest Select Soccer club.

Now, making it out there sends the message that recovery is underway.

"I really want them to represent that we as a people from this area were hurt and damaged pretty bad but we, together, are recovering and moving forward," he said.

Lauderdale lives in Pittsburg, Kan., about 30 miles northwest of Joplin. That May evening, he watched the television broadcast in fear. He heard the rising death toll and the names of specific areas ravaged by the storm.

"You're thinking to yourself, I have a player who lives there, I have a player who lives there," he said.

All of the players and their families survived. Some lost their homes. Others, such as the Williams family, see their losses elsewhere.

A year removed, Joplin doesn't resemble the quaint city from before. In some areas, there are no street signs, still. Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers line neighborhood streets where homes stood.

"You get lost," Lauderdale said. "And these are places that I've been through thousands of times. Homes and businesses that used to be there for years, decades no longer exist."

The field where Midwest Select Soccer held practice remains intact. It lies, unaffected, miles outside of Joplin, so the team travels there to scrimmage and learn fundamentals, like before.

There, the tornado is set aside. That pitch is where they can be teenagers again.

Williams prays that this becomes true for Eli, 14. The tornado left him without his peace of mind and with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"He has a lot of mental health and behavioral issues that he didn't have before that day," she said. "You'll notice some of those effects off the field. For example, he talks to himself at times."

Participating in the Schwan's USA Cup means much to the players and Lauderdale.

"I'm just so proud," Lauderdale said. "For them to step on this kind of stage, it will be an experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives."

To Williams, it means something else.

"If he is playing, he is our old son," Williams said. "For the few minutes, we get to hope that maybe someday everything will be normal again."

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