Gophers tight end Lincoln Plsek said his hometown of West, Texas, is the kind of place where “everyone knows everybody.”
So when a friend texted him Wednesday night, asking if his parents and younger brothers were OK, Plsek thought the friend just wanted to get caught up.
Plsek soon realized the town of 2,800 people had experienced tragedy, when a fertilizer plant exploded into a mushroom cloud, leveling nearby homes.
Knowing his family lives about two miles from the plant, Plsek frantically texted his mother, grandparents and friends, making sure everyone was OK. The texts didn’t immediately get through to his mother, but within an hour, she assured him his immediate family was safe.
Plsek later learned that a distant relative was killed in the blast.
“When something like that happens, you don’t expect it to be in your hometown, especially a town of [2,800] people, and it was just a shocking feeling,” Plsek said. “My heart goes out to the families and everyone who lost lives and was injured.”
As of Thursday night, the death toll was unknown, as rescuers searched for survivors in the smoldering ruins. Dozens were feared to have died from the blast.
Plsek’s mother, Jennifer, had a summer job at the fertilization plant when she was in high school. Her mom’s side of the family has multiple farmers who do business with the plant. But the Plseks didn’t suspect an explosion when they first heard and felt the blast.
“We were at home, kind of relaxing,” Jennifer Plsek said. “We’d heard reports that there were supposed to be storms. All of a sudden, we heard a real loud boom. We heard our house shake and we saw this large cloud of smoke, like you see on TV, those nuclear bomb-shaped clouds.”
The family evacuated their home for the night. Meanwhile, Lincoln Plsek spent a sleepless night following the television coverage. The footage of the explosion itself was especially hard for him to stomach.
“I watched one time and couldn’t watch it again,” he said. “It was too disturbing.”
During the hour when he couldn’t reach his family, Plsek thought specifically about his two youngest brothers.
“They have friends in that area, and I was just praying that they weren’t over there playing,” Plsek said, with his voice cracking.
By Thursday afternoon, it was time to focus on football. Tight ends are an important part of the Gophers offense, and Plsek played in eight games last season as a true freshman.
“I told myself I was going to dedicate this practice to everyone who got hurt, and everyone who died,” he said.
Plsek also spoke to the Gophers staff about returning home to help with reconstruction efforts.
“Obviously, I want to go down there and help so bad,” he said. “But it might be the best decision to stay up here, wait it out, and when I get home in a month after finals, I can volunteer to help rebuild.”
Coach Jerry Kill spoke with Plsek before practice.
“He’s a great person and an excellent player,” Kill said. “He grew up in a small town. I’ve been in his house, met his mother and family and all those things. He came up here and played as a true freshman. I worried about him getting homesick and all that, but from the day he’s walked in, he said Minnesota’s his home.”
In 31 years as a coach, Kill has plenty of experience counseling players through tragedies.
“We’ve had to lean on each other through a lot of things,” Kill said. “And I think that’s the great thing that football teaches you.”