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'Rock stars' on the Washington football team lifted the community when it needed it the most

Washington Community High School coach Darrell Crouch talks with his team during football practice at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, in Normal, Ill. The team has a state semifinal playoff game Saturday, but their hometown is just digging out from a powerful tornado that destroyed a number of players' homes. Practice had to be moved, in part, because the high school has no drinkable water service. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Seth Perlman
AP file
Washington Community High School coach Darrell Crouch talks with his team during football practice at Illinois State University's Hancock Stadium on Nov. 20, 2013, in Normal.

Nov. 16, 2013.

The Washington football team beats Normal U-High in a Class 5A quarterfinal game on the Panthers' home turf at Babcook Field and advances to the semifinals to face powerhouse Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin at its home field.

Nov. 17, 2013.

An EF4 tornado devastates the city of Washington, destroying or damaging more than 1,200 homes and many businesses. About 120 people are injured and one person died.

Streets hit hardest by the huge storm were unrecognizable. Washington football coach Darrell Crouch couldn't believe what he saw, or didn't see, in those areas.

"They looked like a bomb zone," said Crouch, whose rental home in the city was damaged. "There were no reference points. All the street signs and houses were gone."

Instead of focusing all their attention in the week following their quarterfinal win on the Cyclones from Sacred Heart-Griffin, Washington football players and coaches had to deal with the aftershock of a powerful tornado.

About 10 players and coaches lost their homes. Players and coaches helped with the enormous cleanup efforts immediately after the storm and during the week.

When the Panthers' story became national news, media from across the country descended on the city. So did the Chicago Bears, who sent a delegation to Washington to help with cleanup while cameras rolled.

"We talked to the guys about what they needed to do that week in front of a mic," Crouch said. "They needed be positive about our town, and talk about its resolve and resiliency.

"Here were 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds preparing for the biggest football game of their lives, and they were part of a media circus. But they were rock stars. They represented our team and community well."

Washington practiced during the week at Illinois State University, where Crouch played college football from 1982-85, and Eureka College, where Crouch was the football coach for five years, to get away from the tumult back home.

"The only normal thing that week was practice," Crouch said.

But even practice was impacted by the tornado.

"For the only time in my nearly 40 years of coaching, we couldn't put together a scouting report of our opponent for our players," Crouch said. "And we were getting ready to play a phenomenal team."

Sacred Heart-Griffin won the semifinal game 44-14, handing Washington its first loss of the season. The Panthers finished with a 12-1 record.

"There's no way the tornado wasn't on our kids' minds during the game," Crouch said.

After the game, a week of bottled up emotions poured out of Crouch.

"The only interview I didn't want to do that week was after the game with our captains," Crouch said. "I just wanted to be with all the guys."

While Sacred Heart-Griffin ended Washington's season, the way the Springfield school rallied to help the city of Washington recover from the tornado during the week leading up to the game far overshadowed the win,

"They sent truckloads of water," Crouch said. "They provided seven buses for our fans to come watch the game. They fed our team and our fans before the game."

Sacred Heart-Griffin wasn't the only school that stepped up that week. Schools in the Mid-Illini Conference, U-High, and Joliet Catholic also did their best to make the Washington football team's week as normal as possible, mainly providing meals.

"Those are Midwest values," Crouch said.

For four key players on the Washington team, it was a week they'll never forget for a multitude of reasons.

Each was a senior in 2013.

Colton Marshall is now a police officer in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Brogan Brownfield is employed in the city of Washington's Public Works Department.

Chris Friend is associate director of football performance at the University of Cincinnati.

Mason Chockley is an athletic trainer specializing in a return to sports, based in the Rockford area.

Marshall, Washington's quarterback in 2013, was one of the players whose home was destroyed.

He recalls the huge support the Washington football team had in the community but he said the support from teams the Panthers had beaten during the season "was more helpful than they probably knew at the time.

"Calvin Peacock, a player from Limestone, showed up at what used to be my house to help clean up and try to find anything that was salvageable," he said.

Brownfield, another player who lost his home, was an offensive guard and defensive tackle.

"Our team was a rallying point for the community the week following the tornado," he said. "Our game (against Sacred Heart-Griffin) was something to look forward to. The only sense of normalcy in people's lives, including my own."

Friend was a linebacker and running back.

"I remember the brotherhood of our team, the passion of our community for our team, and the national outpouring of support for our team and community," he said. "It showed that football is more than just a game. It was a way, in this case, to remain positive at a time of devastation for many."

Chockley also was a linebacker and running back.

"I remember football being the only normal thing, and the community looking to us to bring them up in a time of need," he said.

Washington (11-1) is back in the state semifinals this season, on the 10th anniversary of the tornado. This time in Class 6A. The Panthers will face another powerhouse -- East St. Louis (10-2) -- at home Saturday.

This is Crouch's 19th and final season as the Panthers' coach. The winningest coach in Washington football history is retiring as a coach and driver education teacher at the end of the school year.

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Steve Stein is an award-winning news and sports writer and editor. Most recently, he covered Tazewell County communities for the Peoria Journal Star for 18 years.