10/27/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
THINGS WERE LOOKING BLEAK for the Jarrell Cougars, a football team from a small Texas high school with something big to prove. It was their first game of the season, and on a hot September night they were trailing the favored Bruceville-Eddy Eagles 18-0 late in the second quarter. The Cougars hadn't had a winning season since 1986, and here they were, losing yet again. It fell to Johnnie Martone, 18, a senior and team leader, to rally the troops. "Remember," he told them at half time, "who we are playing for."
That was all he had to say. Every rawboned kid sweating under shoulder pads knew just whom he meant: their six Cougar teammates who had died in a devastating tornado that ripped through Jarrell on May 27, killing 27 people in the town. The team had decided to unofficially dedicate the season to their lost friends—John and Michael Ruiz, Ryan and Erik Moehring, John and Paul Igo—and the gesture had worried many school officials and parents. "Jarrell has a history of losing," says Beverly Kitchens, whose son Matt, 17, is the team's star running back. "I didn't want them to feel that everything is lost if they lose." The dedication set off a heartfelt debate: Shouldn't Jarrell put the tragedy behind it and just move on?
But the Cougars weren't about to change their minds, and they weren't about to lose their first game. They came out after half time and scored a touchdown on their first possession. Then they scored three more times. Final score: Cougars 27, Eagles 24. When it was over, and after the players had huddled and pointed toward the heavens, tight end Chris Arldt, 16, stared long and hard at the scoreboard, appreciating the terrible irony—27 points, 27 lives lost. "That," he says, "was a powerful feeling."
Lately, tiny Jarrell—population about 1,000—has known little but powerful feelings. A flat stretch of heartland 39 miles north of Austin, the town spent a long, painful summer picking itself up from the crippling May 27 tornado and wrestling with the profound changes it wrought. In particular, Jarrell's youngsters, its carefree teenagers, were forced to grow up in a hurry. "They now understand that life is not promised," says high school superintendent Larry Hausenfluke, noting that there have been fewer disciplinary incidents since the tragedy. "I haven't had a boy wonder why he can't wear an earring or a girl show up with a ring through her nose."
That new maturity has also been evident on the football field. "In past years we'd be down 18 points and we would just quit," says junior quarter-back Ernest Viduare, 17. "But we've been brought together big-time. We're like a family." The Cougars followed their first win with another come-from-behind victory against the Milano Eagles and beat the Hyde Park Panthers for their third straight win—as many as they had all last year, when they went 3-7. "I see these teens pulling together now," says Johnnie Martone's mother, Virginia. "The town has suffered loss, and this is something good."
And yet, as much as the gallant Cougars have helped knit the shattered town together, no one is likely ever to forget that horrible afternoon in May. TV reports had warned townspeople that a category F5 tornado—the strongest possible storm of its type, with winds that can reach 318 mph—was headed their way. Residents scrambled for safety in underground shelters and sturdy houses as the twister appeared on the horizon. "You could not see around it, it was so big," says LaDonna Peterson, who peeked at the tornado from her mother-in-law's house. "It was digging the pavement right off the road." Stephen Gaswint, 17, remembers being on the phone with his best friend, Erik Moehring, 16. "He told me he saw the tornado coming," says Stephen. "He said, 'I've got to go,' and I told him, 'Be safe.' " Minutes later, the tornado leveled the subdivision where the Moehrings lived, killing Erik, his brother and his parents.
In its 30-minute rampage across the Jarrell plains, the tornado caused more than $20 million in damage. "It was like someone dropped a bomb," says Peterson, whose house was flattened, "like a vacuum cleaner just sucked it away" Ernest Viduare and Chris Arldt were among the first on the scene after the tornado passed and still cannot speak of the horror they witnessed. "I saw my friends," is all Chris will say.
Stephen Gaswint, who lost his sister and nephew, scoured the wreckage and found pictures of pal Erik; the photos are now his treasured keepsakes. He also found and kept a muddied Goofy doll that had belonged to Audrey Igo, 17, who died along with her twin brothers and parents. But Audrey's bright red drill-team costume was left for months on the spot where it landed, about 100 yards from her home—a reminder too painful even to pick up. "Then the sun faded the red out of it," says Stephen's mother, Sylvia, "and we were finally able to throw it away."
Feelings of sadness and anger have been even slower to fade. At a memorial roll call on the first day of school, students answered, "Present in our memory," when the names of the dead were called out. Around that time talk of dedicating the football season to the victims began "in the weight room or after practice," says Johnnie Martone, who came up with the idea. Despite concerns about "a false sense of failure if they didn't win," says Johnnie's father, William, the Cougars went ahead with their plan. "Not a day goes by that I don't think of them," says defensive back Daniel Crum, 16. "So I'm going to play every game for them."
Against the Bruceville-Eddy Eagles, the Cougars rose to the challenge. "That game sort of mimicked the tragedy," says Roy Arldt, Chris's father, who played on a Cougar team that reached the state finals in 1972. "The kids regrouped and showed the world how the community overcame obstacles to win. You couldn't have scripted that game any better."
Then, after two more rousing victories came the letdown that many had feared—the Cougars lost three games in a row. They now stand at 3-3 and with four games to go still have a chance at a winning season. More important, "the boys were not demoralized by losing," says their coach Tracy Burke, 34. A sense of accomplishment, a spirit of togetherness had already taken hold. "As long as we give all that we've got," says Stephen Gaswint, "then we've not let anyone down."
On the contrary, the Cougars have helped to pick people up. Juan Ruiz lost his entire family to the tornado: his wife, Maria, and sons, John, 15, and Michael, 14. With Juan away at work, the Ruizes, fearing that the tornado was heading for their trailer home, took shelter in the Moehrings' sturdier house. Sadly, that home wound up in the tornado's path, while the Ruizes' house was spared. So far, the still grieving father has been unable to touch anything in his sons' room, and has left it cluttered with bicycles and a weightlifting bench. "I don't know when I'll get the nerve to clean it out," he says.
One of the Cougars, Matt Kitchens, told the elder Ruiz that he and his teammates would play their hearts out in memory of his sons. "And he did," says Ruiz proudly. "They all did." Watching that opening game was a cathartic moment for Ruiz and a moment he almost missed, since for a time he thought it would be too painful to attend. "I didn't know how I would feel," he says. "But I felt good." Like so many others in Jarrell, he found that there was solace in watching the Cougars play football, and in remembering for whom they were playing.
BOB STEWART in Jarrell