Twelve minutes. That’s how much notice residents of Lee County in eastern Alabama got last Sunday afternoon before the most violent of at least six confirmed tornadoes touched down, leaving 23 dead and 90 injured in its path. The EF-4 tornado, the deadliest in the United States since 2013, has affected the arena football community in a personal way: its 27-mile track tore through the western portion of the National Arena League’s Columbus Lions watershed. All casualties and most of the destruction occurred within a 30-minute drive from the Columbus Civic Center.
Much of the past week has been about the search for victims, the care of survivors, and the stories of those who walked the fine line between life and death that a catastrophic event delineates. There’s “Lucky” McBride of Smiths Station, who rode the storm out in his truck; and there’s the extended Jones family of nearby Beauregard, who lost ten members. Tragedies like this force introspection. The affected community comes to see a good within itself that it may have forgotten was ever there. This applies not only to traditional terranean communities but to virtual ones such as arena football that are spread over a larger distance and bound by a common passion.
We all live our lives very far apart. Nevertheless, league status, player abilities, and hatred for rivals melts across the miles when warmed by compassion for fellow brothers in need. And a tragedy like these tornadoes shows us as much. Take the Carolina Cobras. Owner Rob Storm and GM Tia McDaniel are 450 miles north, yet they are part of a joint Red Cross relief effort to help Lee County rebuild.
“When we heard about the disaster in and around the Columbus community our first instinct was, ‘What can we do to help?” says Storm. “While we may battle on the field, behind the scenes we are all partners and family. It could have just as easily been in Greensboro or any other community. That’s what being human is all about – helping and caring.”
NAL super-fan Don Levet lives 400 miles to the west, on the far side of New Orleans. That hasn’t stopped him from spending his week on social media lobbying for prayers and disseminating information on how folks across the country can help. Despite nearly three full states of separation, last Sunday’s events hit home for Levet. He’s been an avid Lions fan since the New Orleans Voodoo folded, and makes the seven-hour pilgrimage to Columbus twice each season. He’s also lived through his own post-traumatic stress brought on by Hurricane Katrina, which left him with memory loss for nine full days.
“I’ve lived through tragedy and bounced back,” he said. “These people will bounce back.”
Levet is coordinating supplies deliveries through his church, but says residents will need help emotionally as well. He did in coping with Katrina. For him, community counseling should play a role in Lee County’s recovery. If anything, it can help vent the anger.
“When you get wiped out the first question is, ‘If there is a God, why did this happen?'” he says. “And if [victims] don’t get good counseling, they’re going to go through life holding a grudge.”
Those who acknowledge a higher power will likewise maintain that no burden is beyond the bearing. There is always someone there to share the load. And it may be that, of all the backyards in arena football, this particular tragedy landed in the Lions’ for that very reason.
Now in their 13th season in Columbus, the Lions are the most-established arena franchise in Dixie Alley, if not the entire country. They are model citizens. Whether its in organizing clothing drives like Hoodies For The Homeless, or visiting local schools and hospitals, or playing hosts to 3,000 servicemen from nearby Fort Benning during Military Appreciation Night each season, they are always there to help. It’s a relationship owner Josh Blair says is reciprocal.
“Our fans give so much support to our players, making them feel part of their families. We have the best fans in arena football. The Columbus Lions know the importance of being an active part of our local community.”
They are a source of civic pride that extends beyond the Chattahoochee River and are now leveraging their stature in a different way. Through their website and social media sites, the Lions have become overseers of an informational hub matching those in need to those who can give in the wake of the tornado tragedies. It’s just one more way they can help in a symbiosis that has less to do with football today than at any time in the last 13 years.
All the missing have now been accounted for, and as the brick-and-mortar rebuilding begins the civic bond between community and team has never been stronger. Soon, greater Columbus can take up lesser concerns like Mason Espinosa’s replacement, and that is the real margin of victory for Blair’s franchise and the league that stands behind him.
Please consider contributing to the We Roar Together American Red Cross relief fund organized by the Columbus Lions and Carolina Cobras to assist victims of the March 3 tornadoes throughout eastern Alabama and parts of Georgia. Thank you.