In many rural towns across America, football is king. That’s no exception in Chiefland, a small Florida hamlet slammed by Hurricane Idalia at the end of August.
The varsity football team at Chiefland Middle High School in Levy County only played one game before Idalia hit, disrupting their schedule. But as the town of 2,351 people loyally embraced its football team every Friday, the team turned to embrace and help those in need after the storm.
Chiefland Coach Corbin said he does not want to “compare apples to oranges,” but cannot help comparing this year to the team’s COVID-19 season.
“We’ve had a lot of players injured, we have some players that are done for the season now, and then on top of that, when you have a hurricane hit as locally as it did, it really affects school, it affects practice time, it affects games,” Corbin said.
Corbin said even though Chiefland was affected by Hurricane Idalia, his athletes felt obligated to travel to Cedar Key and help. He said the students brought up the idea, feeling guilty their close neighbors were hit so badly.
“The community came together really well,” said Amanda Knapp, 47, a nurse from Chiefland. “Some of the football players and some of the cheerleaders went down to Cedar Key and helped clean up, serve food and they partnered up with some of the churches in town and helped get stuff distributed.”
“It’s a brotherhood or it’s a sisterhood whether you’re playing volleyball or football and those kids crave that normalcy and the ability to count on one another,” said Levy County Superintendent Chris Cowart.
Immediately after the storm, the team was not sure when they could return to practice. Cowart said after-school activities were shut down for 48 hours after the hurricane, and were voluntary once they resumed. Students who wanted to get back to playing football, could.
James Corbin, Chiefland head football coach, summed it up this way: “When you step on the football field or you get to attend a game, everything from the outside world kind of melts away for that moment.”
Defensive end Reggie Adams, 16, who graduates in 2025, said at a recent midweek practice that his team was extra motivated to get back and play football, but most importantly, win.
“We couldn’t play, we were mad,” said Adams while snapping the ball to his punter. “We would come out here and practice everyday and we would go back in because of the lighting.”
Senior defensive back Thomas Pettigrew Jr., 18, who is graduating in 2024, plays almost every position on the field and was afraid that his season was going to be over.
“It was hard because we couldn’t really play, but it built me,” he said. “We got a lot of practice in and we all came back together, but it was really slow at first with the storm going on.”
Pettigrew Jr. practiced from every side of the ball, including special teams, where he is the starting punter. He said when the team traveled to Cedar Key and provided aid, it not only helped the community, but it helped their team.
Less than a week after Idalia, the Chiefland team had their second game of the season, away at Wildwood. Players said the field was soggy and muddy from the storm. But their manual labor paid off, winning 50-32.
Jennifer Jones, 42, a mother of Chiefland player Osten Jones,16, said her family was without power for four days, including in the build up to the game. She simply said it was, “not fun.”
“The boys work together to help in the community,” said Jones, who drove immediately after work to see her son play running back a few weeks later at a game in Newberry. “The players and the coaches go out and help the older people clean up the trees, limbs and stuff like that.”
Matt McLelland, 48, the principal of Chiefland Middle High School, was one of about 120 fans in attendance in Newberry.
“Lots of fans are coming out and supporting the kids,” he said. “The kids were really excited that they were able to get to play that game [after the storm]… We had a big showing from fans on our side and their side, so it’s been really great.”
Jason Whistler, 48, from Chiefland and the Levy County property appraiser, said the community grew closer after the storm hit.
“It solidified everybody I guess,” he said. “Seeing adults reach out to other adults and seeing how kids interact with one another and help others at time of need. I think they can learn from how adults have really come together.”
Junior running back Osten Jones, who rushed for six touchdowns in the first game back against Wildwood, said that it is always nice to get back on the field with his brothers, and that he missed the environment more than anything.
“We are definitely progressing in our relationships together,” said Jones, who just got finished with his water break during practice. “We’ve all grown up together, so there is a natural bond there anyway, but I believe the more you suffer with somebody, the more you grow with them.”