Finding comfort in football following Hurricane Florence
Outside, on the country roads around Wallace-Rose Hill High School, the water stains were still fresh on the utility poles and piles of debris sat on the edge of front yards, pieces of lives waiting for the landfill. Inside, in the high school football team’s field house, Kevin Motsinger filled coolers and prepared uniforms. It was a Friday and, at last, there was a game to play.
Motsinger, the Bulldogs’ head coach, 45 years old with a shaved head and a drawl as strong as his faith, paced the room. He swatted at flies. He lined up the coolers. He emptied the drier. He folded undershirts. He waited for his assistant coaches to arrive, and then his players. He didn’t know what to expect. Amid Hurricane Florence and its aftermath, the Bulldogs hadn’t played in 28 days.
In other parts of the state, the storm had already become something of a memory. Here, in the southeastern part of the state near the southern edge of Duplin County, the consequences of Florence’s destruction were just starting to be understood. Everyone around, it seemed, could tell a story about loss. Motsinger could tell several of them, including his own.
Florence had left Motsinger and several of his players without their homes. Some of them, Motsinger included, planned to return one day. Others wondered if they ever could. Trey Parker, an offensive lineman, lost his roof. Eric Hanchey, another offensive lineman, lost most of his clothes. The flooding destroyed his family’s crops. Jahisien Cruse, a linebacker, said he and his family lost just about everything.
Hours before Wallace-Rose Hill’s game on Friday night a week ago at Spring Creek High School in Seven Springs, Cruse found Motsinger in the field house. Motsinger placed his hands on Cruse’s shoulders and looked into the player’s eyes. For a moment, it felt like words of inspiration might be coming, something profound. Instead, Motsinger asked Cruse if he was hungry.
“Do you need food?” Motsinger asked softly. “Do you need clothing? Tell me what you need.”
“Food,” Cruse said.
In the building next door, the team’s weight room, packages of bottled water and boxes of canned food were spread out on the floor, sharing space with dumbbells and weight benches. All around, motivational signs hung on the wall. The largest sign detailed Wallace-Rose Hill’s success: six state championships, including ones in 2014, ‘15 and ‘16. Missing was one for the 2-A championship the Bulldogs had won last December. Four in a row. The work in this room had helped them become champions.
Now, some of those champions were gone, their whereabouts mostly unknown since the storm, and others were almost homeless, living with friends or relatives. Their weight room had turned into a staging area, a place to store donations and supplies. And now, in the kind of small town where Friday nights feel like they mean something more, Motsinger wondered how to balance the roles he was playing: coach and counselor, teacher and friend, a leader responsible for dozens of high school boys and a husband and father who wondered how best to be there for his own family in a time of turmoil.
Kickoff was set for 7 p.m. Before then, Motsinger had scheduled a team lunch, and time for his players to spend with each other. Most of them began filing in the locker room at 1:30. Motsinger asked how their girlfriends were, how their families were; and he knew, in some cases, the truth wasn’t good. He asked what they needed, hoping in many ways that right now they needed each other most of all.
‘Fuel to make you stronger’
On game day, the students at Wallace-Rose Hill High had been out of class for more than three weeks. During the storm, the school gym had served as a hurricane shelter for more than 300 people. Officials were still cleaning up. Outside, a disaster relief truck still sat parked, a reminder of the work yet to be done.
Without school, and without a regular schedule to guide their days, Motsinger and many of his players tried to do what they could to start to rebuild lives that had been upended. For Motsinger, it meant regular calls with the insurance company and contractors. He’d been staying with in-laws in Brunswick County, a two-hour drive, one way, from the school, and he was trying to find someplace closer.
For many whose homes had been flooded, lodging became the most immediate challenge in the aftermath of Florence: Where could they go? This part of the state, with its wide open spaces and low-lying farmland, isn’t replete with rental properties. There aren’t many hotels. For many, the ones that do exist aren’t all that affordable for one night, let alone an extended period.
“Oh, $129 a night?” Motsinger said, referencing a price point too steep for most of his players’ families. “They didn’t have $129 yesterday. Now they ain’t working. They can’t put gas in their car to get to work. Or, oh, they lost their car, because it’s under 12 foot of water.
“So how are they gonna pay a hotel?”
Among the Bulldogs who’d been displaced, most said they were staying with relatives, some in cramped quarters making do. Motsinger and another coach helped Cruse, the junior linebacker, find temporary housing in Rose Hill. Cruse said he was living there now with his foster mother. The morning of the game they were still saving what they could from their old house.
“I’m tired,” Cruse said, “because I had to get up early, and move stuff. Even though it’s game day. But stuff still has to get done at the house.”
On an ordinary Friday, Cruse and his teammates would have gone to school, come together afterward and began preparing. Everything would have been organized according to routine. Now there was no routine. Many arrived in the field house after having spent the morning moving, or rebuilding, or wondering what was next.
Graham Hanchey, no relation to his teammate Eric, had been ripping out the floors in his family home. He is a senior tight end. He wears No. 10. A flop of brown hair covers his forehead and, like most of his teammates, he grew up around Wallace, and grew up wanting to be a Bulldog. Ever since he attended his first football game when he was 10, he said, he wanted to be a part of this.
Now he found support in the community of a team. He said he’d lost his house. The water had been shoulder-high. It had covered the garage. His family has a farm off State Road 41, where they grow corn and grapes. The water had covered the crops. The flooding killed two of their hogs, though Hanchey said most had been saved.
Hanchey and his family lived in what’s known around here as the Northeast community. From the school, take 41 east toward Chinquapin and Northeast is a little ways short of town, not even a dot on a map just east of the Northeast Cape Fear River. When the river began to rise, Northeast never had a chance. The water quickly rushed into homes and covered crops. Hanchey and his family weren’t at home when the flooding began. They’d split up and stayed with different relatives. It took nine days, he said, before they could get home to see what the water had done. The stains told the story.
“All of Northeast was pretty much ruined,” Hanchey said. “Houses were flooded. There was houses in Floyd that never got flooded, or touched by water, that got flooded and touched by water through Hurricane Florence.”
Without school, Hanchey spent most of his time either at home, ripping out rotting walls and wood, or on the farm. Football practice had finally resumed earlier in the week. It was one thing that didn’t involve rebuilding, at least not in the literal sense.
At Wallace-Rose Hill, the small football stadium had sustained some damage. Parts of the scoreboard needed repairs. But the field house and the weight room stood strong. Being back at practice the past several days, Hanchey said, had been “a way to clear to my head.”
“You either let it control you, and bring you down, and just not let you do anything from it,” Hanchey said of the storm. “Or you take it and build upon it, and just use it as fuel to make you stronger, and a reason to fight for something.”
That was the way Motsinger tried to look at it: that tragedy could turn inspirational. And yet he understood the reality that many now faced, too — the challenges of applying for federal aid, of dealing with insurance companies, of haggling with contractors. And the ones in position to do those things, perhaps, were among the lucky ones, because it meant they had insurance in the first place, or a home that was salvageable.
“One young man comes in and his daddy meets me at the fence,” Motsinger said. “And I’m talking to him and I say, ‘What do you all need? How are y’all?”
In the presence of his son, the father told Motsinger that things were all right. Then the son walked away, and Motsinger said he studied the man’s face — saw the weariness and fear. “I’m looking in his eyes,” Motsinger said. “And I saw those same eyes in my mirror this morning. … And all of a sudden you see those eyes tear up.”
Many of the players’ parents confided in Motsinger. Some told him they were out of work. Some told him they had no gas. Some told him they had little food. A little after 2 o’clock, Motsinger met with his team in its locker room. His voice rose.
“We’ve got to use this opportunity to prepare ourselves mentally,” he said, yelling, “so when times are tough, we can focus and get done what we need to get done.” The Bulldogs boarded two white buses — Motsinger calls them “white dragons” — and rode to a church for their team meal.
‘I need myself a party night’
After the blessing, Motsinger called the players up by position, seniors first, and he handed them plates of chicken strips, macaroni and cheese and green beans. For some who’d been living for weeks off of fast food or food in a can, it seemed like a delicacy. The room grew loud with the energized chatter of about 45 teenagers. Motsinger yelled for quiet.
Soon it was loud again and Motsinger let it go.
“I’m struggling with where that line is,” he said, between discipline and compassion.
This is Motsinger’s second season at Wallace-Rose Hill. The summer before his first he’d survived an explosion at his home, while doing yard work, that left his legs and right arm severely burned. He knew suffering and now saw it all around his community.
Like everyone else, Motsinger had been fighting his own battles after Florence. He carried with him the stress of being there for his wife and two sons, aged 5 and 7. He hadn’t had time to watch any game film this week, or even really come up with much of a game plan. It helped, a little, that he knew Spring Creek wasn’t a formidable opponent.
Even so, many football coaches pride themselves on their routine, preparation and discipline, and since Florence there hadn’t been a lot of those things. With lunch over, Motsinger rose and stood near the middle of the room. He has a way of raising his voice, his southern accent booming, that commands attention.
“Right now, you’re too playful,” he told his team. “Now you need that. I understand. ...
“I want you to cherish your time together. … You need that. I need that. But now it’s time for you to do right by this family.”
The room fell silent. It remained quiet while the team filed back onto the buses and rode back to school. Not long after, Motsinger stood in front of his defensive players. Usually, they used this time to review strategy and on Friday there was a little bit of that. Mostly, though, Motsinger talked about life, loss and perspective.
He’d said earlier that he doesn’t write down his speeches, or even think much about them. His wife, he said, had once told him that God gave him “the gift of the sermon.” Now Motsinger offered testimony. He told about his 5-year-old son asking an innocent question with no easy answer: “Why did Jesus do this to our house?”
Motsinger released a long, slow whistle and shook his head.
“Pretty deep there, ain’t it?” he said. “How do you explain to a 5-year-old, why did Jesus do this to our house? Well luckily for me, this is what came to me. I said, Jesus didn’t do that to our house. You want me to tell you what Jesus did do? And I’m going to tell y’all the same thing.
“He took a category five hurricane. That’s what was coming. Y’all remember sitting right here, and I hugged every one of you before you left. … He turned a category five hurricane and he made it into a one. Want me to tell you what Jesus did, he brought all this stuff that’s been piling in this room all week long that you’ve been taking home. And what’s going to be coming in here tomorrow.”
Two days before the Cardinal Gibbons High football team had driven supplies and food from Raleigh. Motsinger and his players were there to help unload. The schools had been scheduled to play each other but the game had been canceled. Motsinger found meaning in it, as if it was part of a divine plan to schedule a game against a school with a religious affiliation.
By Friday, most of the donations had been claimed. Another delivery, this one from Apex High, was scheduled for Saturday. Motsinger asked his players to focus on that — on the help they’d received instead of the things they’d lost. Now, he told his players in the locker room before they boarded their buses to Seven Springs, it was their turn to give something back.
“Your community needs you,” he said. “They need something positive. The devil doesn’t need any help right now.
“I’ve talked to a lot of your daddies, and granddaddies … and to their kids, they say, ‘Oh, we’re fine,’ no different than I tell my sons, ‘Oh, we’re fine, we’re good, it’s just an adventure. We’re going to spend some time at Meemaw’s. We’re going to go to this hotel. We’re going to stay here. We’re going to find a place to live. We’re fine, boys!’
“And then they come into that office ... and them men ain’t fine. Because see, it’s their time to take care of the family. Well, ain’t a lot everyone in this room can do for that. … But there is one thing we can do, is we can give them a positive tonight.
“Amen,” his players repeated, but Motsinger wasn’t finished.
“I’ve missed you more than you can ever know,” he said. “I’ve prayed for you. And I’ll continue to do it every day. We talk about we work like hell Monday through Thursday so we can party come Friday night, amen? What day is it?”
“Friday,” his players said.
“I don’t know about you,” Motsinger said, “but I’m tired of living out of a suitcase. I’m tired of eating whatever I can eat. I don’t know about you, but I need myself a party night. … Let’s go have ourselves some fun. Because the last three weeks ain’t been no fun.”
The bus ride from Wallace-Rose Hill to Spring Creek is a little more than 45 minutes long, north the whole way through. The tranquility belied the dramatic scenes from weeks earlier, when water covered crops and made some of the roads impassable.
Motsinger stood at the front of bus, crouched on the stairs. He wore headphones and listened to Metallica, one song after another. Outside the window, crops and utility poles flew by. Motsinger studied the poles. He noticed that, on some of them, the water stains were still fresh, six to eight feet up, offering reminders of how high the floodwater had risen.
“Two weeks ago, you’d have had to have been on a hovercraft to get through there,” he said. He thought of his house, near Burgaw. The downstairs had been flooded. He and his family had lost everything on the first floor. They’d been on the road now for about three weeks, staying with relatives in the mountains, at a timeshare in Williamsburg, Va., and now in Brunswick County.
One scene stuck with him. He and his wife were at their house taking inventory, throwing away things that had been destroyed. They came to a clothes rack near the stairs, and there hanging were two small toboggans, both ruined, that belonged to their sons.
“And my wife’s upset,” Motsinger said. “And truth be told, you know, their heads are probably too big for them little toboggans. And a lot of little items like that, in the big scheme of things, really, they do not matter. But they are important. They’re memories.”
The white dragons pulled into Spring Creek and now Motsinger tried to put those thoughts out of his mind. Behind the buses, near the shade of a tree, the Bulldogs changed into their uniforms. There was no visitors’ locker room.
Some players carried on, laughing, joking, and usually that was the sort of thing that drew Motsinger’s ire. Not tonight. Cruse, the junior linebacker who’d said he’d lost everything sat quietly on the stairs of the bus, staring ahead. Few had been through as much as him.
Soon the coaches huddled. At the count of three, they broke to a chant of “Florence!” and Motsinger cursed her name. He led the team in a pregame prayer. He asked for wisdom, guidance and strength. He prayed that his players could “get their minds off what they have to deal with, Lord, and they can focus on their brothers.” They huddled and raised their arms:
‘There’s a blessing coming’
The Bulldogs scored on their first three offensive plays. At halftime they led 45-0. Motsinger tested his vocal chords anyway, and coached as if every play was critical, every moment paramount to the outcome. It wasn’t on this night, and in this game, but that didn’t matter. What mattered most to Motsinger now was that he gave his team his best, and that in return he received the same.
That’s why he yelled until Wallace-Rose Hill walked off the field with a 60-0 victory. Usually, the visiting team stands would have been filled. Tonight, even with so many of the school community still away or recovering, the stands were still half full.
Those who came, like Wannee Basden, were loud. Her son, Michael, is the starting quarterback. She wore his No. 11 on her shirt and remained standing most of the night. Basden said she fared OK throughout the storm. She knew she was among the fortunate.
“We’re just blessed,” she said, “To have what we have, and (we) just pray. And try to help everybody else that doesn’t.”
A few rows up, Tracey Parker sat in the top row of the bleachers watching her son Trey, the offensive lineman. The storm tore the tin roof off of their trailer, and water rushed inside. Parker said the three beds that belonged to her children had been destroyed. The family lost most everything. She said the home wasn’t insured.
“I feel like I needed to come out and get away from everything,” she said. “And just get my mind off of things. Because as long as I stay around, and see it, I have a hard time coping with it.”
Parker works at a daycare and her husband is a butcher at the Piggly-Wiggly. Now the family, she said, is staying with her mother, praying for a break.
“I feel like there’s a blessing that’s coming,” she said. “Coming to us fast. So we’re just waiting on it. You know, the Lord — people always say there’s something bigger that’s coming out of this. And I believe that. I believe something better will come out of it.”
On the field after the victory, Motsinger told his team they’d be out of school at least one more week. The county had made the determination earlier in the day. Motsinger requested that players arrive at the school Saturday at 1 p.m. to help unload another round of supplies and food. Then he asked Tyler Duff, a junior linebacker, to lead a prayer.
Like Hanchey, Duff lived in the Northeast community. For a while, he and his family could only reach their home by boat. His grandparents, he said, would either have to move somewhere else or face rebuilding their home for the third time after a flood.
“If you go in Northeast, and you drive down the road, you just see people’s belongings outside the road, just waiting for the truck to come pick them up,” Duff said. “Just their whole house ripped out.”
Everyone associated with the team could tell a story like that. Players. Parents. Coaches. One of the Wallace-Rose Hill cheerleaders had lost her home, too, but spent two hours on the sideline, wearing a smile. After the game, Motsinger caught up with his own parents, who’d made the trip from Winston-Salem, and he tracked down the parents of players. Everyone he encountered, he asked how they’d made it out of Florence, whether they needed anything.
In a lot of ways, this had been what he’d needed: a night with his team. He and his players boarded their buses and headed back to their school. They didn’t know when they’d be able to resume classes. Motsinger figured that the past several weeks had come with their own lessons, anyway. In better days, sometimes other coaches asked Motsinger about his team’s four consecutive state championships. He said he’d explain it like this:
“We’re country, hard-working people.”
Florence had taught him something else, though, about resiliency. It brought new perspective. “We’ve got a lot of poor kids,” he said. “But they don’t know it. They don’t. And that is a compliment to their parents.”
The white dragons rumbled through the darkness of the countryside. The players sang a victory song. They talked about their game. They carried on about the NFL. They argued about the NBA, and whether LeBron James was the best ever. One of them said he wasn’t even the best Los Angeles Laker.
Motsinger stood quietly near the front. He wore a weary smile. When the team returned, and after his players were back in the locker room, he reminded one of his assistant coaches to make sure that Cruse left with a box of canned food.