August 6, 2007

A twist after the tornado

Greensburg, Kansas, was all but wiped off the world, but the high school golf team played on

"Go deep!" shouts a tall, lanky 19-year-old, squeezing a broken brick with both hands as if it were a leather football.

"I'm wide open," yells another kid who looks to be about the same age, this one more compact with tousled brown hair. He's running a fly pattern over piles of rubble and shards of glass.

A third member of the group begins to announce the action. "Jantz fades back," he says, watching the quarterback stepping around piles of branches, broken bottles and wayward red-and-blue cheerleader pompoms. "And he lets it fly..."

The brick soars through the air seemingly in slow motion and passes through the receiver's open hands before crashing through an already cracked window. Somebody yells: "You suck!" Three others join in the razzing.

It's an unlikely football field: They're playing on the sidewalk of a large brick building that looks as if it has just been bombed by the German Luftwaffe during World War II. Several walls of the massive structure are missing, and cotton-candy-like insulation and wires lie everywhere. It doesn't much look like a high school.

But that is what it is -- or was. This is what's left of Greensburg High in Greensburg, a hamlet surrounded by wheat fields on the plains of south-central Kansas, about 100 miles west of Wichita.

The boys aren't practicing for a big football game; they're members of the school's golf team. And moments ago they returned from Montezuma, Kan., an even tinier town farther west on the open prairie, where they won the Class 1A regional tournament by 45 strokes. That qualified the team for the state tournament, to be played in a week.

On this hot, sunny afternoon, this is how the players choose to celebrate: throwing bricks at broken windows. At least it beats spending another day picking through the rubble that used to be their homes, looking for keepsakes, a task that has taken most of their time. Ten days ago, on May 4, a 1.7-mile-wide EF-5 category tornado with winds estimated at 205 miles per hour ripped through the center of Greensburg, killing 10 people and destroying 90 percent of the town. One of the only things that was left unscathed was the massive grain elevator on the north side of town.

A chubby kid with short, brown bangs and a scowl takes a 5-iron from his golf bag, which is sitting next to some twisted corrugated tin, and sets a ball on a patch of dirt. He takes a practice swing, and then he takes a serious whack. The ball, making a noise like a bullet, ricochets off several brick walls before coming to rest in the gymnasium, now piled high with the wooden slats that used to be its ceiling.

The Greensburg High golf team -- seniors Alex Reinecke, Brenden Jantz and Devin Bundy, juniors Logan Waters and Justin Brokar and sophomore Andrew Seiler -- was third in the 2006 state tournament. This season, with the same key players, the team is determined to win.

But obviously there are new problems: With no place to call home and nearly every possession gone, the players and coach have taken residence in cramped apartments or relatives' houses in other towns as far as 60 miles away. According to psychologists, many of the people of Greensburg will be in shock for some time, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and a sense of rootlessness.

And now, Reinecke, who's consistently one of the team's top-three players, has begun to struggle on the course -- not a good omen. "It's my putting, mostly," he says. "I've got to get it back because the team is counting on me." There are signs that others are flailing, too. They seem, as one would expect given what they've been through, distracted.

Fortunately the storm doesn't seem to have thrown off the team's best player, the diminutive Seiler. His house, which is in the country about 10 miles from Greensburg, survived the tornado, and the other day he shot a 78. Jantz has kept his game together, too.

But as the players prepare to hit more shots amid the rubble, a slight man in a red Titleist golf shirt and cap, khaki-color jeans and brown, shin-high work boots approaches.

"That's enough," says Ron Roe, the team's coach. Roe, 58, a Vietnam vet with a master's in marriage and family therapy, and a dedicated golfer who teaches social-science classes at the high school, took over the team last year and immediately started seeing results. "We don't want you getting hurt before state."

"Just one more," says Bundy. This time the ball flies through the air, bouncing off a wall and settling not far from his feet.

"Save that for next week," says Roe, who has just returned from his demolished classroom to retrieve the year's golf records.

It's hard to believe, after what everyone has been through, but the Greensburg golf team is going to the state tournament -- and it has a solid chance of winning. If the players can keep it together, they'll have something to hold onto, something positive to tell their kids about the tornado of 2007.

"We may be homeless," says Bundy, "but we're going to state."


The story of the remarkable 2007 Greensburg golf team started in April on the griddle-flat golf course that sits on the edge of town. Called the Cannonball -- named after the owner of the old stagecoach company, D.R. (Cannonball) Green, who helped found the town in 1886 -- it is a typical western Kansas course: nine holes of high, native-grass rough and nothing that resembles a hill, let alone trees, within miles. Here, in late spring, the azure sky is boundless and the green, uncut wheat waves like an inland sea in the near-constant 35-mph winds.

Like its golf course, Greensburg was on the surface an unremarkable town. With a population of 1,400, most of the people from farm families, its claims to fame are two tourist traps: the World's Largest Hand-dug Well, a 109-foot-deep, 32-foot-wide hole in the ground that visitors can descend via a staircase, and a 1,000-pound meteorite, discovered underground in a field in 1949. Like many rural American towns, Greensburg lacks racial diversity and has been losing its young to bigger cities with more opportunities. (The high school's graduating class this year had only 25 seniors from a student body of 98 in grades 9-12.) But it has been a proud, tight-knit community of eight square blocks, where people of all ages have lived and worked together. It was a place right out of a John Mellencamp song.

For whatever reason, the Greensburg Rangers rarely excelled in high school athletics. Sure, they fielded their share of decent boys' and girls' sports teams, but none had won a state title since the boys' basketball team in 1948, when Harry Truman was president. The 2007 team, one of many personalities and abilities, wants to fix that. Last year Greensburg finished third with a total of 374, an average score of 93.5 per player but only four strokes behind the winner, Bushton-Quivira Heights.

Seiler, 16, is the quiet son of a rancher; Andrew rejected his dad's wishes to follow him in the business and hopes to go to college and play golf at a higher level.

Reinecke, 18, is the hyper-responsible All-American Boy with flaxen hair and the pretty All-American Girlfriend constantly at his side.

Jantz, 19, is the stoic, quiet quarterback and son of a rancher who already was being groomed to take over the family's sprawling cattle farm.

Bundy, 18, the smartass of the group, moved out of his home (his parents are divorced) when he was 17.

Rounding out the team is Logan Waters, 17, the banker's son; and Justin Brokar, 17, a flamboyant George W. Bush disciple who hopes to date Ann Coulter and run for President of the United States. His cell-phone ring tone is "Hail to the Chief." (Senior Tyler Cunningham and freshmen Thomas Derstein and Garth Einsel also competed earlier in the year.)

Despite their differences, the teammates are close. Before the storm, they spent warm summer nights together in the back of their pickups in the Kwik Shop parking lot, talking about golf and life. Together, they formed a team: not great, but solid.

And so, every week, about a half-hour after school let out, the boys donned shorts and T-shirts and went to the Cannonball, where they practiced, the Coach Roe way. Roe believes in visualization and pontificates about imagery, remembering your best shots ever and trying to repeat them by accessing the same vibe. Disarmingly quiet in public, Roe offered curt, friendly advice to his players, and he even laughed occasionally.

"Consider the club to be the extension of your body," he would say at practice. The boys listened -- occasionally, even Bundy.

Throughout the spring, the Roe philosophy was working. Greensburg, which would finish the regular season with a record of 7-1, was preparing for the regional tournament May 14.

But natural disasters aren't planned around sports schedules. On the afternoon of May 4, the team was playing in a tournament in Coldwater, 25 miles south of Greensburg. The players were on their way to another victory when lightning began striking in the distance. Roe pulled them off the course immediately, and they drove home as swirling, bruised clouds loomed to the south. The golfers didn't know it, but a major low-pressure system had stalled over the southern plains, and a mass of warm air stuffed with moisture from the Gulf of Mexico was colliding with a cold front coming down from Canada, spawning severe thunderstorms near the Kansas-Oklahoma border.

In Greensburg, Reinecke, Bundy and Brokar piled back into a car and drove 160 miles to Salina, Kan., where they were to participate in a drama competition the next day.

Jantz was home when his mother, Tami, said the TV weatherman had warned of severe weather and accompanying hail. After hearing that, Jantz took his 1998 Chevy half-ton pickup to the Greensburg State Bank, where he parked under a brick drive-through. It was 9:10 p.m., and the wind was starting to howl. Meanwhile, developments weren't looking good at the National Weather Service office 45 miles away in Dodge City. There, meteorologist Mike Umscheid was watching the radar and struggling to keep his emotions in check. The screen showed a multicolored blob moving slowly northwest. In the lower-left corner was a hook-shape tail: the signature of a tornado. "There was great instability in the atmosphere," Umscheid says. "A lot of wind shear. The conditions were ripe for a big one."

Around 9:15 he started getting calls from professional storm spotters and amateur storm chasers that a massive tornado was on the ground traveling northeast at 25 mph. "At first it looked like it was going to miss Greensburg," he says.

At 9:19 p.m. Umscheid issued a tornado warning, but about 20 minutes later, the situation changed. "It swerved northward," Umscheid says. "Greensburg was in the cross hairs. I thought, Oh my God, this is going to be horrible." At 9:41 p.m. Umscheid issued a special tornado emergency statement, specifically for Greensburg, saying there was "a large and extremely dangerous tornado on the ground. This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation. If you are in the path of this tornado, take cover immediately."

That warning saved hundreds of lives. The people of Greensburg, who had become accustomed to false alarms and blaring sirens, took it seriously.

The lights in town flickered out. Descriptions of what happened next vary. Some say it sounded like a train roaring by at full speed. Others heard a series of explosions. But within seconds, it was over. Almost every one of Greensburg's residents could look up from their basements and see the sky. The survivors would learn that they had made it through the worst kind of tornado -- and that it had destroyed more than 900 homes.

Jantz remembers crawling out of his friend's debris-filled basement and helping a nearby family before running through the streets to find his mom, who had weathered the storm in their basement with their German shepherd, Jersey. There were groans and screams coming from other basements, and people were walking around looking dazed. When Jantz got to the spot where his house should have been, he stopped in his tracks. All that was there was a pile of rubble. The cellar door was open, and his mother was there, safe, with Jersey.

"My voice was gone," says Jantz, who headed for the parking lot of Dillon's, the local grocery store, where police had set up a triage station. Victims were being put on buses and sent to the Haviland gymnasium, 11 miles east.

Anxiety was high for the guys in Salina as well. Reinecke had been watching the weather forecasts and called his girlfriend on his cell phone just before the storm hit; when the phone went dead, he panicked. "Oh my gosh," he says. "I think that was just as bad for us as living through the tornado." He knocked on the door of one of the team's chaperones and broke down in tears. "I have to be strong for my friends," he recalls saying, "but I'm so scared."

The guys raced back to Greensburg, Reinecke says, "nearly killing ourselves." Ambulance sirens were screaming. When the players and other schoolmates came upon their town, they were stunned. It had been leveled. The streets were littered with debris. "You couldn't figure out where you were because the street signs were gone," says Reinecke. He reached his house to find that it had withstood the storm a little better than most. Some walls were standing, but the home was still a total loss. Inside he found the birth certificate of a woman who lived down the street. One neighbor's house was full of furniture that didn't belong there. There was a shotgun stuck through the wall of another nearby home.


"Git 'er done," says Bundy, quoting Larry the Cable Guy, his favorite comedian and movie star. It's Thursday, four days before the state tournament, and Roe, who has been juggling practice time with necessities -- calling his insurance company, applying for a new birth certificate -- has asked the team to play a practice round on its own. The players are doing it, but not without considerable goofing off.

Bundy, living with two friends in an airplane hangar in Pratt, 30 miles east of Greensburg, is goading Seiler to make a putt. Seiler is snapping back.

Seiler knows Roe is counting on him to play his best golf at the tournament. The team's three top players -- Seiler, Reinecke and Jantz -- must play well to offset a score from the next-best player. (A team's total is determined by adding the four best scores.) But Seiler struggled last year on the back nine at state, and he's showing signs that the aftermath of the tornado is affecting him. Though his house survived the storm, that has left him facing some different issues. He feels guilty, he says. Why is his life fairly normal while his teammates are going through so much pain?

"He doesn't want to lose his friends," says his mom, Roberta. "There's so much uncertainty about the future: Will the town rebuild? Will everyone move away?" Seiler walks up to his putt, an eight-footer, and eyes the hole. And then he brings the putter back and strikes the ball, which travels eight feet and plunks against the bottom of the cup. Bundy walks up to his putt, a 15-footer. He misses it and strikes the ground with his club a little too roughly.

"Don't do that," says Reinecke. "These were gifts, and we should be grateful we have them."

Most of the boys had lost their clubs in the storm. So not only were they homeless, but it looked as though their golf season was over, something that might sound insignificant in the wake of a killer tornado, but not necessarily to a high school kid.

Fortunately for them, a 41-year-old graduate of Greensburg High, Atlanta-area teaching pro Tim Hacker, heard about the storm on the radio. He was shocked. "I spent the whole weekend watching the devastation on TV," Hacker says. When he heard that the golf team still wanted to finish the season, he went into action. He made a series of calls to friends and wound up connecting with upper management at Titleist. On May 10, after a FedEx shipment, there were boxes to be handed out. Inside were six sets of 735.CM irons, six 905R drivers, six 906F2 3-woods, six Vokey Design 56-degree wedges, six Scotty Cameron putters, six carry bags, 12 dozen golf balls and a dozen caps.

Roe remembers the smiles. "They were ripping through the boxes like kids on Christmas morning," he says. "It was a great sight to see."

Later that day, the Rangers drove to Kinsley, Kan., for a competition and, wearing work boots and tennis shoes -- golf shoes arrived later -- won the tournament.


It had been a long couple of weeks, and the feelings of adventure that a disaster can at first bring seemed to be fading. When the players returned to town after winning the regional tournament May 14, a few of them looked at the piles of debris and the dead trees and realized that Greensburg was never going to be the same. Many of the businesses say they will rebuild, but some residents, including a sizable number of senior citizens, might choose to relocate to nearby towns rather than start over.

"It's going to hit the kids later," says Greg Waters, Logan's father. "Wait a few months down the line. They say they're going to bring temporary classrooms to town so that they can hold school, but even so, the kids won't really have the Greensburg High experience. And with their friends scattered all over Kansas and gas costing nearly four bucks a gallon, it's doubtful a lot of their friends will come back."

There's the issue of where to live in the short term and in the long term, and how to make a living without a job. All stuff that kids shouldn't need to think about -- yet even for a teenager, it's hard to keep your mind off it. What's more, the media attention is starting to wear on the players. "I can't come up with fresh quotes for the reporters anymore," Reinecke says.

On Sunday, May 20, the team piles into two vans and rides two hours for a practice round at the Hesston Golf Park, the site of tomorrow's state tournament. Roe takes the players out to eat steaks at Montana Mike's and to a movie theater and arcade to play video games and see the latest Nicolas Cage thriller. Then they return to the Hesston Heritage Inn, where Roe plans some final words of encouragement.

As Roe goes into his laid-back spiel, the mood in the hotel room is positive, but subdued. "This has been a great journey," he says, as the players recline on chairs and sprawl on the bedspreads. Roe goes through a list of reminders about playing smart golf, not spectacular golf. "Just play the way you've played all year long, and this thing is ours," he says. Reinecke tries to rally the team with words of encouragement and a reminder that winning would be a real morale booster for the people of Greensburg. There are few indications of jangled nerves. Seiler sits quietly in a high-back chair and smiles. After the meeting, the guys go back to their rooms and do little horsing around. It's obvious they really want this trophy.


It's 7 a.m. on Monday, May 21, and the vans are parked at the Sonic drive-in. The players are shoveling down eggs and bacon and drinking orange juice and Pepsi. And then it's over to the course to loosen up.

At the clubhouse, Seiler's mom, Roberta, is shaking her head: "He's really nervous. I can tell," she says.

Reinecke is nervous, too. He hasn't played well since the tornado, and all the "stuff" seems to be catching up with him. A few days before the tournament he told me he was scared. "I haven't played this bad since eighth grade," he said. Jantz, the cool quarterback, looks unruffled, and Bundy and Brokar have serious looks. Roe gathers them one last time, telling them they'll probably need a combined score in the 340s, or an average of 85 for the top four, to win this thing.

At 8:30 a.m., the first group of golfers tees off. By 10:30, all 12 teams are on the course. Very soon, good news reaches the clubhouse. Reinecke has birdied the first hole. Roe smiles. But 45 minutes later, word arrives that Reinecke has triple-bogeyed No. 5, bogeyed the sixth, and double-bogeyed the seventh. He makes the turn in 43. "In this wind, that might not be too bad," Roe says.

Soon Waters reports that he had a 55 on his opening nine, Bundy a 57, and Brokar, trying to hold back a smile of embarrassment, says he had a 67. It's not looking good, but Jantz and Seiler are still on the course. When Jantz makes the turn, tears are streaming. He marches past the coach, saying not a word. When he returns from getting a drink of water, he tells Roe that he had a 52, the worst score of his high school career. Roe takes him gently by the arm and leads him inside the cart garage, where both squat and Roe begins talking. Jantz continues to cry. After five minutes of chatting, Jantz stands up and heads for the 10th tee.

By now it's obvious that their hopes of winning the state title are over. Even Seiler shot a disappointing 45.

After all have finished 18 holes, Roe tallies the team's score: 386 for the top-four players, in ninth place and 40 strokes behind the winner, Bushton-Quivira Heights.

Before climbing into the van and heading home, Roe gathers the team one more time and talks in a low, calm voice. "You did a great job," he says. "You should be proud of your season. I know that Greensburg is proud. You should go back home with your heads held high."

There was just one problem with that piece of advice, Bundy points out: "Not only did we lose, but we're homeless."

As the van pulls out from the parking lot, I watch their sad faces in the windows. I'm reminded of something Reinecke said while he drove me around the flattened town a few days earlier. "I know God has a purpose for this. It just hasn't been revealed yet. In a year or two this town is going to be bigger and better. You can write that down."

*Brad Wetzler, a native of Kansas, is a contributing editor at *Outside *magazine. At *Outside, *Wetzler came up with the idea to send Editor-at-Large Jon Krakauer on an expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1996, which turned into the best seller, *Into Thin Air. This is Wetzler's first article for Golf Digest.