Harvey recovery efforts, including football, help in Refugio
By Len Hayward, Corpus Christi Caller-Times
Feb. 3, 2018 at 10:30 p.m.
REFUGIO, Texas — Jack Sportsman Bobcat Stadium sits dark in early January.
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports it's well maintained but the stadium's concrete is weathered and the paint on some spots has begun to wear off.
The home of the famed Refugio Bobcats has endured and seen plenty since it was constructed in 1954.
It has survived the region's biggest hurricanes: Carla in 1961, Beulah in 1967 and Celia in 1970, along with other tropical storms.
In August, the stadium weathered yet another storm. But this one delivered a blow that has left Refugio still trying to recover.
The town is healing — slowly — more than five months after Hurricane Harvey hit.
Amid the destruction, Refugio's pride and joy, its football team, helped to give it hope.
While residents struggled through the uncertainty of whether their homes would be replaced or repaired, suffered disappointment of learning Federal Emergency Management Agency or insurance carriers may not cover costs, and wondered whether they still had jobs or enough food, there was a three-hour respite from it all.
A few blocks from the stadium, Misty Upton's modest-three bedroom home provided shelter for Refugio football players for several days after them and their parents were displaced by the storm.
The house took nearly $30,000 in damage during the hurricane. Though now it has a new roof, the recent repairs have done little to put away memories of Harvey's landfall.
Power lines downed. Houses so damaged they were demolished. Public housing projects fenced up, with no word on when they will reopen. Townspeople unknowing of what's next, their lives and homes destroyed in less than 12 hours.
"I cried," Misty said. "It was devastating, even thinking about it now."
The team is one of the state's best small-school programs, winning four state championships and 120 playoff games in the last seven decades, and on Dec. 21 the Bobcats played in their ninth state championship game. They lost 34-21 to another state power, Mart.
The expectations are always high in Refugio and so is the pressure on players and coaches. But this past season, the nearly 50 players in Refugio's program became a symbol of the town's resilience and its rebirth.
"(In town) it was just talking about the storm and then saying our football team had to help us out," said senior Jacobe Avery. "We wanted to put Refugio back on the map and bring us back together."
Debris piles are still present around town as some of the streets off US 77, the town's main artery, have large piles next to homes that are still boarded up.
Power and water have been restored.
Homes that once had blue tarps are now being repaired and the sounds of compressors and nail guns show progress is being made. Other buildings and structures, though, still stand damaged and boarded.
The school district's administration offices are now in what used to be its seventh- and eighth-grade campus. Superintendent Melissa Gonzales' office once was a classroom. The room's long whiteboard is filled with names of the school's insurers and federal and state officials, and from the school's insurance company.
The school's administration building has been gutted, waiting for repair. It's part of more than $15 million in of damage to the district's facilities.
More than 15 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line, according to data from the US Census Bureau's website. As of late January, Gonzales said 15-20 percent of the student population are considered homeless, adding that there are "many more with damaged homes."
Armonie Brown, a star junior lineman for the Bobcats spent several weeks living with the Uptons as his family picked up the pieces. He now lives with his mother for the first time in many years.
Brown was like a lot of players on the team who that did not have the chance or the means to leave.
Brown stayed with in teammate Kaleb Wright's in his house with 19 other people, not knowing the full intensity of Harvey. They ended up in a hallway with mattresses covering them as the storm raged outside. A picture of them appeared in the story about the team on HBO Real Sports, a picture that revealed the sense of what it was like in the teeth of Harvey.
The day after the Aug. 25 storm, Brown said he walked outside to see his hometown torn to shreds.
"It didn't feel like home anymore," said Brown, a junior defensive tackle and All-South Texas Defensive Player of the Year. "I didn't even know what Refugio looked like. It was crazy."
When head football coach Jason Herring returned to town a few days after the storm, he felt tremendous amounts of guilt for having evacuated.
There was little to no communication — cellphone phone towers were downed all over Refugio County. He had no way of knowing how to find out if his players were even alive.
Some of the his assistant coaches who evacuated to different parts of the state that had service began to check on players with texts. Each time they received positive word on players they simply entered that player's name in a group text, which let the coaches know a player's status.
"As we found out we just made a list and would just type the name of any kid that you know of ours that's OK," Herring said. "We didn't say anything else."
Misty Upton sent a message to Herring that players who needed a place to stay could stay at their house.
Herring, meanwhile, had more than $60,000 in damages to his house. But it was livable and players gathered there as well.
At one time, Herring said he had 10 players staying in a house with a generator, and said It became too much for him and his wife. Upton stepped in and at one time there were 12 — Herring took six and Upton took six.
"We knew a lot of people were displaced seeking shelter in hotels," Upton said. "We didn't have water, electricity. But we had a roof over our head. And we lived right across the street from the stadium and we were in a situation where we could take them in. Honestly, you do what you need to do to help people out in a situation like that."
Herring estimates that 50 percent of his players were displaced by the storm. Many of the player's parents are still living in other towns or cities even now.
As soon as the school's field house and indoor facility was deemed safe they received cots from the Red Cross and displaced players stayed in the field house. Coaches took shifts spending the night with the players. When power was restored about two weeks later, they hooked up an Xbox in the coach's office to keep players entertained.
Plus, it was the first indication that practices could resume for the football team and volleyball team.
About 10 days after the storm, the football team had its first meeting in a football facility that had no power.
It was a first step.
"(Herring) and I were just both resolved that they needed their school and they needed each other and they needed something positive in their lives," Gonzales said. "There were desperate days and there were very discouraging days."
For some players, the field house offered a home with a place to shower and a place to sleep in air conditioning.
All around the players and the program, they were seeing the desperation to just live.
"It was painful for some of our family members because we knew some of our family members that were really affected by (the storm)," Avery said. "Looking back on it, it kind of hurt but we knew we had to stay strong."
Herring, meanwhile, had turned into a de facto relief organizer. There were constant phone calls from individuals and relief organizations about where to take supplies. During the regular season, his focus on football waned and he turned over more coaching to his assistants, which he has not done in the past.
Herring still ran the program and was its chief spokesman but the experience changed him.
"It's a shame there's not a manual on how to survive the hurricane after the hurricane," Herring said. "The hurricane itself was terrible but after it there's no procedures, there's no rules."
After a week of practice and the Bobcats' season opener against Hebbronville canceled, Refugio opened the season with a thrilling 35-28 victory against state-ranked Goliad on the road.
But two weeks later — nearly a month after the storm — the Bobcats and their town were devastated.
Casey Henderson, a junior wide receiver and defensive back, was making a tackle and after the tackle he lay on the ground motionless. He was transported to a San Antonio hospital where he had surgery on two broken vertebrae.
"A punch in the gut," Gonzales said. "Humbling to just the most basic of levels . if felt like we had hit the bottom."
Henderson is walking now and was a mainstay on the Refugio sidelines during the playoffs, walking out of the team's entrance at the playoff opener against Ben Bolt.
But his injury and the town's plight galvanized the team. After a loss to Class 4A Navarro 21-17, the Bobcats won its next 13 games. And most were blowouts.
The week leading up to the team's first home game in late October provided another opportunity to show the town, the state and the country that Refugio was coming back.
The team hosted its annual homecoming parade passing houses with tarps and some still boarded up, while fans, young and old, lined the streets of the route to the community center, the site of the traditional bonfire. It was all done with HBO cameras following them, an indication that Refugio's story had reached outside of South Texas.
"Football is like a glue for this town," said Daniel Beltran, a former Refugio football player who now works for the sheriff's office, in October. "Having the game here means a lot for everybody in the town of Refugio. It's always football and always has been football. We are thankful we are still here to enjoy these games."
Two months later, the state championship game against Mart started as if the Bobcats were a team of destiny. They were up 14-0 in less than five minutes of the first quarter.
But as the game progressed, Mart's speed and big-game experience matched that of Refugio's as the Panthers pulled away in the second half for their sixth state championship.
Avery sat on the bench in the later stages knowing the outcome was decided with at times his head in his hands. After the game, Brown, with his helmet on, was crying as teammates, coaches and fans came up to him.
"It was a tough loss to swallow but I want to say I am proud of my team for getting us as far as we did," Brown said. "It's still a tough loss."
Herring hugged his son and talked to media about the disappointment and how the season was a "failure" because of Refugio's expectations of winning a state title. Even after a Category 4 hurricane battered the town, the expectations of winning were still present.
Upton was like a lot of parents and fans, though, who said the season was far from a failure: Herring and his staff kept the team focused and his efforts to help the town was appreciated.
"I don't know that he's changed but man, I tell you what we are so thankful for him," Upton said. "He stepped up and did so much for our kids and for our community. I sent him a text after the game telling him how much we appreciated everything."
Herring said what he saw most was the team's continued resiliency.
"It was like the Rocky movies," Herring said. "Life for our kids is hard. The hurricane punched them three times in the gut and two weeks later our best player gets paralyzed but they kept playing and kept winning. In my mind that had to create a tremendous amount of hope for everybody."
Gonzales describes the recovery as "hour by hour" five months later instead of minute by minute. FEMA inspections were recently completed, which will help the rebuilding process move quicker for the school.
She added Dick's Sporting Goods' foundation has given the school a $75,000 grant for work on the school's softball field, baseball field and tennis courts so contests can be played there.
Herring said the phone calls have died down for relief but the white board in his office has a hodgepodge of things he needs to do from paying his daughter's tuition to Texas A&M to making sure to file University Interscholastic League paperwork to a list of where donated mattresses need to be taken.
He jokingly calls the white board "his life" because he does not keep another type of planner.
Above the white board are all the gold football trophies from the 2017 playoffs, representing each playoff round win. And they represent more than just wins in 2017.
"It's the greatest season in my memory just because it's been more meaningful," Gonzales said. "We've learned so much, we've experienced so much. I see our community more tolerant of each other and much more focused on the things we have in common than our differences."