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A party of Iowa State student-athletes, coaches and staff assisted in the initial phase of cleaning debris in Parkersburg last weekend.
Courtesy: Athletics Communications

Football Team Aids in Parkersburg Relief

Release: 06/04/2008
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PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- After seeing the unbelievable, Travis Williamson couldn’t believe his own eyes. As he and family members picked up the pieces of their Parkersburg home Saturday, a group of 20 Iowa State football players, coaches and staff were on what was left of his door step to help him tear down his home. Tear it down so he and his family could build it again after a tornado ripped through this town of more than 1,800 people May 25, killing seven, and causing millions of dollars in damage.

“A man came by and asked if I needed help,” Williamson said. “No one said who they were or why they were helping.  We weren’t going to turn that offer down. So I said ‘sure.’”

Everything changed May 25 around 5:30 p.m. Williamson, his wife Emily and their two children were driving south out of Parkersburg to his father’s farm, which is about a mile from town.

“We could see rotation in the clouds,” Williamson said.  “When we drove into my dad’s driveway, Emily and the kids went inside immediately.  My father and I watched as the tornado started to go through Parkersburg.”

The last thing Williamson did before heading for shelter was call 911.  He was back outside three minutes later.  It was obvious that this was a major tornado (eventually classified as an EF5, the most potent twister possible, with winds in excess of 200 miles per hour).  People began driving by the farmstead after being detoured from the usual road into town.  The Williamson family could not drive back into town and walked their way to what was left of their neighborhood.  There wasn’t much.  Over 400 homes were damaged, many totally destroyed.  The high school no longer had a roof and the gym was gone.

“It was hard to tell just where your house was,” Williamson said. “Some people couldn’t even tell what street they were on.”

Like all those who survived the disaster, Williamson was thankful that his family was safe. A friend accommodated them with shelter. Now it was time to start clearing the mountains of debris.  They weren’t sleeping much.  That is why Williamson, who works in crop research for Monsanto, took the unexpected volunteers up on their offer.

They got more than they bargained for.

“There were 20 people and when I found out that they were Iowa State football players, I couldn’t believe it.  It was great luck or divine intervention.”

The group, which included Iowa State players, coaches and staff and Jonna Chizik, wife of Cyclone head coach Gene Chizik, jumped in with both feet.

“These guys did this with no fanfare, no media present, they just wanted to help,” Williamson said.  “Mrs. Chizik was right in the thick of it, pulling out debris from what had been the basement. They turned a week’s worth of work into a five-hour project.”

The ISU party was stunned by the extent of the damage, but touched by the positive attitude of those who were picking up the pieces.

“You could see how appreciative they were,” Iowa State defensive coordinator Wayne Bolt said. “You couldn’t believe the devastation.  But all of those people were so upbeat.  It was really contagious and emotional.”

Cyclone safety James Smith was caught off guard with the unfamiliar sights amidst the relief effort.

“I had never seen anything like that before,” Smith said.  “The people in Parkersburg have to start all over.  You can’t get that stuff back.  That is something that will always be stuck in my memory.”

Just the tear down was a daunting task.

“You see it on the news, and then you get there in real life,” sophomore quarterback Austen Arnaud said.  “You looked up and it was nothing but debris.  It was all just house foundations.  It was surreal.”

Smith was happy to be a part of such a large effort.

“There was so much to do,” Smith said.  “I feel like we made a difference, even though we were only there for a day.”

It was a huge coincidence that the group of Cyclones happened to be helping a family with Cardinal and Gold roots.  Williamson’s uncle, Rod, is a former Iowa State athletics staffer and now an associate athletics director at Vanderbilt.  After hearing about the efforts of the ISU football party, Rod sent an e-mail Sunday to Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard.

“Their efforts stunned my family” Rod Williamson wrote. “My nephew left me a phone message, wondering if I had anything to do with them showing up. I have just gotten back from the SEC Spring Meetings and other than asking some friends to send gift certificates to them, I have not done anything yet...Our family is so touched by this unexpected act of kindness, teamwork and unselfishness we can barely scrape up the words...We have always been proud and enthused to call ourselves "Iowa Staters" but it'll take us a long time to figure out what we can say or do to show our appreciation for the shoulder-to-shoulder teamwork that the Iowa State football team just showed us.”

To be sure, it will take months and longer to rebuild Parkersburg. Williamson and his family will work their way back, day-by-day until the job is done. All was not lost. They were able to find a considerable number of old pictures in the wreckage, saving precious visual memories.  Now, with a little help from a group wanting to lend a hand, they will always have a little room for more.

“Coach Chizik called me again today,” Travis Williamson said. “I told him I really don’t have any words that can describe our appreciation.”


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