Hurricane Ian can’t stop high school football from returning to Lee County

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They played five high school football games in Lee County on Friday night and on the surface everything seemed normal.

There were bands and cheerleaders and homemade signs. Athletic directors buzzed around the tracks in golf carts, parent volunteers flipped burgers outside concession stands.

Yet a closer examination revealed unhealed scars. A missing goal post at South Fort Myers High. A pockmarked dashboard at Bishop Verot. Rows of empty bleachers at Lehigh Senior are cordoned off with yellow tape.

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Just over two weeks after Hurricane Ian devastated Southwest Florida, Friday’s games marked another small step on the long road to recovery. It’s no surprise that sport, which has long served as a balm to wounded communities, has once again been called upon for this role.

Lehigh and Charlotte, who were originally scheduled to play next Friday, moved their play forward a full week, even though neither school had reopened and the Tarpons players had just returned to practice on Tuesday.

While a rumored appearance by Governor Ron DeSantis failed to materialize, a handful of state and local dignitaries, including Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, showed up to congratulate the two schools for their resilience.

“This community has been hit by a massive hurricane, but the spirit of this community lives on strong and this game tonight is proof of that,” Diaz said in a pre-game speech to the crowd. “We weren’t going to allow our kids to miss out on their high school years…Tonight, just by being on the pitch, we overcame so much adversity.”

Charlotte at Lehigh High School football.  Local educators and politicians as well as Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. were on hand to kick off the game with a few words.  Diaz tossed the coin.

Charlotte Athletic Director Tom Massolio knows firsthand how sport can heal a community. In 2004, Hurricane Charley decimated the county, destroying much of Charlotte High, including its football stadium. Students were forced to complete the school year at rival Port Charlotte, attending in the evenings.

Yet less than two months after the storm, a massive community effort saw games replayed at Tarpon Stadium. The biggest came on October 30, when a crowd of 7,000 including then Florida Governor Jeb Bush watched Charlotte take on Port Charlotte. Fans of the once fierce Allies sported the same t-shirt: “Divided by a river; United by a storm.’

“It was a really tough time, but it was special too,” Massolio said. “Whenever you face something of this magnitude, you want to try to get back to normal, especially for children.”

Lehigh athletic director Ernesto Adamo said he was surprised when he heard the game was rushed and credited a school-wide effort to get the field and stadium ready in time.

“It was obvious that it was a quick change for everyone,” he said. “But our boys, they were more than happy to get back on the pitch. Playing football, finishing the season, that’s what they wanted, so I’m glad we could give them that.”

The Gateway and Bishop Verot players were also eager to return for Friday’s game at Vikings Stadium.

“For them, (football is) what most of them show up to school for; it’s a motivator,” Gateway coach Cullen O’Brien said. “The hope is that now they appreciate it a lot more because they realize there are things in life that can take football away from them that they can’t control, so that should give them a lot more. resilience to finish the season.”

Bishop Verot greets Gateway during their first high school football game since Hurricane Ian Friday, October 14, 2022 in Fort Myers.  The Vikings won 67-0 against the Eagles.

Bishop Verot’s athletic director, Greg Coleman, said the student body has shown exceptional commitment to helping efforts to return the campus to normalcy after Hurricane Ian.

“Two days after the hurricane, we had 200 students here to help us; they really like this school,” he said. “So they don’t want to stay home, they want to go back to school, even though they can say they don’t, they want to go back to school.

Just over a week ago, South Fort Myers High School was being used as an emergency shelter and the football field was a landing strip for helicopters carrying out rescue operations. On Friday, he resumed his normal role with visiting Fort Myers.

“I remember one of the helicopters,” South Fort Myers manager Ed Matthews said. “It might have been a Black Hawk, and it had just come in, and it was almost like it went through where the uprights were and put it down in the middle. I kind of had this viewing of football games on Friday nights. It was very surreal. It was like stepping out of a movie.

Fort Myers head coach Sam Sirianni said he never found the right approach when coming back from a devastating storm in more than two decades of training.

“I’m fully aware that it’s very insignificant compared to what’s going on,” he said. “However, for these kids to come out and be together and give something positive to the community – I just haven’t mastered how the week ebbs and flows.”

He felt his players were a bit “melancholic” to start the game when he wanted them to embrace the experience.

South Fort Myers hosts Fort Myers in a high school football game Friday, Oct. 14, 2022 in Fort Myers, in their first game since Hurricane Ian hit Southwest Florida.

“It was more because I felt they should have more fun doing what they do,” he said. “They should come out with a little more pep in their step… That’s a tough riddle to solve. It’s a fine line between preparing them and understanding that this is just a release from reality.

At halftime, he reminded his team why they were there and got a strong response from the team en route to a shutout victory.

“I’m just glad they came back,” Sirianni said. “I’m so proud of our Fort Myers community – we had a great crowd. And that’s one of the things I challenged our guys on. I said, ‘Look in those bleachers. So many people took a Friday night just to go out and see you, and I think we owe them a little bit more, and the kids got it and they responded.

News-Press sports editor Ed Reed and sports journalist Dustin Levy contributed to this story.

Connect with Dan DeLuca: @News-PressDan (Twitter), [email protected]

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