SALYERSVILLE — The first time Magoffin Coach Chester McCoy surveyed his school's football facilities after the March 2 tornado that wreaked destruction on the Eastern Kentucky county, he faced a distressing question.
What football facilities?
"I was astonished, the fieldhouse, it was just gone," McCoy said. "The bleachers, they were pretty much three-fourths gone, and what was left was unstable."
It was the start of a gloomy checklist.
Magoffin County's football weight room? Gone.
Its helmets, shoulder pads and uniforms? Destroyed or gone.
Scoreboard? Other than the metal exterior shell, gone.
The field lights and their support poles? Blown down, blown away, gone.
Pretty much all that was left was a solitary goal post, still standing. Even it had been blown off center.
When Magoffin's players saw the gaping absence where their school's football facilities had once stood, fear took hold.
"I was worried we wouldn't have a football team this year," said senior wide receiver Caleb Hall. "We heard talk about that."
Said sophomore quarterback Ryan Jenkins: "I was afraid. I did not think we would play."
If there was no football at Magoffin County in 2012, junior tackle Devon Puckett planned to transfer to a different school. "I was going to play football, somewhere, no matter what," he said.
Yet amidst the post-tornado gloom, McCoy, 42, made a vow to himself. "The day after the storm, I knew we were going to have football," the coach said. "I just thought, 'We may have to go on the road for 10 games.'"
Almost six months later, it is a triumph of human resiliency that this week's Kentucky high school football schedule includes the following entry for Thursday night: Paintsville at Magoffin County, 7:30 p.m.
Every new sports season represents a fresh start. For the Magoffin County football program, 2012 feels like starting over from scratch.
Help from New York Jets
Even with his post-tornado promise to keep football at Magoffin County going in 2012, McCoy knew it would be inappropriate to push too hard.
The March 2 tornadoes left 23 people dead in Kentucky. Property damage around Salyersville was immense. The Herald Whitaker Middle School and Salyersville Elementary buildings were both rendered unusable by damage from the storm.
When McCoy first saw all the damage to the homes near the Magoffin football field, he told his wife, Kimberly, "Hon, there are 100 people dead over here."
Instead, miraculously, there were no fatalities in Magoffin County.
"The homes I saw destroyed, it put this in perspective," McCoy said. "You can take away four (football) fieldhouses for all I care, just leave a (family's) house. Some people here lost everything they have; we lost some football helmets."
In the days when Magoffin County had all but no football equipment remaining, help came from unexpected places.
Trimble County High School sent a donation of $1,500 and T-shirts for all the Magoffin football players. The only connection between Trimble, an Ohio River county in Northern Kentucky, and Magoffin, in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, was that the schools had played each other in Salyersville in 2010.
"The people there had been really nice," said Angela Pacheco, an administrative aide in the Trimble County football program who organized the fund-raising for Magoffin. "When we showed our kids the pictures of what had happened to their football field, our sophomores and juniors remembered playing there. We decided we would try to help."
Another day, McCoy's phone rang with a more unlikely offer of help.
"It was a lady in Hazard, apparently her son works as some kind of equipment manager for the New York Jets," McCoy said. "She asked if we would be interested in a donation of whatever kind of equipment they could spare. I said, 'Heck, yes.'"
That explains how a school whose colors are maroon and white came to own 164 green and white practice jerseys.
Pickup truck as office
By the time the 2011-12 school year ended, McCoy was confident that Magoffin County would play football this fall. "But I still wasn't sure we would play at home," he said.
On July 1, Stanley Holbrook, a former principal at the Magoffin County Career and Technical Center, came out of retirement to serve as school superintendent.
An ex-agriculture teacher, Holbrook, 58, was determined to provide as normal a school year as possible for students in the storm-damaged county. "I said, 'Of course, we're going to play home football,'" Holbrook said.
So McCoy's seventh pre-season as head coach of the Magoffin County Hornets has been like no other. Just like every other coach in the state, he has to get his team — 3-8 last year — ready to play its season. Magoffin opened its 2012 season Friday night with a 38-22 loss at Leslie County.
Unlike most other teams in the state, Magoffin faces its 2012 season without having had a spring practice, without having had an off-season conditioning program and without any summer passing league experience.
Pretty much every piece of the program's equipment had to be reordered. When practice began in July, McCoy was using his pickup truck as his coaches "office." The Magoffin players were dressing in a temporary construction shell.
"It's awkward," said Puckett, the Magoffin junior tackle, of the Hornets' pre-season. "It's hectic all the time."
The one coach in the state who understands the challenge Magoffin has faced is Morgan County's Brian Turner. His school's football facilities were also destroyed in the March 2 tornado.
"The thing you worry about is conditioning," Turner said. "We didn't have spring practice. You're out of your routine. You don't have the kind of (off-season) conditioning that is normal."
More than $500,000
Magoffin County school officials have raced against the clock to get their football facilities restored to an acceptable level before the Aug. 30 home opener.
A temporary building has been put in place to serve as locker rooms/field house. Temporary field lights have been installed. A new set of bleachers are in.
Still to go up are new goalposts and a new scoreboard. "They tell me they go up first of the week," McCoy said Friday.
It is not cheap to essentially restart a high school football program. Holbrook said the school has spent some $535,000 so far to get football going again. Of that, "90, 95 percent has been covered by insurance," he said.
The school system has mostly gone with temporary structures at its football field because the goal is to secure a new parcel of land and build a new football facility, maybe as soon as next season.
If things go according to Holbrook's plan, Magoffin County will build a new high school, convert its current high school into a middle school and restore the Salyersville Elementary structure that was damaged in the storm.
A new football field would be part of the new high school campus.
"It's in the contract with the firm that installed our bleachers (for this year) that part of the deal is they have to take them down and move them one time at no charge," Holbrook said.
Playing at home
On Thursday night, three days short of the six-month anniversary of the tornado that leveled Magoffin County football, the Hornets will play a home game with Paintsville.
"I think football is a thing that can bring us all together after all the rough stuff that happened," says wide receiver Hall. "And I'm a senior; I'm excited to get to play at home."
At a school that has not had a football winning season since 1995, a year with pre-season preparations cut short figures to be challenging on the field.
"One thing I feel that football does, is it teaches you how to travel through adversity," says McCoy. "Well, it doesn't get too much more adverse than this."
For those who find their sports inspiration from obstacles overcome, getting a team on the field and having a home field for it to play on in 2012 mean Magoffin County already has two big wins.