High School Football as a Catalyst for Disaster Recovery: The Case of the November 17, 2013, Washington Illinois Tornado

Nick Swope
Jack Rozdilsky
York University

Publication Date: 2014


This quick response post-disaster study explores how a high school football team contributed to a disaster recovery effort in a Central Illinois community. This report provides a detailed overview of selected aspects of how the team provided both tangible and intangible services to a community in need. The report begins with a background providing context for the disaster on which this study is based. A literature review is then provided with information on community resources in relation to disaster recovery and the sociology of sport. The methodology for this study is then described and the research questions are stated. The findings are presented in terms of three themes related to the team’s interaction with recovery efforts: ambassadors, evolution, and symbolism. The report concludes with suggestions on how other disaster stricken communities can learn from Washington. An appendix provides pictorial evidence supporting selected elements of this study.

Executive Summary

Quick Response Study Premises

  • During Spring, Summer and early Autumn 2014, a quick response type of field study took place concerning disaster recovery in Central Illinois. This study was supported by the Quick Response Grant Program from the Natural Hazards Center located at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
  • The principal investigator was Nick Swope, a graduate student and Peace Corps Fellow. The co-investigator was Dr. Jack L. Rozdilsky, who is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Management. Both investigators are from Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois.
  • This study used qualitative methodology including snowball sampling for recruitment, primary informant interviews, and field reconnaissance.
  • The event studied was the November 17, 2013, EF-4 tornado disaster which impacted the city of Washington, Illinois leaving three persons deceased and resulting in substantial community damage.
  • Specifically, this study focused on social aspects of disaster recovery by taking a detailed look at how a high school football team contributed to a community’s tornado recovery.
  • Six days after the tornado, the Washington Panthers played in the state semifinal game despite adverse circumstances, including 10 team members losing their homes to the tornado.

Quick Response Study Findings

  1. In considering the question, “Can a high school football team provide services to a disaster recovery effort?” this study of the Washington Panthers determined that a high school football team can make a substantial contribution to disaster recovery.
  2. In considering the question, “What are the specific types of services that a high school football team can provide to the community during disaster recovery?” this study determined that the Panthers provided services related to acting as ambassadors for their disaster stricken city, participated in an evolving role supporting recovery, and provided symbolism for a unity of spirit that drove the recovery.
  3. In considering the question, “How can the value-added services provided by a high school football team be translated to other rural communities in the United States facing disaster recovery?” this study determined that the Panthers actions provide a method of operation by which other high school football teams can consider ways to help their communities during future disasters.
  4. The coaches and young men of the Panthers acted as role models supporting disaster recovery. in other words, “If high school students could rally together and play a football game less than a week after a disaster, why couldn’t a community member work with equal vigor to rebuild Washington?”
  5. The Panthers provided both tangible and intangible services supporting the recovery. An example of a tangible service was the Panthers’ willingness to act as a conduit for establishing relationships between the Chicago Bears and the City of Washington. An example of an intangible service was providing a focal point for rallying the community recovery effort.
  6. While there have been anecdotal accounts of rural towns in distress being held up on the shoulders of their high school football team, this study of the Panthers illustrated a case of the application of core ‘Midwestern values’ in action. An example of those values in practice was illustrated when in commenting on the outsized media coverage of the Panthers playing in the state semifinal game despite the adversities, a coach commented that, “This should not be a story, this is how we are raised.”
  7. Circumstances surrounding the state semi-final game illustrated that some of the most appropriate disaster relief activities involve facilitating a circumstance where disaster victims can help themselves in restoring a small aspect of normalcy to their lives An especially meaningful form of aid provided to the Panthers was when the opposing team provided them with circumstances to make their own traditional pre-game meal.
  8. The Panthers football team provided the symbolic context for the establishment of a common meme that supported disaster recovery. Panthers symbolism served as an open-ended focal point for an evolving set of emotions, feelings, and actions driving recovery.
  9. Study of the origin and replication of the Panthers ‘Washington Strong’ meme are an example of how this study contributes knowledge to the nascent field of study of the popular culture of disasters.



This quick response post-disaster study explores how a high school football team contributed to a disaster recovery effort in a Central Illinois community. This report provides a detailed overview of selected aspects of how the team provided both tangible and intangible services to a community in need. The report begins with a background providing context for the disaster on which this study is based. A literature review is then provided with information on community resources in relation to disaster recovery and the sociology of sport. The methodology for this study is then described and the research questions are stated. The findings are presented in terms of three themes related to the team’s interaction with recovery efforts: ambassadors, evolution, and symbolism. The report concludes with suggestions on how other disaster stricken communities can learn from Washington. An appendix provides pictorial evidence supporting selected elements of this study.

The November 17, 2013, Washington Tornado

On November 17, 2013, a severe weather situation over the Midwestern United States produced 70 tornadoes across seven states (Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio). Twenty five of those tornadoes were in Illinois and 101 tornado warnings were issued across the state (National Weather Service – Chicago Forecast Office, 2014)1. Washington, a city in the Peoria metropolitan area, with a population of approximately 15,500 was one of the hardest hit communities in Illinois.

National Weather Service data about the Washington tornado (National Weather Service Lincoln Forecast Office, 2014)2:

  • Rating as an EF-4 tornado
  • Peak wind speeds were 190 mph
  • The tornado touched down at 10:59 am CST, 2.4 miles SE of East Peoria
  • The tornado lifted up at 11:47 am CST, 2 miles east of Long Point
  • The tornado’s path length was 46.2 miles
  • The tornado’s path width was 1/2 mile In terms of warning, the following statements were issued from the National Weather Service’s Lincoln Office (National Weather Service Lincoln Office, 2014):

  • 10:50 am: Tornado Warning issued for south central Peoria, northern Tazewell, and western Woodford Counties, valid until 11:15 am. The warning mentioned the tornado would move into Washington "around 11:05 am".

  • 11:00 am: Severe Weather Statement issued, continuing the Tornado Warning. It mentioned that a confirmed tornado was located near East Peoria at 10:58 am, and continued to mention that Washington would be affected around 11:05 am.
  • 11:06 am: An updated Severe Weather Statement was issued, to remove Peoria County from the warning. It also mentioned that at 11:03 am, there was "a confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado" near Washington and that this was a "particularly dangerous situation". The tornado moved into Washington itself at 11:06 am, meaning there was 16 minutes' warning before its arrival. When the tornado left Washington the human toll was three fatalities and 121 persons injured. The northeast portion of the city was devastated. It was determined that 1,108 homes were impacted; 800 homes were hit directly or otherwise rendered uninhabitable. A majority of the damage happened to the city’s residential areas, leaving most government facilities and the town’s center intact. Regardless, this storm was a devastating blow to the city.

An especially difficult situation was faced due to the timing of this disaster. A cold weather front was predicted to arrive in the days following the impact. This situation presented a challenging issue in terms of debris removal. Commenting on that circumstance, Washington’s City Administrator indicated:

“Knowing that winter was right around the corner, the public works response from all over the state was overwhelming, but I knew we were a snow forecast away from losing everyone. They would be forced to return to their communities to put snowblades on the front of their trucks and that did happen” (T. Gleason, Personal Communication, October 8, 2013).

During the months of January, February, and into March 2014, physical aspects of the tornado recovery were on hold as Washington, like much of the Central United States, experienced an especially harsh winter. The City of Washington continued to hold community meetings throughout the winter to keep recovery on track. As the polar vortexes ended and the snow began melting in mid-March, contractors, volunteers and other workers converged on Washington to begin the physical reconstruction of the city.

From April through autumn of 2014 (the time of writing this report) construction has proceeded at rapid levels in an attempt to rebuild most of the city before winter of 2015. Washington City government staff has put in an enormous amount of effort towards public meetings, planning, and establishing the administrative basis for a rapid recovery. City Administrator Tim Gleason has been indispensable to the recovery effort. His duties have expanded exponentially as the city navigates its post-tornado normal. As of autumn 2014, the work of city officials is showing results. Reconstruction is clearly evident in all tornado damaged potions of the city.

City Administrator Gleason suggests:

“Recovery is surpassing our estimates of 50% by the close of construction season 2014. We have 800+ rebuilding permits of the 1,108 affected homes. That is 75% rebuilding in 2014. I expect to reach 85-90% in construction season 2015. Walk-away lots have been purchased at premium prices and expect spec. homes built in 2016 and purchased by 2017. Recovery is amazing!” (T. Gleason, Personal Communication, October 8, 2013).

At the time of writing, in September 2014, Washington still faces difficult issues due to the impacts of the EF-4 tornado. At the same time, as the city approaches the one year anniversary of the disaster, trends in the city appear to point in the direction of full recovery in the coming years. The principal investigator, Mr. Swope, has observed that Washington is high capacity community. Washington will survive this EF-4 tornado.

Background: The Washington Panthers Football Team

The Washington Panthers high school football team represents Washington Community High School, District 308. The high school is located in the city of Washington, and serves a geographic area of 53 square miles in the north-east portion of the Peoria metropolitan area. Approximately 1,100 students attend the high school (Washington Community High School, n.d.)3. While the high school and it physical facilities were in close proximity to the November 17th tornado’s path, no major damages occurred to the buildings. However, the lives of many students who attended the high school were directly impacted by the disaster.

The Panthers team is held in high esteem by the young men and women who attend Washington Community High School, as well as residents of the City of Washington itself. Such sentiments are commonplace for football teams throughout the rural Midwest. In Washington these sentiments of ‘Panther Pride’ are evident by the orange and black Panther flags, homemade sign displays, statements on business marquees, professional signs posted in windows of businesses, and paw-shaped yard signs. Panthers coach Darrell Crouch is a well-liked community figure with twenty-five years of coaching history.

The 2013 season was the Panthers’ best season in the last 28 years. The Panthers were celebrating their quarterfinals win in a game that took place just 16 hours before the tornado impacted Washington on November 17th. Five days after the tornado’s impact, the Panthers were scheduled to go into the final-four bracket of the Illinois State High School Association’s Class 5A state semifinal game. On Saturday November 23, 2013, the Panthers faced the Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclones of Springfield. In that away game, the Washington Panthers were defeated by the Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclones by a score of 44 to 14. The Panthers closed their 2013 season with a record of 12 and 1.

A Football Town - Panthers Football as a Cultural Signifier

High school football is a very important component of community culture in the Midwestern United States. It was beyond the scope of this study to perform a full analysis of all of the elements that make up the social life of the Washington community. However, this initial work indicated that at least two community values were central to driving the disaster recovery effort: a strong sense of faith and the culture associated with the high school football team’s activities. By interviewing persons directly associated with the team, other community members, and officials not affiliated directly with the team Panthers-related themes were present at many levels in the social life of the city. Therefore, the authors suggest that Washington Panthers football can be deemed as a ‘cultural signifier’. For the purposes of this study, the meaning of the term cultural signifier will be drawn from the work of Storey. He suggests:

“Moreover, culture as a realized signifying system is not reducible to a particular way of life, rather it is fundamental to shaping and holding together all ways of life” (Storey, 2010, p. 2)4.

Storey references the cultural sociology work of Williams,

“Thus there is some practical convergence between anthropological and sociological senses of culture as a distinct ‘whole way of life’, within which, now, a distinctive ‘signifying system’ is seen not only as essential, but as essentially involved in all forms of social activity”(Williams, 1981, p. 13)5.

Connections to the Friday Night Lights Cultural Motif

The observation of high school football serving as a cultural signifier in Washington would be consistent with popular culture references to the importance of football in small, Midwest towns. The popularity of high school football is due in part to the ‘Friday Night Lights’ phenomenon. In many parts of the rural Midwest, on autumn Friday evenings, stadium lights illuminate high school football venues where rival towns face one another on the gridiron. In many instances, national media has borrowed from the cultural motifs established in the book (and its subsequent spinoffs) Friday Night Lights and applied them directly to telling the story of the Washington Panthers exploits in late November 2013.

While in places like the state of Texas, the cultural motif of high school football was a long-held, integral part of community life, the concept was widely popularized with Harold Bissinger’s 1990 non-fiction book Friday Night Lights. In the book, Bissinger chronicles the exploits of six players, the coach, and the town of Odessa, Texas during the Permian Panthers 1988 season as they were competing for the state championship. In addition to a focus on high school football, the book also provided a unique insight into the social life (both positive and negative aspects) of the west Texas city. The book Friday Night Lights, was replicated in movie and television formats. Citing a phrase typical of the sentiments expressed in Bissinger’s book:

“With the kind of glory and adulation these kids received for a season of their lives, I am not sure if they were ever encouraged to understand that. As I stood in that beautiful stadium on the plains week after week, it became obvious that these kids held the town on their shoulders” (Bissinger, 2000, p. xiv)6.

The Friday Light Lights cultural motif was directly linked to the Washington Panthers football team in many ways. First, but probably not foremost, their similar names and team colors – Odessa, Texas, Permian Panthers (team colors – black and white) and the Washington, Illinois, Panthers (team colors – black and orange). In the past year both ESPN and the Weather Channel have produced on-air, long form, television segments featuring the Washington Panthers football team. Given the segment’s tone, the language used, and in some cases direct Friday Night Lights references, the storyline of the Washington Panthers was told from the perspective of the well-established cultural motifs of the ‘Friday Night Lights’ phenomenon.

On November 27, 2013, the cable television sports network ESPN, presented a six minute on-air, long form, television segment about the Washington Panthers (narrated by sports writer Tom Friend) on the Sports Center program. The segment highlighted the late season exploits of the Washington Panthers and featured theatrically produced interviews with the coach and selected players. Quoting from the Tom Friend narration in the ESPN televised segment:

“Sometimes it’s a town that lifts up the team – but in Washington, Illinois, there is a team lifting up the town” (Friend, 2013)7.

While the quotation aptly depicted events, one can also speculate on the extent to which the Friday Night Lights cultural motif had already established the mindset used by Friend of a town on the team’s shoulders. The basic storyline of a team and a town (in the case of this study, a team and a tornado town) fits conveniently into the pre-established narrative structure established by Friday Night Lights.

On the week of September 22, 2014, the Weather Channel’s Mike Jenkins visited the Washington Community High School to a make a short film about the Washington tornado. The three-minute, on-air television segment was aired on Friday, September 26, 2014, on the Weather Channel. It was shown as part of the morning program ‘Wake up with Al (Roker)’ and featured as ‘Friday Night Lightning’. Weather Channel personality Jim Cantore narrated the three minute segment in which the story of the Panthers football team was told in relation to the tornado. In the Weather Channel’s theatrical quality production, a sound bite from Washington resident Scott Gundy was highlighted (Cantore, 2014)8. Taken from an interview from the NBC Today Show on the morning of November 18, 2013 (the day after the tornado), the following exchange took place:

Matt Lauer (NBC Today Show Host): “(You have) A lot to be thankful for in terms of being alive and your family is safe, but where do you go from here?”

Scott Gundy (Washington Resident): “I mean we got a bad ass football team that is 11 and 0, then (were) going to play in the semi-finals this weekend, so hopefully that picks us up a little bit.”

In this Weather Channel, Washington-related production the direct reference to Friday Night Lights in the title ‘Friday Night Lightning’ as well as the reference to a ‘bad ass’ football team representing a town’s hopes are also reminiscent of the cultural motifs established in Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights.

Literature Review

Selected concepts from the social science literature are necessary to provide a context in which to understand the findings. Therefore this literature review covers two concepts. These concepts are community resources in relation to disaster recovery and the sociology of sports.

Community Resources in Relation to Disaster Recovery

In considering disaster recovery there are both the physical and social components of recovery efforts. This quick response report addresses a narrow aspect of social recovery: the contribution of the Washington Panthers football team to community recovery. To ground this topic in established literature, the authors use the perspective of community resources for recovery as suggested by Philips (2009) in chapter 13 of the book Disaster Recovery. Community resources for recovery involve factors like defining and understanding the community in question, understanding the nature of social capital present, and knowing how to best facilitate community engagement. The goal is to get back to some type of normal, not necessarily what had existed in the past, but some type of new normal which is acceptable in terms of the community’s values. Philips commented that:

“People living in affected areas will be motivated to restore their daily lives to normalcy… (that) motivation can be turned into an asset for recovery” (Philips, 2009, p. 400)9

While the topic of social capital is a large topic whose full coverage is beyond the scope of this report, linkages have been made between social capital and disaster recovery. Nakagawa and Shaw (2004) have explored social capital in relation to regional development. From their perspective social capital is defined as:

“The function of mutual trust, social networks of both individuals and groups, and social norms such as obligation and willingness towards mutually beneficial collective action” (Nakagawa and Shaw, 2004, p. 10.)10.

Three types of social connectedness have been identified as making up a community’s social capital: 1) Bonding; 2) Bridging; and, 3) Linking. In terms of this work, the bonding aspect of social capital is most relevant. Pretty (2003) describes bonding social capital as:

“Bonding social capital describes the links between people with similar objectives and is manifested in local groups, such as guilds, mutual-aid societies, sports clubs, and mothers’ groups” (Pretty, 2003, p. 1913)11.

Also, as will be described in later sections of this report, the Washington Panthers football team had vast support in the community. Prior to the tornado disaster the team had a 12-0 record for the 2013 season and was going into the ‘final four’ bracket of the State Class 5A high school football championship. The team players, cheerleaders, band members, their parents, coaches, school staff, alumni, boosters, and other team supporters in Washington formed a large contingent of persons with links to one another manifested through a common interest in the team. After the tornado’s destruction, the social connectedness surrounding the team became especially important as a driving motivator for community recovery.

The Domain of Sports Sociology

While working on this project, the authors determined that a literature review on themes related to sports sociology would be informative in guiding this work. Brown (2001)12 suggests that the study of sports sociology considers sports as a part of cultural and social life. Specific concepts are highlighted which support themes relevant to this project.

A well-developed sub-field of sociology is the domain of the sociology of sports. Studies of sports’ impact on society and culture contribute to the understanding of social life by adding a different perspective to the study of sports and exercise. Some of the pioneering sociologists focusing on sports include D. Stanley Eitzen and George H. Sage. Their university-level textbook, Sociology of North American Sport, is now in its ninth edition. Jay Coakley is another scholar who developed the field of sports sociology. His text, Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies, is an example of a work which delves into a myriad of social aspects of sports. These authors address both the positive and negative aspects of how sports are organized in society.

Eitzen and Sage (1986) outline normative and non-normative approaches to researching the social science of sports. From the non-normative viewpoint, sports are considered as neither a priori good, nor a priori bad. On the other hand, the normative perspective is defined as:

“Value-laden research done to prove a point. It starts with assumptions about the way things should be and searches for evidence that this is or is not the case” (Eitzen and Sage, 1986, p. 12)13.

Using sociological approaches, studies of sports can range from demonstrations of sports as character building to a muckraking approach directed at showing the negative social aspects of sports like elitism, sexism, and racism. Clearly, one can make arguments for and against youth participation in interscholastic sports. The typical arguments against such activity would include sports diverting student attention from their academic activities, serving as a forum for negative peer pressure, or causing serious injury to student athletes. While acknowledging such information, this project takes more of a normative approach starting with the assumption that high school football is generally a positive force in the community. From that starting point, this work takes a detailed look of how high school football can serve as a motivator for disaster recovery efforts.

  • Six arguments supporting school sports are as follows (Coakley, 2001, p. 419)14:

  • They involve students in school activities and increase interest in academic activities

  • They build self-esteem, responsibility, achievement orientation, and teamwork skills required for occupational success
  • They provide fitness training and stimulate interest in physical activity among all students in the school
  • They generate the spirit and unity necessary to maintain the school as a viable organization
  • They promote parental, alumni, and community support for all school programs
  • They give students opportunities to develop and display skills in activities valued in the society at large and to receive rewards for their athletic skills While the focus of this research is the interactions of the football team with disaster recovery efforts, and not necessarily the sociological function of the team as a whole, aspects of Coakley’s arguments supporting school sports were found to be present during our analysis of qualitative data. Data from interviews with parties directly related to Panthers football, and with persons not directly related to the team, suggested that elements of arguments two, four, five, and six supporting school sports were present. Specifically, pro-social themes of building self-esteem and responsibility, the generation of spirit and unity, the promotion of community support for school programs (and vise-versa), and the opportunity for students to display skills valued in the community at large were found to be supported by this work.

Research Questions

  1. Can a high school football team provide services to a disaster recovery effort?

  2. What are the specific types of services a high school football team can provide to the community during disaster recovery?

  3. How can the value-added services provided by a high school football team be translated to other rural communities in the United States facing disaster recovery?


The method of qualitative case study research based on the work of Yin (1994)15 was used in this study. Using library-based periodicals, office-based Internet resources, publically available data from civic authorities, ephemeral documentation, and field observation of the post-disaster recovery efforts, case studies were performed on two related topics: 1) The disaster response and recovery related actions of the Washington High School football team; 2) The disaster recovery progress during the time of this study.

As relevant themes emerged from the case study data, follow-up interviews were done to provide a more robust qualitative context. The interviews took place as semi-structured primary informant interviews led by the principal investigator and assisted by the co-investigator.

The following ten questions were used for the instrument:

  1. Were members of the Washington High School Panthers football team directly impacted by the tornado disaster, if so how?

  2. Were the facilities of the football team impacted by the tornado? (i.e., school, stadium, practice fields, etc.)

  3. Can you name some of the reasons why members of the Washington High School Panthers Football team became involved in the tornado disaster response & recovery?

  4. When members of the team became involved in disaster response actions, what if any adaptations needed to be made to alter the normal activities of the team?

  5. What are some of the tangible services provided by the team with respect to tornado response & recovery? (i.e., tangible services like helping pick up debris or fundraising)

  6. What are some of the intangible services provided by the team with respect to tornado response & recovery? (i.e., intangible services like raising the spirits of tornado victims)

  7. Did the team indirectly serve as ambassadors for the community - meaning did the team serve as a focal point to tell others the story of what happened to Washington?

  8. Did the team participate in community service activities or disaster relief activities prior to the disaster?

  9. As response transitions to recovery, does the team plan to stay involved in the recovery efforts or perhaps make themselves available to assist other communities stricken by tornado disasters?

  10. Is there a specific event or action that stands out in terms of the most valuable service that the team provided to the Washington community in the wake of the tornado?

  11. Would there be any other specific persons in the Washington Community who you think would be able to provide us with other information concerning how the football team helped the community in the tornado's aftermath?

Question 11 is indicative of the snowball sampling technique applied. Snowball sampling is generally defined as a non-probabilistic sampling technique where existing subjects provide the name of other stakeholders allowing for an escalating sample. (Lewis-Beck et. al, 2003)16 That technique was applied to expand the sample pool.

Qualitative methods will be applied based on a case study of the initial months of Washington’s disaster recovery supported by primary informant interviews of persons involved with the disaster recovery and the football team. Once that phase was completed, the methods transitioned to another round of primary informant interviews with selected subjects based on snowball sampling.

Analysis of interview data was based on qualitative interpretive techniques as found in Lincoln and Denzin (2011)17. In a procedure led by the principal investigator, triangulation was used to compare and contrast themes from the interview sets. That procedure allowed for trends to emerge leading to the relevant findings.

Sample size and Characteristics

The sample size was an n of 12 primary informants. With this n=12, the researchers can suggest the following concerning the results. First, given the nature of the topic, the researchers determined that the level of detail and richness of discussions during the interview allowed for a detailed qualitative picture to emerge. There may be limited generalizability from these results due to the small sample size. The characteristics of the subjects recruited included persons who had characteristics of involvement with aspects of the Washington, November 17, 2013, tornado disaster recovery. This included persons who have been involved with the Washington High School Panthers 2013 season, the Sacred Heart-Griffin football team and the Chicago Bears organization. All interaction with human subjects was done under the auspices of the Western Illinois University Institutional Review Board. This project has been approved and assigned the WIU IRB ID #2892. A few of the potential primary informants, who were football players, were excluded from this project because they were under 18 years of age. The researchers specified the IRB protocol to cover interactions with persons who were adults, defined as 18 years of age and older.

Research Findings

There were three central themes that appeared when reviewing the research. The first theme was that the Washington football team acted as an ambassador. Second, the football team played a role in restoring normalcy in the community. Finally, how the team became a symbol. The following sections will provide a detailed explanation of each concept.


According to a stakeholder associated with the Panthers, “The Panther’s acted as an ambassador for the city.” One dictionary definition of ambassador is, “an authorized representative or messenger” (Merriam-Webster, 2014)18. The Panthers football team acted as a representative of their city. They increased media coverage, told the town’s story, and were a source of community pride. The Panthers accomplished this in three major ways: they became a spokesperson to create awareness, acted as a funding focal point, and served as a role model for their community. The combination of these characteristics allowed the Panthers team to assume the role of informal ambassador for the Washington community.


The Panther’s football team reached a national audience. They participated in press conferences, interviews, and connected with such big-name organizations as the Chicago Bears. Coverage was so fierce that Panthers players gave interviews without electricity, and the team even garnered a nationally aired segment on ESPN (Drehs, 2013)19. These media connections were focused on the Panthers, but they also highlighted the November 17th tornado and directed attention to the disaster. Some boons gained by the Panthers’ willingness to bear the limelight were, but were not limited to:

  • A press conference with about 40 reporters the Friday before their semifinal game
  • Being interviewed by over 25 different media agencies (from ESPN and NBC to local affiliates)
  • The Chicago Bears stepping in to help
  • Interviewers, and the media, following the team as they practiced in Bloomington
  • Sacred Heart-Griffin won the state championship, but dedicated it to Washington (Panthers) football According to others in Washington, the football team became a national story. Their games were big news. The Panthers were a headline the media enjoyed reporting on, and they evolved into a main source of information representing the city for news agencies. The national media coverage of the Washington tornado was elevated due to the focus on their high school football team.

Funding Focal Point

The team acted as a post-disaster focal point for receiving recovery funds. In their role of ambassador for the city of Washington, the Panthers became a catalyst for giving to the city. An example of this can be seen during the semifinal game against Sacred Heart-Griffin.

On Saturday, November 23, 2013, Sacred Heart-Griffin stakeholders arranged a convoy of coach-style charter busses to transport anyone from Washington who wanted to attend the game to Springfield and back. It is estimated that 1,500 to 2,000 persons from Washington were hosted at the Sacred Heart-Griffin High School campus that afternoon and evening. The guests from Washington were treated to pre and post-game meals, and a cash donation of approximately $75,000 was given to Washington residents. Anonymous supporters of Sacred Heart-Griffin football attended the meals to hand out gift cards, and one person gave $100 bills to disaster victims who had travelled to watch the game. None of these efforts were part of other faith-based disaster relief projects or organized through traditional networks of Voluntary Organizations Assisting in Disasters – they were self-organized through the Sacred Heart-Griffin football community.

In summary, this research found that these funding sources were directly related to the Panthers football team:

  • A total of $75,000 donated from Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclones stakeholders
  • Many one-hundred dollar bills distributed to Washington community members at the Sacred Heart-Griffin dinner
  • Over $200,000 donated by the Chicago Bears organization In all likelihood, funds would have been donated to the City of Washington’s recovery efforts. However, the Panthers acting as effective ambassadors of the city positively impacted donations and broadened the scope of donors.

Role Model for the Community

“In a world full of selfishness it renews your belief in mankind”, said a local businessperson. The Washington Panthers football team has acted as a role model during post-disaster recovery efforts. The team’s decision to play the semi-final game, despite the tornado, showed that the team and community would carry on. If high school students could rally together and play a football game less than a week after a disaster, why couldn’t a community member work with equal vigor to rebuild Washington?

Panthers’ Coach Crouch placed importance on the team’s mantra: “Your actions will make people follow you. Don’t wait around, be working to create action.” Simply put: lead from the front. In keeping with their mantra, the team has been a constant presence in the community recovery process. They provide manpower for community projects. One example of this was their volunteer work at LaHood Park. The park was full of debris and the Panthers re-sodded it. They continue to work in their community; consistently providing post-disaster assistance long after the initial devastation.

Example of Ambassadorship Activity – Bears Organization

The Washington Panthers were able to act as ambassadors for receiving the Chicago Bears. The resulting relationship between the Washington Panthers and the Chicago Bears served the recovery effort of the tornado stricken town. The initial outreach efforts of the Chicago Bears, driven by the social capital aspect of bonding around common interests, have benefited the Panthers themselves, the city of Washington, and the Chicago Bears organization. It is important to note that the Chicago Bears initiated the outreach, which developed into a relationship between the NFL franchise and the high school football team (and city). This specific example of a social connection between big time (professional) and smaller-time (high-school) teams within the realm of football is important. Portions of the relationship between the Washington Panthers and the Chicago Bears could be replicated. High school teams in disaster stricken cities could link with NFL teams by new forms of public-private partnerships. If a small town in rural Kansas was devastated, a nearby NFL team could initiate team-to-team relationships and bring aid to the community.

In context, it should be noted that Washington is 145 miles southwest of Chicago, so it is some distance from the Bears’ home city. Also, as the individual NFL franchises are for-profit corporations and NFL players are considered as marketable celebrities, when NFL players make appearances typical fees can range from $2,500/hour for rookies to $10,000/hour for starters. For numerous Chicago Bears players and high-level front office staff to spend time in Washington, the opportunity costs realized to the players and NFL franchise are significant.

Following on that theme, NFL football is one of the leading professional sport leagues in the United States. The Chicago Bears, starting in 1920, were one of the charter members of the league. Forbes ranks the Chicago Bears as number eight in terms of net worth of NFL franchises, with a current value of $1,700 million. The Chicago Bears have an estimated yearly revenue of $309 million with an operating income of $57.1 million (Forbes Staff, n.d.)20. Under the NFL’s franchise rules, the Bears have exclusive rights to host professional football games, advertise, promote, and host events in their defined home marketing area. That market area consists of the Chicago Metropolitan area and extends to the remainder of the state of Illinois.

Similar to other large corporate enterprises, the Chicago Bears have their own charitable portfolio. In the Chicago Bears corporate structure, a community relations department guides a myriad of activities related to charitable works. In addition to that portion of the Bears organization, Bears Care is a separate entity, (incorporated 501(c) organization in 2005) committed to improving the quality of life for people in the Chicagoland community (Chicago Bears, n.d.). Many starter-level NFL players also have their own personal foundations from which they engage the community in charitable activities.

Chicago Bears philanthropic activities include, but are not limited to:

  • The Bear’s Care Program
  • Education support related activities
  • Active military and veteran support related activities
  • The NFL’s Play 60 youth health and physical fitness campaign
  • Various volunteerism related activities
  • Youth football activities (Chicago Bears, n.d., a) During the past year, typical charitable activities that the Chicago Bears engaged in included:

  • Promoting cancer awareness

  • Hosting training camps for parents about football safety
  • Reaching out to mentor local schools
  • Providing make-a-wish type opportunities for terminally ill children From data collected during an interview with the Chicago Bears front office staff, prior to the Illinois tornadoes of November 17, 2013, the Bears had some limited involvement in donating to disaster-related humanitarian relief services through collection drives and fundraising related to national-level disasters.

Previous disaster relief efforts the Chicago Bears have donated to include:

  • September 11 attacks (2001)
  • Hurricane Katrina (2005)
  • Hurricane Sandy (2012) These donations have usually been coordinated through national-level Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOADs) like the American Red Cross.

The November 17, 2013, Illinois tornado outbreak presented an opportunity for the Chicago Bears to provide a helping hand. The Bears organization made a series of quick decisions to become involved in disaster relief efforts within the franchise’s home marketing area. The first formal activities took place two days after the tornado’s impact on Wednesday, November 20 when Chicago Bears player Robbie Gould (placekicker) organized an excursion with current and former team members to Coal City to provide disaster relief. Coal City is located about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. Coal City was impacted by an EF-2 tornado in the same storm system that impacted Washington. The tornado caused moderate damage and injured three persons. The Chicago Bears group positioned themselves at a United Methodist Church to distribute meals and supplies to disaster victims from American Red Cross facilities (Mayer, 2013).

In the days following the Washington tornado, members of the McCaskey family (who own the Chicago Bears) took personal trips to Washington to bring carloads of supplies. George Halas McCaskey, the Chicago Bears Chairman of the Board, spearheaded efforts to travel to Washington on Saturday, November 23 to provide volunteer assistance. Prior to his work in the Chicago Bears organization, Mr. McCaskey was a reporter for an NBC affiliate in Peoria (Jensen, 2011)21. Therefore, he had some familiarity with Washington.

On Sunday November 24, (one week after the tornado) the Chicago Bears faced the St. Louis Rams at St. Louis. The Chicago Bears director of corporate communication asked the Washington Community High School athletic director to send the NFL team its official logo. While there was an attempt made for the Chicago Bears to wear the Washington Panthers logo to show solidarity, it failed due to strict NFL league policies on logos and marketing rules. However, the Bears were able to wear Panthers t-shirts at their game day pre and post-game press conferences to support and raise awareness for the disaster stricken city. Player Kyle Long (Rookie Guard) also commented:

“This shirt is from the Washington Panthers from Washington, Illinois, one of many places that experienced some traumatic stuff with the tornado and the inclement weather. As a team, we send our wishes out and our thoughts and prayers out to the people of Illinois and everybody who’s been affected by the storms. I just want to wear the shirt because I just want to support the local football team. I think they’re in contention for the state title right now. So that’s pretty cool” (Wright, 2013)22.

On Wednesday December 4, 2013, (17 days after the tornado) Chicago Bears chairman George H. McCaskey, team president, and CEO Ted Phillips along with 14 players visited Washington. The Chicago Bears entourage visited Washington Community High School, helped clear debris, and visited a disaster relief facility (Mayer, 2013)23. During interviews with Washington Panthers coaches, team members, and stakeholders the importance of that Chicago Bears visit was recognized as important. The Chicago Bears attended a school pep-rally, ate lunch in the cafeteria with students, and had a special one-on-one discussion with the Panthers football team. The opportunity to interact with the NFL players was an especially profound experience for Panthers team members. At that point in time, the Panthers had lost both their town and the state semi-final game. The chance for the young men to spend quality time with Chicago Bears players and discuss common football related topics of interest was a gesture that boosted the morale of the young men.

On Friday, June 6, 2014, (about seven months after the tornado) the Chicago Bears again visited Washington. The organization’s chairman led a group of over 100 Chicago Bears staff and players to the city to engage in a day of disaster relief activity. Those activities included participating in a flag raising ceremony with local congressional representatives, taking part in volunteer orientations and safety training, spending a day clearing debris from public right of ways, and helping homeowners with cleanup assistance (Stein, 2014)24. Some of the 2013 Panthers team members were again able to interact with the Chicago Bears during this summer 2014 visit. This activity was planned as part of the Chicago Bears ‘Rookie Rally’ activities. According to the Chicago Bears website:

“The Bear’s Rookie Class participates as a group in four hands-on volunteer activities as part of the Bears ‘Rookie Rally’ program. This program was created by the Bears Community Relations department to involve the team's first-year players, as a group, in charitable activities throughout the season. The ‘Rookie Rally’ program helps the rookies learn more about their new community, serve several worthwhile charitable organizations in the area, and bond together through volunteerism” (Chicago Bears, n.d, b)25.

In data gathered from an interview with Chicago Bears front office staff, it was indicated that the NFL team’s Washington disaster relief efforts were driven by three themes. The first theme was a focus on helping out – not just being there. When an entourage of NFL players arrives in a small town it creates an environment of excitement. It would be easy to simply visit, lend moral support, take pictures with fans, sign autographs, etc. The Chicago Bears made a point to not only show up, but to engage in tangible activities like debris cleanup while in Washington.

The second theme relates to listening. Representatives of the Chicago Bears organization expressed sentiments that while they were in the post-disaster environment, many disaster victims had the need to tell their survivor stories to the Bears. Members of the Chicago Bears organization thought there was value inherent in being there to provide a listening ear.

The third theme was standing in unity with the disaster stricken community. The Chicago Bears organization chose to travel to Washington and stand alongside persons stricken by a devastating tornado. They came away with the impression that their actions increased community spirit.

Data provided by the Chicago Bears front office indicated a financial contribution to the November 17th Illinois tornado relief efforts as follows:

The interaction of the Washington Panthers with the Chicago Bears was significant. The high school football team’s actions and relationship building with an NFL team brought substantial resources into the community. One could speculate about the level of Chicago Bears involvement with Washington if there was no football connection. Perhaps the Chicago Bears would have reached out to communities closer to home? In this case, sports served as a common bond between the two vastly different football organizations. At its core, the team-to team relationship has resulted in broader connections between the Chicago Bears organization and the Washington community that continue to this day.

This high school football – NFL football relationship borne of the tornado is significant from many perspectives. From the perspective of stakeholders in Washington, when a NFL team like the Chicago Bears shows up it is a big deal. The raw power of an NFL franchise coming to a disaster stricken city brings with it:

  • The prestige of celebrity football players
  • The notoriety which follows the players
  • The financial wherewithal of the NFL franchise and players themselves
  • The ability to leverage other corporate support
  • Professional level community relations skill to implement projects In terms of leveraging other corporate support, when the Chicago Bears visited Washington in June 2014, they arrived with a corporate sponsor partner: Rust-Oleum. Rust-Oleum is an Illinois company that manufactures protective paint products. Rust-Oleum brought with them a truck of primers, paints, and stains to donate to Washington’s recovery effort.

In terms of notoriety the Chicago Bears’ visits to Washington received extensive press coverage both locally and statewide. For the June 2014 visit, Chicago television personality Aly Bockler, from WCIU Channel 26, accompanied the team. In addition, WGN radio 720 AM provided focused reporting on Washington during the Bears visit. Such reportage penetrated to the Chicago media market of approximately 8 million persons. The storyline of a high school team working with a professional team attracts broad interest. The feel-good nature of the story combined with the professional athletes’ star power attracts media attention. This media attention provided Washington with an opportunity to tell its story in large media markets; including the fact that the community was still seeking volunteer assistance. The image of Chicago Bears working side-by-side with Washington Panthers supported the idea that Chicago-area residents could also volunteer to help Washington. Unless persons in Washington were adverse to the Bears presence, because they were die-hard Green Bay Packers fans, there are very few, if any, downsides to Washington when the Chicago Bears show up to help.

From the perspective of the NFL franchise, the Washington situation shows how opportunities to provide post-disaster relief can be developed and implemented. The activity of providing such services to the community has very little, if any, downside. If a significant disaster happens on the east or west coast, it does not necessarily make sense to send representatives from a Midwest team across the country to provide aid. In such cases, monetary donations can be organized with the assistance of national-level VOADs active in disaster relief.

If a significant disaster happens in the statewide market area of an NFL franchise, community relations representatives can reach out to organizations in the disaster zone with a common interest – football. High school football teams or youth football leagues are examples of such organizations. Then, in addition to (or perhaps instead of) providing financial aid to national-level organizations, representatives can reach out directly to communities. As NFL team members will likely be able to easily develop relationships with others interested in football (such as high school players) such interactions can lead to new community connections.

A best practice observed was the return of the Chicago Bears to Washington approximately seven months after the disaster. From the disaster recovery perspective, it is usually not a problem to attract the attention of all types of volunteers, celebrities, dignitaries, etc. in the days and weeks following a disaster. However, months and years after the initial event outside attention to disaster stricken cities fade. At times when such places need more help than ever in the long-term recovery, it is difficult to captivate the public’s attention as the disaster is ‘old news’. The Chicago Bears showing up to help both 17 days and seven months later shows a commitment to the community that is beyond the superficial level.


An important component of this study is telling the story of the evolution of the Washington Panthers football team’s experiences. The team underwent a transformation from one day prior to the tornado to the point in time six days after the disaster’s impact. This case study section provides examples of various efforts that the Panthers team and other high school football stakeholders took to aid the Washington during disaster response and recovery. During this six day period in late 2013, the Panthers underwent an intense emotional and physical experience that would likely sideline most able-bodied adults.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

On Saturday afternoon, November 16th the Panthers were well into their post-season play. At 2:00pm in Washington, the Panthers faced off against the University High School Pioneers from Normal. In this Illinois High School Association class 5A ‘elite eight’ level playoff bracket game, the Panthers defeated the Pioneers by a score of 41 to 7. With the victory, the Panthers and city of Washington were looking forward to next Saturday’s ‘final four’ game in the state’s capital, Springfield. The upcoming game represented the furthest the Panthers had gone in post-season play since 1985. The excitement level was high.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Approximately 16 hours after the Panthers’ victory celebration, an EF-4 tornado struck Washington. All Panthers players were impacted in one way or another. Ten Panthers players lost their homes in the disaster.

In the immediate hours after the tornado, prior to the convergence of regional and state emergency management authorities on the tornado stricken city, many players engaged in direct citizen response activities. In interviews with affected members of the Panthers 2013 team, it was indicated that they:

  • Engaged in rudimentary search and rescue activities
  • Provided direct aid to victims
  • Established post-disaster communication between neighbors
  • Undertook basic debris management activities In addition, within the first few hours after the tornado, team members organized on an ad-hoc basis with the coach to check on their own. Once they were all accounted for, such activity was extended to the Panther family in the larger community. By late-afternoon, first responders were formally taking over for many of the improvised activities of citizen first responders who were stranded in the disaster zone.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On the day after the tornado, Monday, November 18th, all members of the football team were accounted for. The Panthers home stadium and the high school were not directly impacted by the tornado itself. Large amounts of debris were everywhere and the destruction of a large portion of the city made for treacherous conditions. While the thought had lingered in the minds of those persons associated with the Panthers that playing in a state semi-final game in six days may not be feasible, by late-Monday/early-Tuesday the collective decision had been made by the players and coaches that the Panthers would take to the field on Saturday. This decision was very significant. The Panthers had every reason in the world to seek to postpone, cancel, or otherwise alter their post-season schedule. They collectively chose not to take that course.

In a nationally televised interview on ESPN, during the first week after the tornado, Panther’s quarterback Colton Marshall said:

“We’re going to get through this, but it’s not going to happen overnight, this game you get to play one time, this stuff will go on for six months, a year, two years – but we got one shot at this” (Friend, 2013)7.

Both players and coaches had suggested that coping with the tornado presented many dilemmas. Less than a day after one of the high points in their young lives, Panthers players were direct witnesses to the violent destruction of the environment they had known as home. A typical dilemma faced by players was as follows. A common practice of team members was to take portions of their uniforms or their varsity letterman jackets home for storage in a bedroom closet. One can consider the psychological coping consequences of having your lucky team jersey swept away. The loss of that jersey would be only part of the context of the player (and their family) losing all of their belongings in addition to their house.

It was observed that, while clearly affected by the disaster, Panthers players and coaches were able to speak about their tornado experiences in matter-of-fact tones. Clearly, some players achieved the status of minor celebrities; receiving media attention from multiple national-level outlets in the first days following the disaster. It is not known by the researchers the extent to which the factors such as the passage of months, numerous experiences of interviews with strangers, specialized training in how to respond to media (and other interviewers), or the composition of the character of the young men resulted in the tone of modesty that was prevalent. The authors speculate that the character traits of the young men resulted in the overall humble approach to reflection on the tornado experience. A common theme observed was that the Panthers players did what needed to be done. In other words they did not view themselves as engaging in any extraordinary actions. Team members provided information using very modest tones and no self-aggrandizing remarks were made at any point. It was perceived that a strict sense of modesty and understatement was a value that prevailed amongst the team members.

Those Panthers stakeholders who were not direct participants on the field, but part of the larger Panther community (i.e. fans, boosters, alumni) were observed to be less modest in reflecting on the 2013 season. Two salient points emerged from interactions with those stakeholders. On a few occasions, the week of November 16 - November 23, 2013, was referred to as the time that the Panthers players made the transition from boys to men. Also, on numerous occasions references were made concerning the positive nature of the value system that Panthers coach Darrell Crouch instilled in his players. The respectable on and off field behaviors and actions of the young men on the Panthers team was not something that occurred on the spot. Such behaviors were based on values instilled for years by persons such as the coaches, teachers, parents, and the community at large.

Tuesday, November 19 and Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On Tuesday, November 19th, and Wednesday, November 20th, Coach Crouch fielded many offers of donations from rival high school football teams. The Panthers were invited to practice at the football stadium of Illinois State University, located in Bloomington-Normal, about 34 miles to the east. The team the Panthers had eliminated from the playoffs four days ago, the University Pioneers from Normal, provided food to the players after practice and donated clothing. Other teams that were fierce rivals in the past also stepped forward to provide peer-to-peer material aid. The Joliet Catholic Academy Hilltoppers served dinners to the Washington team, despite being located 105 miles away. Various high schools, coaches, players, boosters, and supporters of varsity athletics from all over Illinois, too numerous to mention in this report, came to the aid of the Panthers in their time of need.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

After practice on Thursday, November 21st, instead of watching game film related to the upcoming opponent Sacred Heart-Griffin, the Panthers watched footage from their last state championship in 1985. In an article, “Football helps town struck by tornado” published by the ESPN sports journalism site (and program) Outside the Lines, Coach Crouch was quoted on the difficulties he faced as the state semifinal game approached:

“He desperately tried to get his exhausted team to re-focus. ‘How long have you been fighting to get to this game?’ Crouch barked. ‘And you're just going to say this sucks, our town is torn up, forget it? No way.’ He asked his players: ‘How many of you helped on Sunday?’ Everyone in the room raised a hand. ‘You want to help,’ he said. ‘Win on Saturday.’ He pressed on, trying to somehow erase the guilt he knew some of his players felt about focusing on football in the wake of tragedy” (Drehs, 2013).

Friday, November 22, 2013

On Friday, November 22nd the team held a press conference prior to the game and attempted to ready themselves for the upcoming scrimmage as best as possible.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Game day Saturday, November 23rd was a cold day in Central Illinois; with strong winds and temperatures in the 20s (Fahrenheit). The tornado had occurred six days ago and many residents were now able to gain access to their disaster-stricken neighborhoods for the first time. At that same time, the Panthers were taking to the field in Springfield, 75 miles to the south.

As previously stated, the Panthers were defeated by Sacred Heart-Griffin, ending their season. The defeat by a team named the Cyclones with a cartoon depiction of a tornado on their scoreboard was an especially depressing blow. There was no storybook ending for the Panthers here. A common sentiment expressed was that, ‘We were clearly in Illinois in the beginning of winter, not in Hollywood where the dreams of Cinderella teams come true.’

During the game, while playing respectfully the Panthers were outmatched by their opponent. In interviews for this project both coaches commented on the aspects of the gamesmanship witnessed that afternoon. Clearly, the disaster put the Panthers in the position of having the momentum of public sympathy on their side. They saw themselves as playing for a cause much greater than themselves. At the same time, the Cyclones had to enter the game with an attitude of helping the disaster stricken team in any way they could off the field, while still playing their hearts out to defeat the Panthers. This circumstance reflects an example of the moral code of sportsmanship in practice. Keating (1964) has suggested that:

“In essence, sports is a kind of diversion which has for its direct and immediate end fun, pleasure, and delight and which is dominated by a spirit of moderation and generosity” (Keaton, 1964, p. 144)26.

When the defeated Panthers returned to their disaster stricken city late Saturday after dark, they arrived at the Pantherplex (a team clubhouse adjacent to the football field) to meet many well-wishers who were in wait. The team was given a hero’s welcome upon their arrival by uniformed personnel who had (and were) acting as first responders in the tornado’s aftermath.

Saturday, November 23rd: Activities Surrounding the Game

The activities surrounding Saturday’s game proved to be very important to the Washington community. The Panthers opponent, Sacred Heart-Griffin, was also headed into the Class 5A state semifinal game with an undefeated record. The team led by Coach Ken Leonard was known as one of the powerhouse high school football teams in the state of Illinois. On the day of the tornado in Washington, Coach Leonard was in communication with Coach Crouch prior to the tornado regarding routine business arrangements for next Saturday’s matchup. On the day of the tornado, phone calls were made amongst Sacred Heart-Griffin team stakeholders to organize assistance for Washington. In short order, Sacred Heart-Griffin staff, families, and alumni began to self-organize a relief effort drawing together resources in Springfield.

At first, semi-trucks were loaded with supplies and sent to Washington from Sacred Heart-Griffin. As game day approached, fundraising efforts and other logistical plans were put into place for Saturday. Civic minded parents, alumni, and Sacred Heart-Griffin supporters were mobilized. Amongst those Sacred Heart-Griffin stakeholders were some people of means with connections to the business community in the state capitol, and they quickly moved into action. As described in the section concerning how the team acted as an ambassador and attracted funding, many activities took place on Saturday afternoon, including the collection of $75,000 for Washington relief efforts.

During interviews with members of the Sacred Heart-Griffin football coaching staff, Coach Leonard indicated that, like Coach Crouch, he was also contacted by national media outlets like ESPN, The Weather Channel, ABC’s Good Morning America, and CBS news about the game. When reflecting on the events surrounding the game and the perceived newsworthiness of how Sacred Heart-Griffin reached out to help its opponents, Coach Leonard indicated to the authors that:

“This should not be a story, this is how we are raised.”

While the efforts of Sacred Heart-Griffin in hosting Washington residents were likely planned as an expression of generosity, there were also unintended consequences. A forum for disaster victims to reunite with one another for the first time was created. After the tornado, the devastation in Washington was to the extent that neighbors had not seen each other since the disaster. Many victims were sheltered at different locations, and portions of the city remained inaccessible for days after impact. At the pre and post-game meals, Washington residents were able to have a series of impromptu meetings with friends and neighbors. At that early point in the recovery, these small scale interpersonal meetings and opportunities for information exchange proved to be important for the coordination of recovery tasks. Also, the opportunity for gathering served the more abstract, yet critical, needs for emotional support from peers and kinship networks. If the Panthers had not played Saturday, or if Sacred Heart-Griffin had not hosted the meals, this circumstance would have been lost. This early opportunity for a large portion of the community to convene in a safe, supportive environment helped mend the torn social fabric of the community. If emergency management authorities had sponsored a community lunch six days after the disaster, would it have facilitated community cohesion?

In addition to providing support to Washington fans, the Sacred Heart-Griffin team provided specialized aid to the Panthers. It was not large in scope, but important with respect to the traditions of Panthers football. Prior to the game, the Panthers team enjoyed the tradition of making and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The Cyclones made a special effort to make sure that the ingredients were on hand for players to make their own sandwiches and eat their traditional pre-game meal. While the tendency would be not to have the visiting disaster victims make their own meals, an understanding of the unique traditions of this team by another school allowed for a small circumstance of normalcy. Relief workers can learn from this situation – those persons receiving post-disaster aid do not always want everything provided to them. Sometimes providing the circumstances for disaster victims to take tangible actions with their own hands restores a small aspect of normalcy. This can prove to be more beneficial than the most generous outpouring of comprehensive assistance.

After the game, the Cyclone’s quarterback found one of the Panthers game balls that was left behind. He indicated that he liked the feel of the footballs that the Panthers had brought to the game. Apparently, the Panthers’ game balls were made of a composite material, instead of leather. The opposing team preferred using the Panthers’ game balls in cold weather circumstances. In a reciprocal gesture, the Panthers supplied their footballs to Sacred Heart-Griffin. On November 20, 2013, the Sacred Heart-Griffin team won the Illinois State Class 5A Championship. The footballs used in that game were Washington Panthers footballs.

Conclusion: Evolution

The story of the Panthers football team in relation to the tornado disaster could easily end here with the conclusion of the game. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, team members acted as citizen first responders. By midweek, the team was attempting to focus on their goal of getting to the state championship, despite the adversity. Six days out from the destruction, the team took to gridiron. Seven days out from the tornado, the Panthers were back at what was left of their homes, needing to decompress from an eventful week. After all of these events, many members of the Panthers football team continued to provide assistance to the disaster recovery effort in ways that are discussed in other sections of this report, for example acting as ambassadors for the city.


A recent trend in post-disaster symbolism supporting recovery has been the ‘fill-in-the-blank Strong’ meme. It has come to represent a general sense of perseverance, resiliency, or standing together in the wake of adversity. The Washington Panthers football team provided the symbolism, imagery, and underlying meaning to a ‘Washington Strong’ meme that has come to symbolize Washington’s recovery. The football team did not purposely orchestrate meme development to support the recovery. However, the authors suggest that the Panthers provided the foundation for the development of the meme. This was an important symbolic contribution to Washington’s recovery effort.

This section of the quick response report starts with a brief definition and description of memes. It describes the origins and evolution of the ‘Washington Strong’ meme and concludes with the meme in the context of disaster popular culture studies.

What is a Meme?

A meme is defined as, “A cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.” Or as, “A cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread via the Internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way” (meme, n.d.)27. One of the first uses of the term meme in relation to social sciences was by Dawkins (1976)28 who suggested that a meme is, “Defined as the simplest cultural unit that can spread from one mind to another.”

In recent times, the use of memes has become prevalent as various short lived fads on the Internet. Words and/or images are created, and rapidly replicated, and appropriated, sometimes for humorous or ironic intent. Social media such as microblogging (with twitter hashtags) is a common format for meme propagation. However, it should also be noted that memes can exist without the Internet, on their own as tangible material creations.

Previous Use of Post-Disaster ‘Fill-in-the-Blank Strong’ Meme

While this study is concerned with the ‘Washington Strong’ meme, a brief context concerning the use of the ‘fill-in-the-blank Strong’ meme is necessary. While academic literature on the ‘fill-in-the-blank Strong’ meme concept is scant, it has been suggested that the meme originated in the realm of advertising. A Wikipedia article provides some useful anecdotal information on the ‘Boston Strong’ meme and the “fill-in-the-blank Strong’ meme in general (Boston Strong, 2014)29. However, the authors caution against using any Internet-based, community-built references as definitive sources.

Especially relevant to this study, after the Boston marathon terrorist bombing in 2013, the meme ‘Boston Strong’ quickly emerged as a reaction to the tragedy. In this case the word strong was linked with imagery of a local sports team (the Boston Red Sox baseball team) to represent a spirit of a resilient city after the tragic event. One article reported that two college students coined the Boston Strong meme in an attempt to raise money for victims by selling t-shirts.

“‘Boston Strong’ was first used on the day of the race last year by Emerson students Nicholas Reynolds and Chris Dobens, who went on to sell more than 59,000 shirts with the phrase on it. They raised close to $900,000 for the One Fund, a charity specifically created to raise money for the victims” (Rovell, 2014)30.

Another contradictory article suggested that the ‘Boston Strong’ meme had no single creator, rather it was a situation of multiple independent discovery, or perhaps it originated from the Internet.

“The motto’s origins are most likely a case of ‘multiple independent discovery’ – a phenomenon that occurs when several people simultaneously come up with the same idea. The first tweet featuring #bostonstrong originated more than 500 miles away in Cleveland. Just two hours after the explosions, Curtis Clough tweeted, “Thoughts and prayers to Boston marathon victims. Hoping for the best. #bostonstrong” (Swan, 2014)31.

Taken together this information suggests that the ‘Washington Strong’ meme was the adaptation of existing memes, not an original creation. A situation of reappropriation occurred where a meme existing in popular culture was adopted and adapted to meet local needs.

The Origin of the ‘Washington Panthers Strong’ Meme

Almost immediately after the tornado a ‘Washington Strong’ meme emerged. From its inception this meme has had a close relationship to support for the Washington Panthers football team. While the development of a meme may seem of minor importance in the scheme of long-term disaster recovery, the authors suggest that the establishment of a common meme can serve as an open-ended focal point for an evolving set of emotions, feelings, and actions driving recovery. For example, with one’s home in partial ruins, the situation can seem overwhelming, yet there is an urge to take some sort of action. Perhaps, it is more constructive to spray paint the words ‘Washington Strong’ on a board covering a hole in the side of your house than to do nothing. As one person does this, others may see it, copy it, and the meme replicates.

As the news of the Panther’s preparation for Saturday’s game spread throughout the city, the idea of ‘Washington Panthers Strong’ emerged suggesting that the team was going into the big game carrying the hopes of the devastated city on their shoulders. In other words, if our young men can be strong and can go on to play in the semi-final game, our town can be strong and strive towards recovery. There was the physically strong Panthers football team, but perhaps more importantly there was the ‘Washington Panthers Strong’ identity representing a much deeper strength of character.

Within five days of the November 17, 2013, tornado impact, ‘Washington Strong’ memes emerged using exact replicas or copies of portions of Panthers football logos. The Panthers symbolism consists of an orange block-style ‘W’ with a stylized black panther leaping through the middle of the ‘W’. At first, this symbolism was used for supporting the team, but then the separation between support for the team and support for the town blurred. This may be due in part to the fact that the Panthers football motto for the 2013 season was “One town, one team, Panthers football 2013.(Panther Football Alumni Association, 2013)32.

During interviews with team members and stakeholders, no one could recall if one person coined ‘Washington Strong’, but all agreed its use caught on quickly. The authors suggest that similar to the ‘Boston Strong’ meme, multiple independent discovery occurred. While no one in Washington referenced ‘Boston Strong’, the authors note that linking a city name with post-disaster resilience and an athletic team’s imagery has been established. Perhaps either consciously or unconsciously the stage was set for Washington to re-appropriate the meme.

The Evolution and Spread of the ‘Washington Strong’ Meme

As the Panthers season ended, the ‘Washington Panthers Strong’ meme evolved to ‘Washington Strong’. The meme replicated through signs and t-shirts. The fire station marquee read ‘Washington Strong’ the evening the Panthers returned from their defeat. Local businesses followed the pattern by making their own ‘Washington Strong’ displays. On large pieces of disaster debris and homes partially devastated by the tornado ‘Washington Strong’ appeared painted by hand. An especially conspicuous hand painted ‘W’ Strong sign on the boarded up garage of a home under repair became a gathering site where volunteers would pose for pictures during work breaks. Images of this ‘W’ Strong sign also appeared on magazine covers and as a supplemental image to media articles about the tornado. Another sign observed was a professionally painted Washington strong sign posted in a vacant lot where debris had been partially cleared.

During spring and summer 2014, the researchers observed many persons in Washington wearing orange ‘Washington Strong’ t-shirts. When the Chicago Bears visited town in June 2014, they wore, brought with them, and distributed their own Chicago Bears/Washington Strong/Rust-Oleum t-shirts. Some documentation of the meme reproduction by t-shirts was found on a social media posting from a local company Team Works by Holzhauer, Inc. dated November 21, 2013, (four days after the tornado impact) which stated:

“Team Works will have relief shirts available Thursday Morning 11/21. The shirts are $20 each but please know every cent of that money will be going towards rebuilding our beloved town and helping Washington families” (Team Works, 2013)33.

Immediately after the tornado, the Twitter hashtag #washingtonstrong was in use as a forum for micro bloggers to express solidarity with the tornado stricken community. Investigation of the proliferation of that social media meme is beyond the scope of this work. During spring and summer 2014, a Google image search using the term ‘Washington Strong’ would have resulted in many re-appropriated images using symbols from the Washington Panthers football team.

Other examples of the ‘Washington Strong’ meme replication include a special issue of a unique Illinois automobile license plate with the ‘Washington Strong’ meme in Panthers team colors. Also, a local brick company has created ‘Washington Strong’ meme bricks. In this project by the East Peoria Brick Company, the bricks are being sold for variable prices to raise funds for ongoing tornado relief, or provided free of charge to persons who are using the symbolic brick in rebuilding their tornado destroyed home.

While the bricks will be one of the more permanent preservations of the ‘Washington Strong’ meme, in most cases the meme-based material creations are ephemeral. During the course of this project, the researchers observed many ‘Washington Strong’ post-disaster meme material creations being disposed of as disaster debris. As the reconstruction progresses the continuation of the proliferation of the ‘Washington Strong’ meme is in question. Perhaps in the future when the disaster recovery is completed the ‘Washington Strong’ meme will have served its purpose and disappear.

Conclusion – ‘Washington Strong’ in the Context of Popular Culture of Disasters

The study of the popular culture of disasters can be applied in attempting to understand the social aspects of disaster recovery. The authors acknowledge limitations on the extent to which generalizable conclusions can be drawn concerning this abstract topic. Based on the scope and intent of this quick response study, the authors debated on whether to include this symbolism section in the findings of this report. For the purpose of attempting to build upon work done in the nascent field of popular culture of disasters, these findings are presented.

To date, one of the most comprehensive investigations of the popular culture of disasters has been published by Quarantelli and Davis (2011) under the auspices of the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. Toward the conclusion of their work they suggested:

“In the context presented here, it is evident that the value of studying PCD (popular culture of disasters) would not be defended by any number of people. All human and social behavior is worthy of attention. The importance of that behavior, whatever that might mean, is a matter of empirical determination not of an a priori value judgment. It is our view that any number of instances of PCD are as socially important as many other social phenomena that could be studied” (Quarantelli and Davis, 2011, p. 159)34.

Other works defining the domain of the study of the popular culture of disasters include the work of Webb, Wachtendorf, and Eyre (2000)35 and Webb (2007).

Webb has suggested that:

“Disaster movies, graffiti, and myths may seem trivial and inconsequential but they are not. Rather they are elements of cultural life. Culture shapes the way people view the world, how they live, what they value, and what they do” (Webb, 2007, p. 439)36.

Furthermore, he goes on to suggest four dimensions of a formal definition of the popular culture of disasters: 1) Characterization of the product itself; 2) The identity of the producer(s); 3) The timing of its production; and, 4) The means by which it is distributed and consumed (Webb, 2007, p. 434).

Following Webb’s suggested analysis using four dimensions, in terms of the ‘Washington Strong’ meme discussed, the authors are able to draw some tentative conclusions. The characterization of the product itself shows that the Washington Panthers football team plays an important role in the community culture of Washington. The community has drawn its post-disaster sense of strength from the team. This sense of strength is especially importing during times of disaster recovery. Regarding the identity of the producer(s), for the limited scope of this project, the data collected did not allow for conclusions to be drawn on this topic. The timing of the production of the ‘Washington Strong’ meme was almost immediately after the tornado, suggesting the ‘Washington Strong’ meme originated as a short-term coping mechanism. The means by which the ‘Washington Strong’ meme was distributed and produced were mostly through ephemeral items which have been (or will soon be) lost, with the exception of the bricks set into rebuilt homes. Study of the ‘Washington Strong’ meme in terms of its origins with Panthers football, and its evolution in supporting the spirit of disaster recovery in Washington, contribute to the nascent field of study of the popular culture of disasters. In an ancillary popular culture of disaster conclusion, Rozdilsky suggests that the formula for the creation of post-disaster memes is:

< disaster occurrence >


< symbols/themes appropriated from a local athletic team >

= The meme of < Insert name of city here followed by the word ‘Strong’>

In conclusion, Swope and Rozdilsky suggest that the whole circumstance of the ‘Washington Strong’ meme shows that the Panthers football team contributed a set of symbols, and more importantly a sense of strength, unity of purpose, and an example of resilience in the face of adversity. Such factors are culturally important drivers for the ongoing tornado recovery in Washington.


There have been anecdotal stories of high school football teams helping communities in their times of need, however there have been few actual studies of this phenomenon. To address that gap, this study provides a detailed account of how a team helped a town recover from a tornado disaster. Perhaps by learning from the concrete example of aid provided by the Washington Panthers, other towns and their high school football teams can replicate a portion of what happened in Washington.

Despite falling short of reaching the state championship game, the authors suggest the Washington Panthers football team provided something much more valuable to the community than the state championship. The Panthers provided a sense of unity, purpose, and hope for a community reeling from an EF-4 tornado. The events surrounding the Panthers post-disaster game might be classified as a distraction, a crutch, a small aspect of normalcy, or perhaps an event to pin future hopes on. A year into recovery, one reason Washington has progressed to the extent that it has is a strong sense of unity of purpose uniting the community. The initial driving force for that unity of purpose was the on and off field actions of the Panthers football team.

In terms of how these findings can assist other communities in the United States deal with future disasters, this study determined that the Panthers actions have provided a method of operation that other high school football teams can follow if their town suffers a disaster. In many rural locations in the United States high school football is a dominate part of community social life. High school football teams can be considered a community resource. While the primary purpose of high school football teams are not related to assisting a community cope with disasters, teams are well-organized, respected community entities. After an event, coaches and/or players can take collective action to provide assistance to their community; this is value-added assistance. High school football teams are not only able to provide a ready-made labor force for voluntary activities, but can also provide more sophisticated forms of assistance. The authors suggest that when future small American towns are struck by disaster, their football team can be considered as a resource to support recovery efforts.

This study concludes with a list of tangible and intangible types of assistance that a high school football team can provide to their community after a disaster.

High School Football Teams and Disaster Recovery: Tangible Forms of Assistance and Provision of Direct Services

  1. Working as citizen responders immediately following the disaster

  2. Being a local, on-call, well organized labor force to work on recovery

  3. Representing the city as spokespersons to tell the community’s story

  4. Making themselves available to media interviews to promote awareness

  5. Serving as fundraisers for disaster victims

  6. Acting as the focal point for organizing partnerships supporting recovery

  7. Providing the symbolism for memes supporting recovery

High School Football Teams and Disaster Recovery: Intangible Forms of Assistance and Provision of Indirect Services

  1. Serving as role models with positive, can-do attitudes post-disaster

  2. Providing a rallying point for a unity of vision for recovery

  3. Creating a base on which to build pro-social community values

  4. Delivering a sense of normalcy to a distressed community

Acknowledgements. This research was funded by a grant from the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center through its Quick Response Grant Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation grant number CMMI1030670.

Regional cooperation is acknowledged from numerous counties impacted by the November 17, 2013, tornado.

Cooperation is also acknowledged from the following football teams: the Washington Community High School Panthers (Washington, Illinois), the Sacred Heart-Griffin High School Cyclones (Springfield, Illinois), and the Chicago Bears NFL football organization.

Local cooperation is also acknowledged from the City of Washington, Illinois, and other individuals involved in the Washington, Illinois, November 17th tornado recovery.

Lastly, I would like to acknowledge my wife, Heather, for her tireless efforts and support in the completion of this project.

-Nick Swope, September 2014


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Suggested Citation:

Swope, N. & Rozdilsky, J. (2014). High School Football as a Catalyst for Disaster Recovery: The Case of the November 17, 2013, Washington, Illinois Tornado (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 252). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/high-school-football-as-a-catalyst-for-disaster-recovery-the-case-of-the-november-17-2013-washington-illinois-tornado

Swope, N. & Rozdilsky, J. (2014). High School Football as a Catalyst for Disaster Recovery: The Case of the November 17, 2013, Washington, Illinois Tornado (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 252). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder. https://hazards.colorado.edu/quick-response-report/high-school-football-as-a-catalyst-for-disaster-recovery-the-case-of-the-november-17-2013-washington-illinois-tornado