It was just another Sunday morning for Ken Leonard.
The longtime Sacred Heart-Griffin football coach called Darrell Crouch, his counterpart at Downstate Washington, to set up a film exchange ahead of this week’s Class 5A semifinal matchup between the two teams.
There was small talk, too, between two football guys who go back aways. Leonard, in his 30th year at Sacred Heart-Griffin and his 34th year overall, has known Crouch since the latter’s college days and they’ve coached together in all-star games.
“Little did I know, 21/2 hours later tragedy is going to happen,” Leonard said earlier this week.
Like the rest of us, Leonard watched the unthinkable unfold as a tornado tore through Washington, Ill., killing one person, injuring dozens more and destroying hundreds of homes.
The news hit home with Leonard, and not just because of his friendship with Crouch or the fact that he has relatives in Washington. It’s deeper than that.
“We are a Catholic school,” Leonard said, noting that his players wear T-shirts that say, “Our goal is to be a champion” on one side and, “Our purpose is to be Christ-like” on the other.
It’s an opportunity to live those words, which Leonard, the Sacred Heart-Griffin community and the city of Springfield have embraced. A meeting Monday night with his players’ parents got the ball rolling and now more and more people are involved.
Here’s just a sample of what’s going on:
* Six charter buses have been booked to bring Washington fans to the game and more are on call if needed.
* Washington will be able to have its traditional pre-game meal: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, made by the players themselves, thanks to food donated for the purpose. And Jersey Mike’s has signed up to feed the Panthers after the game.
Plus, Sacred Heart-Griffin is committed to feeding all of Washington’s fans for free as well.
But the team and the town will need support long after the final horn sounds on Saturday afternoon, and Leonard and his crew are working on that as well.
Donations are being accepted at SH-G, which also plans a 50-50 raffle at the game with all proceeds going to the visitors. A $500 check from the Jacksonville High School football team is just one of many that has arrived already.
“The other big need is for water,” Leonard said. “We’ve filled one huge semi-trailer full.”
Offering a helping hand is second nature for Leonard, and the impulse goes back long before he even came to the Cyclones.
“I think that’s one of the beauties of living and growing up in the Midwest,” Leonard said of the spirit of community. “If something like that had happened to us, Washington would have done the same thing.”
While the focus during the week has been on relief and recovery, it will shift to football at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“When it gets to be game time, they want it to be normal, to get back to normal life,” Leonard said of the Panthers.
And the stakes are high. Washington is in the state semifinals for the first time since winning the Class 4A title in 1985. Sacred Heart-Griffin is looking to give Leonard a shot at his fourth IHSA championship and maybe a chance to coach at state with his son Derek, whose Rochester team is chasing a four-peat in Class 4A.
“We’re going to play hard,” Ken Leonard said. “It’s going to be a great game.”
And a great capper for a terrible week.
* Checks for the Washington relief fund may be made out to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School and mailed to the school at 1200 W. Washington St., Springfield, IL 62702-4794.
* Saturday’s game will be televised on Comcast SportsNet Chicago to provide more publicity about relief efforts. Also, the IHSA will donate $1 for each ticket sold to the American Red Cross’ outreach for Washington tornado victims.