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In Joplin, Chiefs find a calling

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Posted June 28, 2011 @ 3:19 p.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

Scott Pioli wanted to stop and clear his head, to try and take his mind momentarily off the images he was seeing. But every time he looked down and saw a school photo of a smiling little kid just laying there, buried in a pile on the curb waiting to be picked up and hauled away, the questions seemed to ask themselves inside his mind: Oh my goodness, I wonder if that child's alive? I wonder if the parents are alive? I wonder if the siblings are alive? What happened to those people?

Andy Studebaker felt the same way. He too would have preferred to take a timeout and focus on something other than dismantled homes, collapsed street lights and heaps of rubble he was looking at everywhere his eyes moved. Yet the more he tried to think about something else, the more a singular idea kept reappearing: Holy cow, these people lost everything.

Neither man could shield himself from what he was witnessing. And standing in the middle of Joplin, Missouri, a town that just one month before had been in the path to the deadliest tornado in the United States in more than 60 years, neither wanted to be anywhere else.

Pioli, the general manager of the Chiefs, and Studebaker, a linebacker on the team, were part of a group of 136 members of the organization that made their way about 2½ hours south of Kansas City to Joplin on June 23 to participate in a day of cleanup. Despite the contentious disagreements currently going on between owners and players, the NFL allowed the team to gather as one and help out a city that is in great need of a helping hand. Everybody from front-office management like Pioli to players such as Studebaker and QB Matt Cassel to people in the marketing department, accountants, IT workers and anyone else who wanted to help went along on the trip.

That Thursday morning, the group met in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot at 7 a.m., loaded into four buses, and took off down US-71 South for Joplin. As they approached their destination, Studebaker recalled in a telephone interview with PFW a few days after the trip, the images out of the bus windows began to dramatically shift. Unlike a flood or earthquake, natural disasters that can take out entire regions, tornados only affect objects in the path of its swirling air. Look one mile east or one mile west of where a tornado has rolled through, and there's a good chance nothing will have been altered. That's what happened in Joplin.

"It was real eerie, because it was a nice, sunny day and your driving along and then all of a sudden you reach the town. And some of the town is in great shape and some of the houses are unaffected," Studebaker said. "Then all of a sudden you take a right and boom! — it's right in front of you."

On the afternoon of May 22, the city had been hit by an EF-5 tornado, with winds swirling at more than 200 miles per hour. Adding to that was the fact it was a multiple-vortex storm, which the National Weather Service defines as "(a) tornado in which two or more condensation funnels or debris clouds are present at the same time, often rotating about a common center or about each other." More than 150 people lost their lives as a result, with more than 1,000 more being injured. The risk-modeling group EQECAT preliminarily estimated damages from the storm in Joplin at between $1-3 billion in May. The storm destroyed close to 7,000 buildings and traveled 22.1 miles.

The Chiefs' day in Joplin was split into two parts. In the morning, after being briefed by emergency officials on the dos and don'ts of the relief effort, the group spent time cleaning plots of land. With all sorts of objects — from studs and wooden beams that were originally supporting a home to remains of power lines to everyday items like pots and pans — scattered across blocks, the groups main priority was to try and separate the different materials so they could be cleaned up. Items were placed in wheelbarrows so they could be brought to a curb before a truck picked them up to be taken away.

Pioli told PFW that he had expectations heading into the day, but the sight of a front door to a house or the sound of a toy making noise were sometimes too much for him to take.

"The range of emotions was from the anticipation of the unknown, then the initial shock of seeing it with your own eyes, to getting grief of just working and trying not to over-think what you were seeing as you were working, to moments where, even though you were working hard, there were waves of emotion that would hit you and you'd have to stop for a second and kind of regroup, personally," Pioli said.

The afternoon was spent as a time for the residents of Joplin, the people who had experienced so much in the past month, to spend time with their NFL heroes and just talk about what they've been through. Studebaker said he and some of his teammates had a conversation with members of the Joplin High School football team, asking them about their upcoming season and how they are getting ready despite the school structure being nothing more than a pile of steel beams and bricks at this point.

Pioli met a father and son whom he had taken a photo with prior to a Chiefs game in 2009. The family wanted the picture to be autographed, but also for the GM to meet a 13-year-old boy who was also a big football fan.

"They introduced me to the boy, and I said, 'Are you from Joplin, too?' And he said 'Yeah,' " Pioli recounted. "I asked, 'How's everything with your family?' And he responded, 'We're living with them.'

"And I looked at him and said, 'Who's living with them?' And he (said) very matter-of-factly, 'Well, my mother, my sister and me.'

"And the father just said, 'They moved in.' "

"Just like that?" Pioli asked.

Added Pioli, "And he kind of looked at me and just went, 'Yeah, they lost their entire home, everything they had. They needed a place, so they moved in.'"

When asked why it was so important for the team to make this trip, Pioli said the lesson that family taught was something everybody could connect to.

"They're part of our community," Pioli said. "It's two hours away, but something I've learned about this organization is that we're the Kansas City Chiefs, but we represent a very large region. And our fan base spans across a very large region. And our community, so to speak, spreads farther than many other teams. We're two hours away and these people need our help. That's what you do. It's what we need to do."

It was not lost on anybody in the Chiefs group of the significance that the NFL allowed the players and members of the organization to work together despite the lockout. Studebaker said he respected that the league realized "some things are bigger than business" and that he was glad "to be part of an organization that does things like that, that puts priorities first." Pioli was proud that so many players, including three rookies who haven't even signed a contract yet, took time out of their summer to come and support the community.

Though the tornado came through Joplin more than a month ago, the effort to clean up the city could take years. Both Pioli and Studebaker said they are committed to returning to the area time and time again, until everything is back to the way it was before May 22. The work they did last week made an impact, but it was just a drop in the bucket considering all that has to be done. Maybe while they were working, they wanted to clear their heads and think about something else besides debris strewn across yards and families who lost a child. Yet the images they saw, the same ones they tried to forget about at the time, are the ones motivating them to return and make more of a difference.

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