WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — What does it take to get about a hundred high-school and middle-school boys up and awake before 6 a.m. on the weekend? Nothing short of a miracle.
But a chance to meet Drew Brees and the rest of the New Orleans Saints might do the trick.
“You know, this is one of those things where, what else can you say really?” said Tim Meyer, Herbert Hoover High School’s football coach. “When they invite you down, and take care of you like they did, it’s very humbling. It makes me and all these kids feel really special.”
After the Saints heard about how floods destroyed Herbert Hoover High School, and the football program along with it, the team reached out to do what it could to help. Football players from Herbert Hoover and Elkview Middle School were bused down to watch the Saints practice on Sunday at The Greenbrier, meet the players and listen to a pep talk from quarterback Drew Brees.
There are plenty of differences between this NFL team and a group of teenagers from Kanawha Valley, almost too many to point out. One team lumbered across the field like giants, while the other blocked the sun from their phones as they played “Pokemon Go”.
There is a common thread that connects these boys and men, though. Flooding. The Saints shared their own stories of loss and devastation after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the more recent flooding that is still devastating the state.
“It’s been an unbelievable tragedy that you all have gone through. You guys have the opportunity now to turn that tragedy into something really, really special,” Brees told the players as they circled around him. “You’ve got a unique opportunity to turn this into something positive, something you will remember for a long time.”
It’s not as easy for Meyer to be as positive.
When he drives through Clendenin, where many of his players live, the whole town feels cleaner and less weighed down with thick mud from the Elk River. But something is still off. There are still piles of debris, still no way for his team to practice on the field they’re used to.
His players don’t care where they practice, they’re just happy to practice.
Rhett White, 15, is a sophomore at Herbert Hoover. He sat on the hot metal bleachers next to the Saints’ practice field and kicked up his feet on the seat in front of him. His friends laughed and joked around with each other, but White stayed focused. His eyes scanned the field for a red jersey.
“School is different, but it’s still fun. It was pretty hectic the first day, but it’s not bad. They told us we would be coming down a few days ago at practice. We were all really excited,” White said. “I just want to see Drew Brees.”
Turns out, so did the rest of the guys.
After the Saints finished their 9:30 a.m.-to-noon practice, they invited the Herbert Hoover and Elkview teams onto the field to shake hands and sign autographs.
John Fullington, a guard, signed just about everything the kids asked him to — footballs, T-shirts, even a sweat band still wrapped around a boy’s head. When there were no more footballs to sign, they circled around Brees and knelt on one knee.
It’s things like this, Meyer said, that keep his team going. Their town may be still recovering from the flood, but they’ve got football practice to go to every day. Homes may be destroyed, but it’s hard to think about that when you’re high-fiving an NFL quarterback.
As the team and the rest of the town continue to rebuild, the small moments of distraction make the whole process easier.
“We’re getting closer and closer to normalcy,” Meyer said. “I don’t think anything will be back to totally normal, but it’s getting back towards it.”