SALEM, Va. -- The one thing Matt McCreary realized he needed on the afternoon on May 22, 2011, was a pair of shoes.

His house was gone. His neighborhood, gone. And with all the broken glass and shattered debris on the steps leading from the basement where he and his family had hidden from a mile-wide F5 tornado, the University of Arkansas freshman had no idea where to find some, since when the tornado sirens went off, he hadn't been wearing any.

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Amazingly, McCreary and his entire family survived virtually unscathed, even if everything around them did not. A total of 158 people lost their lives and more than a thousand more were injured. The tornado did an estimated $2.8 billion in damage.

At last, somebody found McCreary a pair of shoes, and he started picking his way back up the steps to what wasn't his house any more. Before he got to the top, he spotted childhood friend Lauren Johnson, who had come to check on the family. He knew then that least one of his friends had survived, and the panic settled back down inside him.

What he saw next was like a swift kick in the gut. He was born and raised in Joplin, and had lived in this house for more than a decade. It was gone, just like that, and so were the others around it.

“All my neighbors’ houses were just leveled,” McCreary said. “I think that struck home as much as seeing my own house. You could see for a mile, when there should’ve been houses all around.”

McCreary played basketball at Joplin High, and the game was so much a part of his life that the family had installed an indoor hoop and backboard. It wasn’t a regulation-sized court, but it hadn’t needed to be. He’d taken countless shots, dribbled balls for hours there.

“That was one of the hardest things to lose when the tornado knocked down our house, this gym that I’d always played in,” he said. “I hadn’t been playing at Arkansas, so it was kind of my last tie to basketball, this thing that I’d always grown up playing.”

The next few days were a blur, struggling and scrambling to make sense of it all. Were the people he cared about OK? He recognized a few names of those who’d been lost, but none of them were particularly close.

Arkansas is only about an hour away from my home, but then, it’s like, ‘What house do I have left to go back to?’ It didn’t feel like leaving home as much as home had already left me, I guess.
-- Matt McCreary
Where was his family going to stay? Their closest friends had lost their homes, too, so they ended up staying with friends before eventually renting a home in nearby Carthage.

Dan and Lorie McCreary have since moved back to Joplin. Their kids are away at school: Meghan, a freshman at Oberlin, and Matt, now a senior at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and a guard on the men’s basketball team competing in the NCAA Division III Final Four this weekend.

Matt's plan had been to graduate from Arkansas in three years, but in the days following the tornado, he dropped out of the summer classes he planned to take. He’d been accepted at Williams out of high school, but Arkansas offered him an academic scholarship and was closer to home.

That tornado changed all that. The tornado changed everything. Williams seemed like the place he needed to be.

“Arkansas is only about an hour away from my home, but then, it’s like, ‘What house do I have left to go back to?’” McCreary said. “It didn’t feel like leaving home as much as home had already left me, I guess.”

Williams head coach Mike Maker called McCreary a “phenomenal kid,." Playing basketball and the routine of going to class and practice have no doubt helped McCreary in getting past that dark day that is now a little less than three years in the past.

“It’s really nice, not only to just play basketball, but having the teammates that I do is all the help I would really need,” McCreary said. “(The tornado) is not something that I wouldn’t talk about, but it’s not necessarily something that needs to be brought up all the time. I think they do a good job of balancing their curiosity with a respect for what happened.”