Everyone associated with college athletics can attest to the power of teamwork, but the coaches, administrators and student-athletes at Missouri Southern have a whole new perspective on the subject as they and the community of Joplin, Mo., rise from the rubble of the one of the deadliest tornados in recorded U.S. history.

An EF-5 tornado hit the city on May 22, with winds of 200 mph, leaving a six-mile path of destruction and killing 160 people. There were billions of dollars of damage to buildings and cars, and thousands of people were left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Senior women’s basketball players Lindsey Rujawitz and Jasmine Lovejoy had just finished the spring semester, and were moving out of the dorms for the first time into an off-campus house. They had only been in their new home for three days when the tornado hit Sunday evening, and they hid in the bathtub with another friend to ride out the incredible storm. When it was finally over, they were unharmed but had lost all of their possessions.

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Offensive coordinator Matt Barrett was one of three football coaches living at the Plaza Apartments, which were wiped out by the tornado. Barrett took shelter in a closet to wait out the harrowing storm, and when it was over, he immediately started trying to contact his fellow coaches to see if they were safe.  All were accounted for and within the hour Barrett’s colleagues were on the way to the apartment complex to assist in the rescue efforts.

The women’s basketball coaching staff checked in with Rujawitz and Lovejoy immediately, and despite going through such a traumatic event, later that night the student-athletes were helping set up cots at a Red Cross shelter at Missouri Southern’s volleyball gym and basketball arena.

Experiencing teamwork in action had only just begun for Missouri Southern’s athletics department and the Joplin community.

“[Football head coach Bart] Tatum organized our staff into rescue and recovery groups that would go out to the community with other coaches, other groups of people,” Barrett said.  “We didn’t do any football activity for a good week or more.”

“After a couple days when people were able to start coming to town our whole athletic department was helping us pull our stuff from a block away from the house, and salvage what we could find,” Rujawitz said.

Athletics staff members were sharing offices with Red Cross personnel as the campus facilities were home to a shelter for more than a month.

“What transpired was coaches and staff went out into the community to help friends of the program or other staff members or people in the community,” Missouri Southern Athletics Director Jared Bruggeman said. 

“They were trying to help any way they could.  There was obviously a lot of need out there.”

While the athletics department still needed to maintain regular activities like recruiting and preparing for the fall season, the outreach to the Joplin community did not stop after a few days.

“It was pretty challenging, but very rewarding to help other people,” Bruggeman said.  “That has been the outstanding message that we’ve gotten from the student-athletes that were here in the summer and have been out in the community.”

The football program made community service activities a part of the team’s first five days of training camp, going out together to do different projects for two hours every afternoon.

“That’s pretty unusual in the football world because you’re so pressed for time and so limited in your preparation time to start with,” Barrett said.  “We sacrificed a little football preparation time to do the community service, and the result was coaches and players growing closer together as a result of helping others.”

The Lions are now in a typical training camp routine, but they know the tornado in Joplin will have long-lasting effects.

“There’s awareness every day that this is a different kind of season for us,” Barrett said. “It’s certainly a motivating factor in a sense. Everybody was touched in one way or another by that storm.  Everybody is connected to somebody directly affected by that.”

Things will not be normal for us because there are people that are hurting ...
--  AD Jared Bruggeman

There is still a lot of work to be done, but Rujawitz is amazed by the progress made in just three months.  The Wal-Mart and Home Depot are almost rebuilt after nearly being completely destroyed and other businesses getting ready to reopen throughout the city.

“This community is one of the strongest, most hardworking communities I’ve been around or lived in,” Rujawitz said.  “Our entire town is almost cleaned up because everyone goes out and cleans up something at least once a day.  People were immediately helping each other.  People have a lot of heart for this place.”

Campus and athletics officials also continue to work with the community to fill different needs.  In early August, the athletic center hosted a school fair for Wal-Mart, which donated supplies and clothes to about 10,000 people at the event. Athletics facilities will also be used by local high schools that were destroyed. When the student-athletes reported back to school on Aug. 22, Bruggeman addressed the issues.

“One of the things that I talked about was that things may be inconvenient for us,” Bruggeman said.  “Things will not be normal for us because there are people that are hurting and have a lot of needs, and we’re going to have to be flexible and understanding and supportive of people. Sometimes, we’ll have to move our practice because a local school needs to use our facility for a game.  Our student-athletes certainly understood that … some of them were impacted themselves. They have a different perspective of what’s important in life.”

Missouri Southern is not the only school or organization in the athletics community that is lending a hand for tornado relief.

For the first time, Missouri will play a men’s basketball exhibition game at Missouri Southern on Oct. 30. The contest is named the “One State, One Spirit Classic” and all proceeds from the game will go to Missouri Southern’s Foundation Tornado Relief Fund. Tickets for the event are already sold out, but the Lions will also host a basketball doubleheader against Missouri State on Nov. 5 for fans that want to support the effort. Both Division I schools needed a special NCAA waiver in order to play the road exhibition contest at the Division II institution.

During the fall season, many of Missouri Southern’s conference foes in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association plan on fundraising efforts when hosting the Lions. The St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs supported the rebuilding effort at their preseason contest held at Arrowhead Stadium on Aug. 26. Fans donated to the Joplin Recovery Fund and the Joplin Relief Fund as they entered the gates, and first responders and volunteers where recognized throughout the night.

Bruggeman, like his coaches and student-athletes, is anxious to get the fall season started, which kicks off with the football team traveling to Central Missouri on Thursday. The women’s volleyball and women’s soccer teams will each host a pair of matches on Labor Day weekend.

“It’s exciting and fun, but it will be interesting to see how it goes,” Bruggeman said.  “I guess we’ll learn more when we go through it.  I do know that everywhere we go we’ll be reminded of it because it will affect people coming to our home games, and everywhere we go on the road there will be a mention of it.  It will follow us all year long and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.”