Video: Nation Ford football team helping devastated Nichols, S.C., and vice versa
As John Young sifted through a stranger’s belongings last week, he came across a photo of a young girl. Amid the soiled and destroyed contents of an elderly lady’s house in Nichols, S.C., the partially torn photo felt important. The lady’s reaction when Young showed her the picture confirmed it.
“She grabbed on to it and held it like it was the last thing she had,” he said.
Young was one of 70 Nation Ford football players who traveled to Nichols the week of Nov. 9 to help the devastated town of 400 people continue to clean up. After Hurricane Matthew passed through in mid-October, rivers in the Pee Dee region of the Carolinas rose quickly, including the Lumber River, which passes just east of Nichols. At least seven dams broke upstream and the the river’s waters rose 17 feet in just a few hours, according to the AP.
The rapid rise left no time for escaping residents to grab belongings. Nation Ford football coach Michael Allen was told about little old ladies standing on their couches while the water rose and snakes swam through their living rooms.
“Nobody knows about Nichols down there,” he said. “It was 10,000 times worse than I thought it would be. It was completely, utter devastation.”
Video of Nichols the day after the flooding hit:
Allen is beginning to make community service a more integral part of his football program. The 2016 season was extended two weeks - ironically because of Hurricane Matthew’s impact - leaving Nation Ford with three weeks between its final regular season game on Oct. 28 and the playoffs. A community service project seemed like a perfect way to fill some of the idle time, and it didn’t take long to land on Nichols.
“Football was not even on our minds,” Allen said. “It was about becoming better people and getting a better appreciation of life.”
As they drove through the town, players, coaches and several members of the school newspaper saw piles of detritus in front of each house, the rotten and ruined remnants of people’s lives.
As soon as Allen’s group filed out of its bus, the smell walloped them. Allen and junior defensive lineman Travell Crosby reckoned the odor was similar to raw sewage or maybe rotting flesh.
“The smell? There’s no word to describe that. I don’t have one,” Allen said. “Horrific is as close as I can get, but that don’t do it justice.”
An Associated Press story from earlier this month said almost all 261 of the town’s homes were uninhabitable. In many cases, the culprit was a now five-week old concoction of mold that grew out of flood waters.
Visit this web site for different ways to help Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts.
The 70 folks from Nation Ford split into a couple of groups, each headed to a different house. All of the football players climbed into baby blue, full-body hazardous materials suits and gas masks. At one of the houses, they kicked in the front door, the first time it had been opened in five weeks.
Inside the houses remained exactly as they were when the waters receded, brown lines around the midsections, delineating the height of the flood waters and turquoise-colored mold freckling the walls and furniture.
The roof had caved in at the house Allen’s crew cleaned out.
Members from Friendship Baptist Church in Nichols fed the group fried chicken, and they gutted the houses from about 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., leaving more piles of ruin on the roadside.
“The kids worked their asses off,” Allen said. “Our guys really came back changed.”
The football players wrote essays about the experience. Allen didn’t have to hassle any of them to turn in their work.
“They don’t have anything. They’ve lost it all,” said Young. “It just makes you realize family and the home that you have matters.”
On their way home, the group split up at two gas stations. At the one where Allen’s bus stopped, near Hartsville, a man in dirty work clothes asked Crosby about the group. When he found out, he stood next to the cash register and paid for every item purchased by the 30 or so people on Allen’s bus.
“You don’t have to do that,” said the football coach.
“I just wanted these kids to know how special they are to the world,” the man told him, waving another kid forward to the counter.