A Mustang Story: How Perseverance Helped Kingwood High Survive Muddy Waters of Hurricane Harvey, Come Clean On Other Side

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Photo: Sheila Valentine/TexasHSFootball

HUMBLE, Texas — Not many from the Houston area will look back at the last few months and think it was the best year ever. To be fair, it hasn’t. Houston and the surrounding communities have been through a lot since Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

The impact is still being felt, as some in Houston are still living in tents or hotels. Lost loved ones are missed and the rebuilding process is long and tedious.

If you travel a little bit farther than 28 miles away from downtown Houston, you’ll find Kingwood, a community that is still suffering — particularly its children.

Kingwood High School was one of many forced to close down and declared totaled. While The school is being rebuilt and plans are set to open in March, the school was more than just a building. It’s where parents sent their children — the future of the country — to learn and grow for nearly 200 days a year.

It’s where some meet lifelong friends, learn some critical life skills and more. For the students of Kingwood, they were doing that since the day Harvey hit.

Off Schedule

There are kids all over the world who have to be an adult much younger than they’re supposed to. It’s one of the sad truths in today’s society. Things happen and everything that was planned goes haywire.

That’s exactly what happened in Kingwood.

For the past three years, the Mustangs made the playoffs. The first year, they lost round one. The second year, they won but were bounced in the second round. This year, the plan was to make it to the third. It started in offseason and everything was going as planned.

No injuries, no emergencies, just a smooth transition into a new year.

Everyone was working hard, there was a belief they could do it, which, in some ways, can be as dangerous as actually having talent. Coaches and kids alike were ready to rumble into the new season and conquer goals and make history.

Then the hurricane came and, for lack of a better term, plans were temporarily thrown out the window.

“Those initial goals we had pre-hurricane kind of took a back seat to get back on track,” said Barry Campbell, the head football coach at Kingwood. “We had to get back on track first before talking about what those goals were back in the offseason.”

Growing Experience

Before they could talk about getting “back on track,” there was the cleanup, attending to the many that lost their homes, memories, and in some cases, lives. While most of the team was okay, seniors Aaron Finch and Matt Bailey were two of the lucky ones that met the floodwaters and survived.

When the hurricane hit, Finch and his parents immediately went upstairs to their home as the water began to rise. As soon as they realized the water wasn’t going to ruin their home, they took action.

Photo courtesy Bobby Whitt

 

His parents, he and teammate Marc Vilarreal got on a boat and began to help. Soon, team moms were telling them who needed help. They continued boating from house to house aiding in cleanup for five to six hours a day.

“We had about five or six guys I was kind of in charge of,” Finch said. “I would say, we’re going to get this house done today. So basically went in and took all the drywall out, cleaned and everything back on the street. We knocked out houses that way as fast as we can to get to the next house.”

Word of his group helping quickly reached Campbell, who along with the rest of the community, swelled with pride in the fact a group of teenagers sacrificed their time to help others.

Let that sink in.

Instead of sitting on their phones, upset about losing their personal items, or a possible lost season, a group of 18-year-olds was helping residents pick up — literally — the shattered pieces of their lives.

“It was completely gratifying to here the stories,” Campbell said of his players. “You swell up with pride when you hear the stories of our kids going to work and doing what they could for our community.”

But why were the kids helping?

Their season was in peril, their school was trashed, and their friends and family in mourning. To Finch, who said it was because of how they were raised, the action to help others was a no-brainer. Through football, parents, teachers, and anyone who helped, they were always backed.

“Our community has backed us up as a football program and our football program needs to back up our community,” Finch said. “That’s the thing and I know I stressed on that to other people. They’ve supported us and now we need to go back and do our part in the community to help them.”

Bailey echoed the sentiment.

“A lot of time the community is doing all the work for the kids, here’s a situation where the kids go out and do the work for the community,” Bailey said.

Labor Day Weekend

Going into Labor Day Weekend, the school was trashed. According to Campbell, it was a nightmare.

“It smelt terrible. It was just overwhelming,” Campbell said about the original plan to clean up the Wednesday before the holiday and to find anything salvageable. “On top of that, the water inside, it looked like a bomb went off in our coaching office. Everything was turned upside down and it was all over the place.”

Video courtesy Humble ISD

No one knew if there would be a game in the coming weeks or even a season.

But when the coaching staff began asking surrounding schools for help, it came in bunches — from pads to helmets to allowing Kingwood to use practice facilities.

You name it, they were given it.

“It really just showed what football means to everyone,” Bailey said of the contributions. “It’s more than just a sport. We don’t really like each other on the field but we’re willing to help each other out if it means saving each others seasons.”

The season was saved, but two games were canceled. The Mustangs were able to schedule another game in one’s place, but things weren’t the same.

School went on, albeit at a different campus.

Kingwood students are now sharing space with Summer Creek, about 30 minutes away from their original campus and attend school on a college-like schedule. Four hours a day, on an A/B schedule.

The team practices at Turner field, which is on the campus of Humble High School. It moves in and out each week to make room for the coming game. Their stuff is in storage.

A brutal routine with a fair share of added adversity. Though it “sucked “at first, Bailey, Finch and other athletes said now they think they are used to it.

Kingwood High’s Tough Beginnings

Since Harvey, the plan was to play like any other season. Go in, practice and win, with the intention to cancel nothing.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

They got away with two games.

For three weeks straight, the Mustangs came out on the losing side. The offense was struggling and while the defense was decent at the time, no one had any answers.

“It was rough,” Bailey said of the losing streak. “No one was feeling confident in themselves and everyone was kind of checked out for the season, feeling sorry for ourselves. We hadn’t really woken up.”

“I think we were all mad,” Bailey said. “Really mad. We can’t blame this on Harvey. Yeah that happened and that sucked, but we were not playing together as a team. After that 0-3 start, we came together and said hey, ‘we need to take this team somewhere. We need to understand that this happened to us, let’s go make a name for ourselves.'”

Bailey said he didn’t know if his team starts 0-3 if Harvey doesn’t come. Although they may not have, there was no promise the team wouldn’t lose its starting quarterback two weeks into the season.

Slipping Away

Barry Campbell (right)head football coach for Kingwood High School, jokes with Austin Flematti about the origin of his donated helmet during a September practice at Turner Stadium. Photo courtesy Houston Chronicle

Then, against Goose Creek Memorial, it happened.

Kingwood found its first win in a 46-13 performance. and went on to win its next game. Then the Mustangs lost back-to-back matchups for the second time in a young season.

All of the sudden, the playoffs seemed out of reach again.

“It really did — I know this is said a lot and it’s coach speak — become one game at a time,” Campbell said. “We had to win this game, then the next.”

Something Clicked

Campbell said that sooner or later, everyone has that moment. When it’s looking grim and something happens.

Then, you’re unstoppable.

Kingwood had that moment at halftime of its game with Sterling. Down 17-3 with a 2-5 record, the impending early offseason hadn’t looked this dark for Kingwood in ages. Players seemed to have quit on themselves and the locker room was dry.

Then, injured quarterback Grant Taylor stood up.

Finch said he was angry and disappointed in the players for not trying their hardest. That he didn’t want to see this team lose because they weren’t trying hard enough.

“When he told us that, we got the idea we were going to play,” Finch said. “The juniors said they want the seniors to have a better year. Grant hit the nail on the head and it really clicked for everybody then. When he went off, I think that’s when it clicked for everybody.”

Kingwood won the game 39-24.

The Road To Glory

From the beginning, Kingwood’s goal was to reach the third round of the playoffs and de anything it could to stay alive in the postseason afterward. None of Kingwoods players or coaches will deny that goal seemed out of reach.

Even after the Sterling game, they had to win its last game just to secure a spot.

But it was with that Sterling game the Mustangs grabbed the emotion, built momentum and bottled it up like caged lightning. Since that single victory, they’ve won their last four games.

They, however, are the least surprised of any in the state.

“To say in the long run were we surprised? No,” Campbell stated plainly. “This year? Yes. There was a point in the season where we didn’t know if playoffs were even possible. We didn’t know if we’d win the first round game or the second round game or whatever.”

Belief is dangerous.

It’s not just something people say in comics or on daytime television. It’s something real. You can’t hold it or smell it, but you can see it. When kids are cheering on the sidelines or scoring touchdowns, that’s belief. Taking down two better teams by a combined score of 15 points is belief, too. So is making the third round of the playoffs months after losing everything and watching homes, memories, and livelihoods float away.

Months into a completely different school year. Months after soaking adversity in and beating it to a pulp.

“That’s belief,” Bailey said.

It’s as dangerous as Thor with his hammer or Emmitt Smith out of the backfield with room to maneuver.

“I think it’s definitely an advantage when you’re believing yourself,” Bailey continued about the change during the game against Sterling. “When we played at the beginning of the year, I don’t think we believed in ourselves. We had confidence in ourselves but didn’t believe in the team. We haven’t slowed down since and I don’t think we’re going to slow down this weekend.”

An Outlet

When you go through trauma, there’s an outlet needed. Someone needs to do something to get your mind off of it. For the community of Kingwood, that’s the football team. Everyone involved, however young or old, embraces it.

“For us to get out there and do that and have the opportunity, I think it’s our duty to the community to show them and have an outlet to go to for a Friday Night football game just to get away,” Finch said. “I feel like they can come out to us and get away.”

“I think that’s a roll that coaches hope that is a responsibility because it’s said a lot, football is king in texas, so we want that burden,” Campbell added. “We want the hopes of the community riding on our backs. That’s one of the many responsibilities we assume when we take on this role.”

The Best Ever

Players prepare for their Noon Saturday matchup with Langham Creek. Sheila Valentine/TexasHSFootball

For some, it’s been a terrible year.

But others, like Finch, look at it another way. Because through the adversity, he and his team perervered and strived. For that reason alone, he claimed this the best year he could have asked for.

“Oh yeah,” Finch said. “It came out and showed us that anything could happen to us and we can still succeed, excel to the best we can be. ”

Gerald Tracy is an assistant editor of Texas football for TexasHSFootball, covering prep football in the San Antonio region. Follow him on Twitter, @GTracySports, and read more of his content here.

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