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Tribal Warfare
08-07-2011, 12:20 AM
Every day is good day for Chiefs’ Arenas after tornado (http://www.kansascity.com/2011/08/06/3061262/every-day-is-good-day-for-chiefs.html)
By KENT BABB
The Kansas City Star

ST. JOSEPH | Javier Arenas slogs up a hill on another hot day at Chiefs training camp. Practices are long, and by the time players leave the fields, they’re exhausted and drenched in sweat.

This day is one of the hottest of the year. Arenas stops, still catching his breath. Sure, he’s tired and hot. But it’s a good day for Arenas, the Chiefs’ 23-year-old cornerback. He says he realizes now that every day is, even if the hours are grueling.

On April 27, Arenas was at his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he won a national championship as a corner and kick returner for the Alabama Crimson Tide before becoming a second-round draft pick by the Chiefs. As the afternoon turned to evening, storm clouds turned violent; a nearly mile-wide tornado touched down on the city’s outskirts, ripping through buildings and homes. In a panic, Arenas rushed toward his bathtub, covering his head as the tornado ripped his house apart.

“Probably the worst two minutes,” he says, “of your life.”

He survived, but 44 others did not. More needed clothing, food and assurances that, during one of the worst tornado seasons in decades, better days lay ahead. Arenas says that instead of wallowing in the uncertainty that follows a tragedy, he decided to go to work. Football could wait, at least for a while.

• • •

This time last year, Arenas was beginning his first NFL training camp. Surrounded by other young defensive backs, the kid from Alabama passed some of the blank hours by telling his teammates about Tuscaloosa. There was a house down there that he liked, a two-bedroom place near the mall and close to campus.

It was perfect. Not long after signing his contract with the Chiefs, Arenas bought the house, and after his rookie season, he went back to the city where he had experienced so many good days.

“I know everybody in Tuscaloosa,” he says.

On that April afternoon, the sky turned dark. Clouds had been swirling across the Southeast and in the Midwest, producing tornadoes that destroyed homes and upended lives. A little after 5 p.m., Arenas heard something that he remembers sounding like a jet engine. A massive tornado, later classified as an EF4 — the second-highest level on the scale — was ripping through Tuscaloosa.

Arenas’ new house didn’t have a basement. He called a friend, who advised him to seek shelter wherever he could.

“I seen it coming,” he says. “I went in the bathtub, ducked down, and I just prayed.”

• • •

Three months later, Arenas remembers the sound of his home, that prize of being an NFL player, yielding to the tornado. Walls crumbling. The bathroom door being pulled from its hinges.

Then, the silence.

That was the worst part, Arenas says. He lifted himself from the tub, taking in what the storm had done to his home and, a few minutes later, walking outside to see a community that had been flattened.

“Like someone just came and stepped on the town,” he says.

Later in the night, Arenas and a longtime friend, Chris Lawrence, heard there might be people trapped in the rubble. They went out, pulling boards and furniture from the pile and listening for voices before rescue squads arrived.

Confused and restless, Arenas made the nearly 12-hour drive to Kansas City. He says he didn’t have a plan for the trip, but while he was away, he might as well bring back a few things. He loaded Chiefs clothing into his car, and when his car wasn’t big enough, he and Lawrence arranged for a FedEx truck to be loaded with gear to be delivered in Tuscaloosa. Almost immediately after he arrived in Kansas City, Arenas headed back to Alabama.

“He was immediately like, ‘We’ve got to help; we’ve got to help,’ ” Lawrence says. “He’s thankful for life. I mean, the little things: Valuing friendships. … It made him a better friend and a better person.”

During the NFL lockout, coaches weren’t permitted to speak with players. Chiefs coach Todd Haley says he was granted an exemption to speak with Arenas, to make certain the young defender was safe. All Arenas kept telling his coach was that his city and its residents were wounded.

“I made it out,” Arenas says. “Can’t say the same about everybody.”

He and Lawrence gathered more clothing from the university’s alumni association, and when Lawrence asked Arenas what he should do with Arenas’ clothing in the tattered home’s closet, Arenas told his friend to donate it. Others needed it more.

“Anything I could do,” he says now.

He found that one of the best things he could do was talk with people. Maybe talk about the Crimson Tide or the BCS title game in January 2010, when Arenas’ fourth-quarter interception helped seal the national championship against Texas.

“They just want to converse,” he says, “and get their minds off (the tornado) and see somebody who, I hope, they look up to.”

Arenas says those conversations helped brighten his neighbors’ days, so he kept having them. After all the noise, it was the silence that no one could stand.

• • •

Nearly a month later, Arenas was following the news when another, more powerful tornado touched down in Joplin, Mo., about 150 miles south of Kansas City. The city was shredded, and 160 residents died after the storm on May 22.

“If you’ve seen Joplin’s destruction,” Arenas says, “you’ve basically seen Tuscaloosa.”

On June 23, some of the Chiefs traveled to southwestern Missouri, wearing shirts that read “Joplin Chiefs,” to see what a tornado-ravaged city looks like. To see what kind of situation their teammate lived through. And to do in Joplin what Arenas had been doing in Tuscaloosa: to help residents sort and remove displaced belongings, but more than that, to talk with locals about something other than digging out from under the wreckage.

Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker was on the trip to Joplin. He remembers approaching the city’s south side, where the EF5 tornado passed through. The destruction lasted for miles.

“You’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy,’ ” Studebaker says. “All of a sudden, you see that one spot, that big area that it actually hit, and man, it’s unbelievable. The pictures don’t describe what actually went on.”

More unbelievable, Studebaker says, is that a teammate survived a similar scenario.

Arenas was unable to go with his team to Joplin, but he says he understands what its residents faced, then and now.

“I felt them,” he says. “As opposed to just saying, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine what they’re going through,’ I felt them.”

• • •

Arenas jogs alongside rookie wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin, smiling and swiping at an invisible ball during a morning walk-through at the Griffon Indoor Sports Complex. It’s morning at training camp, shielded temporarily from the heat, and Arenas is playful during another workout.

He says he barely thought about the approaching football season for the two weeks after the tornado hit Tuscaloosa. There was too much else to consider. There came a time, though, that he was ready to return to work.

Arenas has shared his experience with some of his teammates and coaches.

“He tells that story, I get chills,” Haley says. “He calls his friend, he doesn’t know what to do — it’s giving me chills right now.”

Lawrence says Arenas’ house still needs work, but some repairs have been made in the three months since the storm. He says the home is now livable.

Arenas says he thinks often about what he experienced in Tuscaloosa and how much work remains. He says he’ll return after the season. For now, he says, there’s work to do with the Chiefs, and after these past three months, he says no matter the temperature or the drudgery, there’s no such thing as a bad day.

“I still think about it from time to time and just think about how lucky I am,” he says. “I get this burst of energy. I really shouldn’t be here, considering where I was during that tornado. It pumps a little life in me.”