NOT FAR from the flood-ravaged Gulf Coast, the Hardee High football team in Wauchula, Fla., is proving that there is life after tragedy. In August 2004 several Wildcats players were among the thousands displaced by Hurricane Charley, the Category 4 storm that battered southwest Florida. Hardee's Wildcat Stadium was nearly destroyed by winds that ripped apart the scoreboard and snapped light standards. The coaches went from passing out playbooks to passing out meals.
The Wildcats resumed practice a week after the storm, though many players were unable to take part. Their practice facility doubled as a FEMA staging area, and workouts began with players combing the field for stray nails and shingles. "It was an emotional time," says coach Derren Bryan. "Kids would start crying for no reason."
Despite playing its entire schedule on the road, Hardee went 10-0 last season. In April the stadium renovation began, and last Friday the Wildcats played their first home game since 2003. They beat rival Fort Meade High, stretching their school-record winning streak to 34 games. "Football was therapeutic," says Bryan. "It gave the kids something to do every week, and it created a common bond shared among our players, our coaches and our community." --Chris Mannix
KEITH M. WEEMS (KIDS AND HODGES)
Mark Hodges led Hardee to a win in its rebuilt stadium.