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Getting Back to Normal

The West High School football team opened their 2013 football season Thursday night, another step for the town in moving past the devastating fertilizer plant explosion.

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Photograph by Jerry Larson

Like many coaches, David Woodard is a creature of habit. Success in his business is built on months of drills, repetitions, and routines. But he’s also a citizen of West, where life lately has been anything but routine.

Woodard grew up in this town just north of Waco and his dad coached baseball at the high school. Nearly two decades later, Woodard became a coach at West High School himself, taking over the track team and running the defense for the football team before becoming the head coach in December. Four months later, the fertilizer plant that sits between Woodard’s house on Reagan Street and his office at the high school exploded, forever changing the history of the town. And in the four months since, Woodard has worked to re-establish those familiar routines and even introduce a few new ones.

All around town, there are signs that West is working through the process of remembering the past while also getting back to normal. The pavilions are in place for Westfest, the polka and Czech festival that draws thousands of visitors over Labor Day weekend. Storefronts on Main Street offer grief counseling, while others announce they’re closing early to participate in a weekend parade.

The latest step in getting back to normal while adjusting to the new reality came Thursday night, when the West Trojans opened their 2013 football season. West is a baseball town—the team made it to the state finals last year and were in the playoffs again this spring—but Texas is a football state, so the season opener became one of the biggest community gatherings since this spring’s numerous memorials. The stands were full, even though the temperature hovered around a most unfootball-like 100 degrees at kickoff.

There was plenty of attention for West’s first game, with live news crews from around North and Central Texas in place and cable channel Fox Sports Southwest capturing everything on film for their statewide Game of the Week feature. It made for a grim reminder of the last time news cameras focused on Trojan Field for this long. When the plant blew up, the stadium was used as an emergency triage center, with ambulances parked on the yard markers and tents set up to treat the injured. When it was over, the grass remained flecked with blood, needles, and medical waste. School officials decided to pull up the entire field and replace it with new sod. The Trojans didn’t even practice there while the grass took root, so Thursday was the first time the team had set foot on its new home field. 

The game program lists 32 players and 11 coaches on the varsity football roster for the West Trojans. Nearly every one of them were affected by the explosion. Woodard’s house, which sits some 250 feet from the plant, was destroyed, but they’re rebuilding and hope to be back in their home by Christmas. Nicholas Kucera and his twin brother, Jackson, also lost their home. They were driving toward the plant when it exploded, emitting a force that deployed the air bags in their truck. And Tyler Pustejovsky, one of the team captains, lost his cousin, Joey. Only 29, Joey Pustejovsky served as the city secretary and was one of the youngest of the volunteer firefighters.

With those memories still hanging in the air, the crowd handled what could have been a deeply dramatic season opener with the stoicism that can be traced to the deep Czech roots of the town. There were no emotional songs or displays, just a nod toward the day of the blast in the interlocking W-T logo at midfield, adorned by the date “4-17-13” and the team’s slogan this season, “Rise Up”, and a polite round of applause upon receiving a donation that the opposing team, the Academy High School Bumblebees, had taken up in their town of Little River. With that, the Trojans kicked off and the game was under way.

The team hasn’t had much luck lately, winning just one game in the last two seasons. Now under Woodard’s watch, they’ve also rolled out a new offense, switching from the quirky Wing-T running formation to the popular, fast-moving spread offense passing game. Last year’s starting quarterback, senior Lane Willenborg, has moved out to wide receiver and junior Mason Tobola now runs the offense. The signs of learning a new system while battling a fast and inspired team were evident, as West struggled on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Academy’s backfield tandem of quarterback Malik Jackson and running back Alex McCullough took advantage of wide running lanes as they posted a 28-0 lead by halftime.

West’s situation got briefly better when they opened the second half with a 78-yard touchdown run by Quentin Dancer, but even that came with a downside. The Trojans were flagged for “excessive celebration”, which seemed hardly fair. After all that the town has been through, is there any other team that deserved some excessive celebration more than West?

The Trojans never got closer than that, and the final score of 41-7 kept any chance at a storybook ending at bay. But as Woodard gathered his team around him in the end zone after the game, there was no yelling, only a deep breath and words of encouragement.

“The first game is always the toughest,” he said. “We know where we want to go and we know what we need to do to get there.” 

With that the team filed down the home sideline, high-fiving the fans that lined the fence from one end of the field to the other. Woodard faced the tight cadre of TV cameras and microphones and said all the right things about how building a program is a process and how it’s an honor to represent the town.

His team filed back into the temporary building that they’re using as a locker room until the construction is finished at the middle school and high school, while Woodard said his final pleasantries to the booster club members, then, in a sure sign that things are moving back to normal, grumbled good-naturedly about the final score still blazing away in lights over his head.

“I wish our scoreboard guy would turn off the scoreboard.”

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