Town's Demise Won't Kill Football Spirit

Thursday, November 13th 2008, 6:30 pm
By: News On 6

By Kyle Dierking,

PICHER, OK -- Piles of rubble pervade a land - setting off sublime senses of an outer-space-like scene. The memories - the moments of a town - missing.

"The things that you had fond memories of, with, or at are gone," said Willie Ng. "It's disorienting because you look for land marks - maybe not street names - but your buddy's house or this store and it's gone."

Like the peaks and valleys that permeate Picher, Oklahoma's land, Willie Ng's witnessed the ups and downs of his hometown. What was once the richest lead and zinc mining field turned into one of the most toxic areas in America.  The government offered a buyout - told the people of Picher to leave.  Then a tornado ripped through town in May - killing six people - further putting Picher in peril.

"The tornado just kind of put the nail in the coffin so to speak - it just wiped out everything," Ng said. "People were trying to rebuild and do things but after the tornado, there's no hope of rebuilding. It's done. It's closed."

The last landmark is Hayman Field. Picher schools haven't participated in athletics for three years, but the stadium remains intact. The paint job proclaiming the school's 1984 state championship still beams bright red. Willie quarterbacked that team, and later coached the Gorillas for more than a decade. 

"I returned an interception 101 yards," said Ng, finger pointing endzone to endzone. "I ran right down that sideline...long time ago."

Willie's currently coaching a few miles down the road at Commerce High School. The Gorillas and Tigers once shared a rivalry. Now six former Picher players wear blue and white. Together, they have a 10-0 season.

"When I decided to go over there it seemed like it was going from the north to the south in the Civil War. I hate to use that analogy, but it was like that," Ng said. "I took a lot of flak from people in Picher. They said, ‘why you going over there.' I don't think it would have mattered where I went, but for my wife and boys it was the best fit."

Jack Kelley also coaches at Commerce. For the former Picher resident, football is an escape from an enigma. Jack and his son survived the Picher tornado, but the twister took his wife's life.

"Football's definitely a saving grace for me," Kelley said. "When I get out here, for a couple hours a day I can think about nothing but football and that's basically all that's on my mind."

There's no solace in seeing Jack's hometown. There's the wreckage that remains, the piles of poison and the football field that will never host another game. Jack knows none of it was Picher's fault, but making peace may never be an option. 

"Although it's two miles away, when I pull up at work I still can see the chat piles and that bothers me to some extent," Kelley said. "For some people it's therapy to go, for me its therapy not to go. I don't go back and I won't."

As Picher continues to perish, the past and present puts their future in focus - a Gorillas heart in a Tigers body.

"We're one big happy family. It's not us and them anymore," Ng said. "We're Tigers even though some of us came from Picher."