Sooners summon strength amid the pain from home

The Oklahoma Sooners bought ribbons for their bags in support of the tornado victims in Moore, OK.

The Oklahoma Sooners bought ribbons for their bags in support of the tornado victims in Moore, OK.

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• • •

ATHENS, Ga. –- Oklahoma assistant Gerrod Chadwell said there’s an American Indian myth that tornadoes aren’t supposed to touch down between two rivers. People say that’s what has kept Norman, Okla., from suffering the fate of nearby Moore. But, as Chadwell said, “Mother Nature is Mother Nature.”

Moore and neighboring Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma, are a mere 10 miles apart. It’s tough to find someone in Norman who doesn’t know someone affected by the devastation in Moore.

Chadwell followed the tornado’s movement on his cellphone while on the range in Athens, Ga. The deadly tornado – it killed at least 24, injured hundreds and leveled 13,000 structures – tore down a path two miles from Chadwell’s Norman home.

When he later talked to his sister, Jeniece, the devastation hit even closer emotionally. Two years ago, Jeniece taught third grade at Plaza Towers, an elementary school demolished by the storm’s path.

“It’s hard to have any emotion,” Chadwell said on Tuesday, “hard to get fired up.”

No one in the Sooners’ starting lineup is an Oklahoma native, but Chirapat Jao-Javanil and her teammates consider Oklahoma an adopted home.

“I haven’t Googled pictures of it because I’m dreading what I’ll see,” said Jao-Javanil, the 2012 NCAA champion from Hua-Hin, Thailand.

Jao-Javanil knew only of tsunamis and hurricanes when she became a Sooner but now is painfully educated on sirens, closets and storm shelters. All players on the Oklahoma team have a weather app that will start talking to them in the middle of the night if a storm is approaching.

“The theater I watch movies in, parts of it are gone,” said Jao-Javanil, who found it easier to let go of bad shots in the wake of such tragedy. She’s 1 over through 36 holes of the tournament.

“I’m golfing," she said, "and some people are trying to figure out where they’re going to live.”

Jao-Javanil said she found out Wednesday morning that the team’s academic adviser lost her home in the storm but was safe on the Norman campus when the tornado ripped through.

Larry Naifeh, a native Oklahoman and Norman resident for 30-plus years, drove Interstate 35 to the airport early Tuesday morning.

“I’ve driven that road countless times,” said Naifeh, the school’s executive associate athletic director. “It’s almost indescribable. Just leveled.”

Naifeh said university dorms were being used to house families, and the campus was a designated drop-off center for the United Way and Red Cross.

Naifeh sat on the eighth tee at the University of Georgia Golf Course, using a pair of binoculars to watch the Sooners shoot a second consecutive 3-over 291. They wore blue ribbons on their hats and golf bags in honor of the storm victims. It’s almost hard to believe that a mere 48 hours ago, a dozen people were huddled in Naifeh’s basement ... just in case.

Bill Hildenbrand and his wife, Sara, are like family to Jao-Javanil. Bill, a former All-American golfer at Oklahoma, is the executive director of the Oklahoma women’s booster club. The couple were driving to Athens when the storm hit. Sara works for Norman Regional Health System, which counts Moore Medical Center, hit hard by the storm, among its three campuses.

Hildenbrand said 11 residents were in his neighbor’s five-person storm shelter on Sunday, when tennis-ball-size hail wreaked havoc on their roofs. While Hildenbrand’s new home doesn’t include an underground shelter, he estimates that one in 20 homes in the Norman area have installed a safe haven during the past several years.

“When you live in Oklahoma, this is part of it,” said Hildenbrand, who would’ve been able to see the storm track from his back porch had the couple been in town.

“The Oklahoma spirt is that you help people,” he said. “We’ve had a little too much experience helping people.”

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