Mayfield tornado recovery gets boost from sports figures


MAYFIELD, Ky. — The air just didn’t feel right. Luis “Chili” Pardo didn’t like it. Didn’t like how the moisture felt on his skin inside the Soccer Factory, the indoor field he had opened a year before.

A couple of parents came over to talk with him. Some suggested canceling the rest of the games that night. The weather forecasters, they said, were warning that a storm was headed their way. But other parents shrugged. They get at least a dozen tornado warnings every year in Western Kentucky.

Chili was torn. If he canceled the last two games, it would be difficult to reschedule. Even though he’d lived in this town for 20 years, he worried parents might think the Chilean immigrant was an alarmist, someone who got scared off by a little storm. He might lose money. Not a lot. But enough for him to hesitate.

He watched the children playing 5-on-5 on the turf field, the air hot and wet and heavy. It was 72 degrees on Dec. 10, when it normally is in the 30s or 40s. “It felt like waiting for a hurricane in Miami,” he said. “It was that hot.”

Across town, 18-year-old Luis “Fish” Ajanel looked at his phone. Chili had just canceled his 9 p.m. game. “You’ve got to be kidding me” he thought. “Those some babies. Why is everyone being so worried?”

Frustrated, Fish texted teammate Gage Lynch, who was driving to the game. “Ah that stinks. I really wanted to play,” Gage said to himself before turning the car to go home.

As Chili watched parents and children pick up their gear to leave, he and his wife debated whether they should stay to tidy up the building and clean the bathrooms. But he didn’t like it. He just didn’t like how the air felt. He told his wife and children to get in the car. They grabbed a quick dinner, drove home and turned on YouTube to watch soccer. That’s when emergency warnings blared from their phones.

At his daughter’s urging, the family moved chairs into the bathroom and opened the weather app for the local television station. The meteorologists’ messages became increasingly urgent, their hands circling over a section of the map southwest of Mayfield, pointing to what they said was the distinctive pattern of a massive tornado. It already had destroyed so many buildings as it moved over the Mississippi River, first into Tennessee and now into Kentucky, and meteorologists were realizing the radar showed something they had never seen before — a debris signature more than a mile wide, and it was headed directly toward Mayfield.

“They just kept saying, ‘If you’re in Mayfield, it’s too late,'” said Gage, who had gone with his family to the basement at a friend’s house. “‘Do not try to leave. Find cover. Find cover! If you can hear us, find cover!'”

Fish, who was at his mother’s house playing games on his phone, was annoyed at the emergency warnings hurting his ears. “I was like, ‘Everybody’s talking about this tornado and stuff,'” he said, “and I’m like, ‘Y’all just gotta be laid back.'” He threw his phone down and closed his eyes to sleep.

Another piercing sound shot from Chili’s phone through the house. The dog, frantic, jumped on the children now crammed into the bathroom. They heard a huge boom. Everything went dark.

Fish woke up to the sound of his mother screaming.

NEARLY 90 PEOPLE died and dozens were injured in what folks here have been calling the “Quad-State Tornado,” which struck Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky two weeks ago. Names continue to be added to the list as people have succumbed to their injuries. In Mayfield, pictures now hang on a chain-link fence, surrounded by flowers, in front of the wreckage of the courthouse — the faces of tiny infants, elementary school children and at least one man who was in his 90s. It took more than a week to find the bodies of three hunters — including a 12-year-old boy — buried in the wreckage of a motel at Reelfoot Lake some 60 miles southwest of Mayfield. In Bowling Green, more than 130 miles to the northeast, seven people from the Brown family died — including four children, their parents and their grandmother — when their house was blown off its foundation.

Nine people who worked in Mayfield’s candle factory died, and more were injured by debris. There’s a ferocious discussion in Mayfield and across the nation following reports that the candle factory didn’t let employees go home to take shelter as the storm approached. One national headline read, “Tornado deaths in Kentucky reveal prioritization of profit over workers.” The company has said its managers acted heroically and helped save lives. A lawsuit already has been filed.

Emerging from the chaos are stories of people who made life-or-death decisions that night. For those who survived, there are stories of rescue and recovery, of searching and scrambling to send money and supplies, including toys for Christmas. There are the former NFL players, the Major League Baseball umpire, a high school football powerhouse and one of the best basketball players this town has ever seen.

Some moved away to pursue their dreams; others stayed to build them here. Now, two weeks after the storm, they’re all picking the shards of those dreams out of the rubble, finding each other, and helping friends and neighbors and even their bitterest rivals during Mayfield’s greatest time of need.

LUIS “CHILI” PARDO arrived in Mayfield 20 years ago to play soccer at Mid-Continent University. The school was so small, he drove past it twice before calling his coach to help him find the campus because there was no field or stadium. Just three small buildings. He worried he’d made a mistake.

Raised in Chile, at age 10 he’d trained with the Hamburg FC academy when his family lived in Germany for a year. After moving back to Chile, he started with one of his country’s premier academies until he was 17. But six years after his mother moved to Miami to support the family, he moved to the United States on a travel visa to be closer to her. Chili received offers to play with several MLS and USL teams, but they fizzled because he didn’t have a work visa. He took a chance and moved to Mayfield as one of more than a dozen international students recruited for the school’s first soccer team. (The college eventually went bankrupt in 2014).

He arrived as an influx of Hispanic families also were moving to Mayfield, looking for work on surrounding tobacco farms and in the nearby poultry industry. That’s how Mayfield High School soccer coach Luis Fabian ended up here. His family worked in the town’s chicken factory.

“Chili was my coach when I was playing club in high school,” Fabian said. “He was still in college. I saw him play. He was a phenomenal player.”

Fabian once asked Chili why he stayed in Mayfield after a successful four years in college. For Chili it was simple. He had met his wife, an American citizen whose family had emigrated from Mexico. The couple expanded Chili’s small auto detailing business before adding a used car dealership, a mechanic shop and a restaurant.

“This is a town where I felt like I was able to do something,” Chili said. “If you work hard, you can have things. You can be somebody.”

But what he really wanted was a soccer field in Mayfield where he could coach. Using some of their savings, Chili bought an abandoned lot next to their businesses. The property had become an impromptu landfill after an old clothing factory burned down in the 1940s. Chili and his wife spent their days pulling rocks, bricks and glass bottles from the earth. He graded the lumpy mountain of soil into a flat grass field. He installed the irrigation system and welded the goals together himself.

Fish remembers regularly walking past Chili and admiring what he was doing. “Most Hispanics, you know, they come here and they want to make something out of themselves,” Fish said. “I was like 13 years old and I seen that he had a car dealership and the detail shop. I was like, ‘I wanna have that when I’m older too because I wanna work for myself.'”

By 2018, Chili was training young players on the field. But it gets cold in Mayfield, and Chili wanted his teams to have year-round training like he had in the academy system. When the banks wouldn’t loan him money to buy a prefabricated building, he got out there again. He dug holes for steel beams. He learned how to pour concrete. He built wooden boxes that became indoor soccer goals. He bartered a used car from his lot for construction supplies.

“He built it from scratch,” Fish said.

The Soccer Factory opened in October 2020. Within just a few weeks, Chili had 68 youth teams regularly scheduled to play, plus a kinder league and a youth academy. Players from Tennessee and Illinois regularly drove in to train with him. Fabian sent his high school players, including Fish, to refine their skills.

“It was a big deal, especially for our Hispanic community,” Fabian said. Hispanics now constitute nearly 15% of Mayfield’s population. “There’s a lot of the Hispanic community that can’t afford to drive somewhere else or pay to play club. So, when he built that, it was a huge impact because it was local.”

Chili charged Fish and Gage $5 to practice between 9 p.m. and midnight. “It wasn’t worth it for him as far as the monetary side of things, but he just cared for us and wanted us to have a safe place to enjoy our game,” Gage said. “Families, little kids, a lot of Hispanic families would come and just watch because they love the game of soccer.”

“He wasn’t making coin on this facility but he was building momentum,” said Patrick Adamson, president of the regional soccer club Kentucky Elite. He has a son who plays on a team that Chili coaches. “He was bringing communities together,” Adamson said. “He took this dead spot in downtown and brought it to life.”

Chili estimates it took two years and about $250,000 in cash and in-kind deals to build. When his insurance company told him he needed to take out a policy for at least $580,000, or what it would cost to build a prefabricated replacement, Chili said he couldn’t afford that. Maybe, he said, he could upgrade after his first season. He said the insurance company representative told him she would try to find another underwriter and promised to call him back.

He was still waiting for the call when the tornado struck.

HAL “TRIPP” GIBSON III was 16 when he spent his entire summer painting Mayfield’s courthouse square. “My grandfather owned about 90% of the court square,” he said, “so it was me on three levels of scaffolding, a roller and a bunch of paint.”

Tripp learned that summer he didn’t want to be a painter or get into the family business managing rental properties. But he’s the first to tell you that his grandfather used that rental income to loan Tripp the money for umpire school. Tripp worked in the minor leagues before moving up to the majors, where he most recently was behind home plate for Game 1 of the 2021 NLCS between the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers.

The family business gave Tripp knowledge of the town’s geography. He knew what nearly every building in downtown Mayfield looked like up close and personal.

“I had driven down these streets thousands of times. Hundreds of thousands of times. But I got lost,” he said. “The street signs are gone. A lot of the buildings that signify this is Mayfield, like the courthouse and the fire department and the police department, all of the buildings around the court square were destroyed. And without those buildings you don’t know where you are.”

“It took me a minute to realize which building was my dad’s office,” he said. “I couldn’t find it for a little while. But then I started recognizing items in the rubble. A lot of baseball memorabilia from my years in the minor leagues and in the major league.”

Tripp flew in as soon as he could to help dig the town out from under the destruction. One of his dad’s downtown tenants was buried under the wreckage of her house. She crawled out from a hole on her hands and knees. Another took shelter in his closet, only to walk out of that closet to discover the rest of his house had vanished. Tripp’s family lost at least 20 buildings, including an entire city block of downtown businesses that sat kitty-corner from the courthouse.

This before-and-after slider combines satellite images of downtown Mayfield, Kentucky, on Jan. 28, 2017, and on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, after a tornado caused heavy damage in the area.

The tornado ripped through the center of town, between the region’s two high schools, moving from southwest to northeast. Mayfield’s water tower is now sprawled on the ground like a dead spider. Mayfield High School lost all 20 of its school buses. What little is left of downtown is wrapped in razor-sharp sheaths of corrugated metal roofing. The metal is everywhere, twisted around split telephone poles, broken buildings and the skeletal fragments of trees, hanging off their carcasses like its nothing more than aluminum foil.

But the thing about tornadoes is the worst damage is often the damage you can’t see. Where there’s nothing left except a concrete slab, giving silent testament to the power of this vortex. The National Weather Service said the storm stretched more than 30,000 feet into the air, as high as the highest commercial airliners fly. People have found check ledgers and prom pictures belonging to residents of this area nearly 100 miles northeast of here.

The tornado missed Gage’s house, but as soon as he saw the pictures appearing on social media, he piled his chainsaw and other equipment into a pickup. He eventually had to get out and walk as he neared downtown because there was so much debris across the roads. He also became disoriented, unsure of where he was, gingerly stepping over nails and other sharp objects.

When he turned a corner, he saw a neon green object reflecting back at him. It took several minutes to realize it was a piece of artificial turf. Turning, Gage saw concrete steps leading to a concrete slab. But where there should have been a door … there was nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“There wasn’t a toilet or anything left standing,” Gage said. “There was nothing that you could have hid behind.”

And it was in that moment that it hit him. He was standing where he’d been scheduled to play when the tornado tore through town.

He had found the Soccer Factory.

ABOUT 22 HOURS after the tornado hit, Chris Vogt was getting ready to play Ohio State. The 7-foot-2 center for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team had spent the morning frantically texting. His friends back home had reassured him his parents’ house was still standing and no one he knew had been killed.

But Vogt wanted to do something. He needed to do something. “My thoughts were just racing before the game,” he said. “I kind of struggled a little bit, trying to play with a clear mind. It’s just hard to do.”

After the game, as he walked toward the team bus, Vogt hit on a solution. He asked the team operations rep whether NCAA rules would allow him to raise money for Mayfield. Assured it was OK, Vogt researched how to set up a GoFundMe account. “By the time our plane landed in Madison,” he said, “it was launched and ready to go.”

Vogt hoped to raise $10,000. To date, his campaign has raised more than $180,000. His is perhaps the most well-known of the many GoFundMe accounts collecting funds to help Mayfield’s tornado survivors.

Joe Morris, the athletic director and football coach for Mayfield High School, said he’s never seen anything like it. “People are giving their hard-earned money,” he said. “People just keep asking, ‘What can we give? What can we do?'”

“I’ve had nearly every football coach across the state reach out to me,” Morris said. Fabian nodded. He too feels like all the high school soccer coaches in Kentucky have asked him how they can help.

The basketball teams for Murray State, Kentucky and Louisville have all thrown fundraisers. Beachwood High School, which beat Mayfield in the football playoffs this year, sent a truck of donations and then sent some more. “They’re sending five truckloads of stuff and a pretty nice check too,” Morris said. “They’re just a class group of guys.”

Kentucky National Guard soldiers have been bringing the boxes into the school’s gym, while teachers and other school staff sort it into sections. The principal’s wife organized clothing into neat little piles on the basketball bleachers. Her young daughter placed batteries onto a table. Fabian worked near the diapers and other baby items, helping tornado victims find what they need. One of Morris’s former players drove in from Virginia to load bottled water and heavy supplies into vehicles headed out to those who no longer have a car.

The first thing the two coaches did after the tornado left town was check on their students. They know of at least two football players who lost their homes. One soccer player lost his entire house, another lost a roof. Both Morris and Fabian have seen some of these students come through the gym with their families to gather supplies.

But no one has seen Fish.

THE RAIN IS relentless. It pours and pours. It pours down the staircase through a gash where the second floor used to be. It blows through the holes where the windows exploded. It drips down the orange spray paint declaring this house has been searched and it is now condemned.

Fish has lived in this house, with nine other relatives, at different times throughout his teenage years. It is his aunt’s home. Fish and his brother, Little Fish, spend much of their time here. It’s a block away from Chili’s soccer fields.

Fish and his brother got their nicknames from Fabian, who, like Fish, is also named Luis along with two other kids on their high school team. To prevent his players from getting confused on the field, Fabian named Fish after the Guatemalan soccer player Carlos Ruiz, who holds the record for most postseason goals scored in MLS history and is known as “Pescado.”

Fish’s family emigrated from Guatemala. “They work on farms, doing squash, tobacco, tomatoes, strawberries. They’re doing, you know, very hard labor jobs,” he said. “They go wherever there’s opportunities to make money because, you know, we can’t work under the government because they’ll deport us.”

They are afraid, Fish said, to go to places like Mayfield High School and the Red Cross to ask for help. “We have fear that if we do reach out that the government might use it against us.”

He said his aunt lives in a predominantly Hispanic part of town. Not one home within a three-block radius has survived. Fish said many of their neighbors are also afraid to ask for assistance.

“Our church has been as helpful as they can be,” he said. “They gave us a generator and one chainsaw.”

As the family walked through what remains of her kitchen, his aunt began to cry.

“She said, ‘I put so much hard work into this and now all of my years of work is gone,” Fish said, translating. “She says, ‘My house used to be so beautiful. Now it is ugly.'”

A close relative was pulled from the candle factory wreckage, her lower body injured in the building’s collapse.

Fish wanted to go to the University of Louisville to get an accounting degree. But college suddenly feels impossible as he does the difficult calculus on what it will take to rebuild his aunt’s home and repair his father’s house, which also was rendered uninhabitable by the tornado. Since he was born in Mayfield, Fish is one of the few in his family who is both an American citizen and speaks English fluently. He wonders out loud if he should go to FEMA on behalf of his family. “If I do go to FEMA and get, you know, maybe a $10,000 check, will that ruin my opportunity for college and student loans?” he asked.

The kid who ignored the tornado warnings and fell asleep during the worst storm in the state’s history has now vanished, replaced by a young man carrying the heavy weight of taking care of his frightened family.

“Where are you going to come up with $210,000?” he asked. “It just doesn’t come to people like us.”

GEORGE WILSON PLAYED in the NFL for 10 years, primarily for the Buffalo Bills and then for the Tennessee Titans. The strong safety made 525 tackles and enough interceptions to score a few touchdowns. He knows what it is like to win. He also knows what it’s like to lose. Especially to Mayfield High School.

“One of my biggest, baddest memories of regrets is not being able to beat Mayfield,” he said with a quiet chuckle. “We went 1-3 when I was in high school.”

Former Baltimore Raven Bryan Hall laughed, a huge chortling sound that comes out almost like a shout. “We went 3-1 when I was in high school!”

Both men played for Paducah-Tilghman High School, about 30 minutes north of here. The school has met Mayfield on the football field for more than 110 years, making it one of the longest high school rivalries in the nation.

And Mayfield, more often than not, ends up victorious. It’s No. 4 in the nation for all-time wins, according to Morris. The school has won 12 state championships and was runner-up another 12 times. Morris is responsible for six of the championships. His father Jack can claim another four.

“It’s something that former opponents we see now always remind us of,” Wilson said as Hall laughed even harder. “That they beat us and dominated us. Like, no matter that we both played pro, they still say, ‘Hey, I beat you in high school.'”

“There’s a history of vandalizing the property at both schools,” Wilson continued with a sly smile, prompting Hall to nearly double over with his addictive laughter. “We are definitely archrivals on the football field.”

But then Wilson suddenly stopped laughing.

“But we’re putting that all aside,” he said. “There’s no bad blood. Let’s be clear, this is a rivalry, but there is a mutual level of respect and love on both sides. That’s why we’ve come to help this community.”

Robert Daniel, a former Mayfield football player who played for Morris, died in the candle factory. Witnesses say Daniel, a deputy jailer, used his body to protect inmates he was guarding as part of a work release program there. All of the inmates survived.

Former Paducah-Tilghman football players Isaiah and Bobby Holt were also in the candle factory. Hall played with Isaiah and said both brothers were airlifted to Nashville, where Bobby was in a medically induced coma.

“I was in Baltimore crying my tears out when I saw what happened,” Hall said. “I was like, ‘Hey George. Hey dog, you know we gotta link up and do something to help our community.”

Hall used the connections he made through the NFL in Baltimore to raise cash donations to buy new Christmas toys. Wilson was in Paducah and gathered new, essential supplies like hygiene products and power tools. Together they used Wilson’s preexisting SAFETY Foundation to recruit volunteers to distribute it all.

As Morris looked on with sincere gratitude, the two former NFL players unloaded three box trucks and two semis onto the Mayfield High School parking lot. Hall and a half-dozen of his former Paducah teammates unloaded the toys while Wilson moved pallets stacked more than 15 feet high. Their former coaches and teachers piled the donations on tables and greeted a line of tornado survivors stretching more than 200 people deep.

And there, standing at the very front of the line, was Fish’s family.

“We put the word out to the Hispanic churches to ensure they felt comfortable out here,” Wilson said. “We put it out here this is a safe zone. Everybody, you safe. Safe enough to come out of the shadows and not have to worry about any of those issues.”

More than a week after the tornado, Fish’s aunt finally asked (and received) the drill Fish said they’ve desperately needed. His mother asked for toilet paper and paper towels. His brother and young cousins then spotted Hall’s mountain of toys, their eyes practically popping out of their heads with excitement. Little Fish carried a box containing a small, artificial Christmas tree.

Everyone in the family smiled except Fish. He was searching for something he couldn’t find. When Hall asked what he needed, Fish said he was trying to find the gifts that his youngest cousins, the ones too little to understand what has happened, really want.

Hall spun around, telling Fish to follow him. He sprinted through piles of donations, even leaping a little over a low-lying row of toys. The Super Bowl champion then crouched down, one hand on the ground in a pose strikingly similar to what he learned on the football field, to dig through a box before unearthing the very toys Fish had hoped to find.

“It’s not every day you see someone hand out a $100,000 in gifts for people,” Fish said. “You just don’t see that.”

When Wilson approached, the teenager explained how much this means to his family. “We’ve had people say you need an ID or you need a social security number to get stuff,” he told Wilson. “People who don’t speak English, who have lost everything, you know, they try to get stuff but they can’t.”

“That’s not what we’re about,” Wilson said, promising to hold more of these “pop-up” distributions. “Know that this is a safe zone,” he told Fish. “There’s nothing to be worried about. You can tell all your friends, your church members, your neighbors, anybody that needs assistance. If you’re in need, that’s all we care about.”

Wilson then pulled Fish in for a hug, telling the teen: “Thank you for coming today. Thank you for being such a great example. For being what we want our young men to be like. Thank you for being a leader here in this community in this hard, difficult time.”

Fish, who had kept a stoic face throughout everything that’s happened, emerged from the hug overcome with emotion.

“We need more people like him,” he said as George helped another family. “If we had more people like him, this world would be a much better place.”

AS BAD AS it has been, Fish knows it could have been so much worse.

“I should have been dead,” he said.

If they had been at the Soccer Factory that night, he knows he and Gage and their teammates would have ignored the tornado warnings and kept playing.

“The game was supposed to start at 9,” Gage said. “The tornado hit just a little bit after that. So, the game would have been going on, we would have been on the field and just playing soccer. We would never have seen it coming.”

Fabian was also supposed to be there that night with his 3-year-old daughter.

“I could have died,” he said. “I’m glad Chili canceled those games because there was going to be a lot of people either injured or, you know…”

He can’t finish the thought.

“I’m like what if Chile hadn’t canceled?” Fabian said. “A lot of stuff goes through your mind. I’ve been kissing my wife. I kiss my daughter. I’m really thankful.”

He paused. “That’s my God,” he said. “We are really blessed.”

This is a deeply religious community. Gage, who wants to go into a life of ministry, said the hot, wet air that night sent a message to Chili. “I believe that the Lord was speaking to Chili and said the game doesn’t need to go on tonight,” he said. “They say a lot of people have died and they have, but there’s a lot of people that could have died that didn’t.”

“There definitely could have been a big-time loss of life at the factory,” Morris said. “Big-time loss of life. I guess that God told Chili don’t do this. Don’t do it.

“It’s a miracle. It is a miracle.”

For Adamson, the soccer dad, it feels a lot like the Book of Job. He’s not sure why good people, people like Chili, are being tested like this.

Chili’s detailing shop has become a surreal hellscape. Dozens of vehicles have been flipped and shattered. A telephone pole cracked into pieces across the hull of another vehicle. Giant steel trusses and wooden beams have impaled the cars, piercing their metal bodies like needles into flesh.

“It is just like all the cars piled on top of each other,” Vogt said of Chili’s lot. “It’s incredible to see.”

It will take massive machinery to unwrap the razor-sharp debris and to haul away the cars. But he’s desperate to keep the bulldozers and cranes away from what’s left of his grass field. The irrigation system he worked so hard to install is the one thing the tornado hasn’t destroyed. Chili hopes to use the field for a spring league. He wants his players to keep training. To give them something normal to look forward to.

He wants to give kids like Fish and his son a way to escape, just a bit, from what they all know will be years of recovery.

But Chili needs soccer goals and soccer balls. They’ve started a GoFundMe for the Soccer Factory, and Adamson hopes an MLS team might donate equipment.

“Because we need soccer to help soccer,” he said.

But Adamson and the other Soccer Factory families aren’t sitting around waiting for help. Like so many others in Western Kentucky right now, they put on their sturdy gloves and went to work. The adults lifted the heavy stuff like corrugated roofing while the kids got low to the ground to pick out nails and shards of glass from the grass. More than 60 people showed up to clear the field.

A few hours into the cleanup, Chili found one of his soccer balls.

“The ball, it looks good,” Chili said with a bit of awe in his voice. “It’s still inflated. So, my little one, my 6-year-old, he’s like, ‘Throw me the ball.’ And I just threw it to him.”

And without any prompting or plan, on the barren concrete slab where the Soccer Factory used to be, the kids started to play.

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