The team Hurricane Irma couldn't knock down

Eric Adelson
Members of the Key West football team helping the community clean up after Hurricane Irma. (Courtesy of Key West High School)

The hurricane came and left boats in the roadway, houses mangled on the shore and a scoreboard impaled on the bleachers. The coach of the only high school football team on Key West didn’t wonder about the season opener; he wondered if there would be a season.

“When you see the trajectory of the path and you hear things like ‘nuclear hurricane,’ ” says John Hughes, “you get concerned.”

After making landfall on Sept. 10, Hurricane Irma destroyed an estimated 25 percent of homes on the Keys. Two Key West High players were forced to move, not to return to the team or the island. Several players still have housing issues, two months later. Three are living in hotels.

“We had a few players that stayed [through the storm],” Hughes says. “It was not an ordeal they would do again.”

After starting the season 2-0, Key West High lost three weeks of school and two games of the season. Everyone was surprised it wasn’t more. The aftermath will last for a long time, though, as tourism is the main industry on the island and people are not currently flocking to visit. The island chain didn’t reopen to tourists until October.

“We have about 200 kids that still have damage to their homes,” says principal Amber Acevedo. “A lot of kids are facing economic difficulties – loss of work, loss of tourism.”

The Conchs got back to playing football and opponents did whatever they could to show support. One team brought 50 cases of water bottles. Another donated $3,000. And cheerleaders from King’s Academy in Palm Beach bought 200 dresses plus gift cards so girls at Key West could attend their prom.

But a funny thing happened along with the wonderful things that happened after the terrible thing happened. In addition to their deep thanks, the Conchs gave their opponents something else: losses.

Key West High went 7-1 on the season and has made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. This means Friday brings a chance at the school’s first state playoff win in 22 years. It’s even more impressive considering the team was an independent for the past few seasons, choosing not to participate in the Florida high school playoff system.

“We’re on a tropical island,” Hughes explains. “Facing teams in Broward and Dade [counties]. It was hard for us to compete.”

This season the Conchs came back to the regular system, and came back from a hurricane. It has lifted the spirits of pretty much everyone. Consider that at the start of the season, the field was unplayable because it was drenched in salt water. And it’s not like there are plenty of other football fields nearby; the closest high school is 55 miles away. “To say we played above expectations would be accurate,” the coach laughs.

LaSalle High School players present a $3,000 donation to the Key West football team. (Courtesy of Key West High School)

Even now, a portion of the bleachers is still too damaged to be safe. The press box is destroyed. There is no scoreboard – it fell onto the bleachers – so an announcer behind the end zone uses the P.A. system to inform fans of the score, down and distance. There’s a handheld timer. This is hardly “back to normal.”

And it’s not like the players are truly focused on football. Those still displaced have plenty to worry about. Most everyone else is volunteering in the community, pitching in as de facto manual laborers because that’s what’s needed most.

Friday’s opponent is Monsignor Pace in Miami Gardens. It will certainly not be easy considering the Conchs have only 40 players on their roster. But truly nothing is easy in Key West these days. This is not Margaritaville, at least not quite yet.

That said, the Conchs have a tribute to one of the most famous residents of Key West. A few of their plays are called “Hemingway.”

Even the legendary novelist would want to see how this story turns out.

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