It's a cliche, sure, but in the case of West, Texas' high school football team, it appears to be true.
"The old saying is, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," says David Woodard, West High School's head football coach. "Our kids have gotten mentally stronger and physically stronger and it's made it to the point where everything we've been through, our kids believe now that they can just win."
Woodard began picking up the pieces of a moribund football program before the 2013 season. Over the previous three season, the Trojans were a combined 4-27. In April 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion rocked West Fertilizer Company, killing 15 and injuring more than 160. Woodward and his team's effort to rebuild from the explosion was the subject of an ambitious hour-long documentary by WFAA reporter David Schechter, which aired around the one-year anniversary in April.
Brought in to replace Sam Gillespie, who resigned in December 2012 after winning just one game in two seasons, Woodard couldn't have imagined the challenges his players, his school and his community would face before he even led the Trojans onto the field for the first time. The high school was damaged severely in the explosion and was demolished in December 2013. As the students wait for a new school, they attend class in portable buildings. The football team shares a gym with the middle school.
"The [football players] who have gone to school here all their lives from pre-K to their senior year, yes it is [tough]," says Terri Tobola, the school nurse. "They'll tell you it isn't, but when you really talk to them, [not having a school] bothers them, but you can let that bother you as much as where it's going to affect your day. You have to move on, and I think that's where our team is."
Tobola's two sons, Haden and Mason, are part of the core of this year's football team, which sits at 5-1 heading into the third week of play in District 9-3A1. Haden Tobola is a senior and the team's starting kicker; Mason, a junior, is the starting quarterback.
Even last year, as Woodard, the Tobolas and the rest of the team suffered through a 1-9 season, the Trojans' games gave the whole community a mental break.
"Even when things weren't going as well as we wanted them to, two or three hours on a Friday night got the community away from everything else that we were going through," Woodward says. "Now with the resurgence, and us being a lot more successful this year, we're still seeing that support."
West's mayor, Tommy Muska, credits parents and Woodard for the team's resurgence, echoing the coach's statements about the value of what West has gone through.
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," Muska says. "We've seen the adults of this community band together in a very resilient way after the explosion. They've put one foot in front of the other and rebuilt this town. These children have seen that and they're doing the exact same thing with their football team."
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Tobola gives credit to the kids. Many of the players are have been on the team sense they were freshman or sophomores, sticking it out through losing season, working hard and growing together.
"All of the kids are hard workers," she says. "When you talk to me as a mom, they're all our kids. They love football and hope to see them fulfill their dreams because I can tell you each and every one of the boys has a big heart. They want to play."
Now they're winning, too.
West takes on district rival Grandview at home, Friday night at 7:30.