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By David Pickle
June 13 will always be a special day for veteran football official Phil Laurie. That was the day his zebras earned their stripes.
The devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo. resulted in five Missouri Southern State football coaches suffering severe property damage.
Acting on behalf of the football officials of the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association, Laurie and others presented cash gifts to Missouri Southern State football coaches whose property was destroyed by the May 22 tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo.
“When we presented them with the money,” said Laurie, the league’s supervisor of officials, “one of them broke down and was pretty upset. I’m having trouble telling you about it, to be honest. It was pretty special.”
A total of 156 people died as a result of the tornado, none from the Missouri Southern athletics family. One woman who took tickets at athletics events was critically injured but is now recovering. But the athletics staff was not spared from the estimated $3 billion in damage, and the football coaching staff was especially hard hit.
Coaches Kevin Almlie, Matt Barrett, Gary Bass, Atiba Bradley and Tom Howe all suffered extensive property loss, mostly from the destruction of their homes or apartments.
Laurie and other officials heard about how the football staff had been affected and at first suggested to Lions head coach Bart Tatum that they could help with food, clothing, furniture and other necessities.
“He said, ‘Phil, I don’t think you understand,’ ” Laurie said. “They have nothing, and what they need right now is cash to buy the things they need.”
So at their annual picnic June 5, the officials gave money to Laurie, who put it in his pocket before returning home to Topeka, Kan. When he counted it that night, he discovered he had exactly $2,400.
Laurie called Tatum back and said he would like to present the money to the coaches. The two arranged for a surprise at the Lions’ June 13 staff meeting.
“My wife suggested that we put it in four envelopes (the cash was later divided among five coaches), and so I put the MIAA logo on the envelope, the coach’s name and then 12 $50 bills in each envelope. When they opened it up, there was the MIAA logo and the words ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you. (Signed) MIAA Football Officials.’ ”
Laurie prepared the moment with a little humor.
“I said, ‘First of all, we always feel like we’re the third team on the field,’ ” he said. “There’s Missouri Southern, there’s your opponent and then there’s the officials, and we feel very tight with you guys, even though you sometimes treat us like dirt and even though you don’t know that we really do have mothers.’ ”
The coaches laughed, but the scene became much more emotional after they opened their envelopes.
It was a moment that Tatum will never forget.
“We’re all in this together,” he said, “and we’re all in it for one purpose, and that’s education, trying to have a positive impact on young people. The officials of the MIAA are some of the finest human beings you’ll ever find, and this just proves it.”
The episode wasn’t the only show of support that MIAA officials have offered to coaches this year. First-year Northwest Missouri State coach Scott Bostwick died unexpectedly June 5. Eight officials attended his funeral, underscoring the coach-official bond that is so often hidden from public view.
The generosity notwithstanding, Laurie said it will be business as usual this fall.
“We’re still going to call interference on the Lions, and we’re still going to call holding on the Lions,” Laurie said. “We’ll be the same. But I’m so proud of my guys because 68 guys donated $2,400. That’s pretty special.”
To which Tatum added a hearty amen.
“Our officials in this conference have always been very, very professional,” he said. “They’re smart people, they’re competitive people, and they care about young people. They really do, they always have, and I couldn’t be prouder to be associated with a group of guys.”