WASHINGTON, Ill. -- More than a dozen Chicago Bears headed to central Illinois to help with cleanup efforts in the tornado-ravaged community of Washington and meet with members of the community's high school football team.
Players, including kicker Robbie Gould, made the trip to Washington on Wednesday where they had lunch with high school students, donned Panthers team T-shirts and met with the teenage players who took to the field just days after the Nov. 17 storm to play in the state semifinals.
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"We didn't know they were coming," said Chris Friend, a senior at Washington High School who is a linebacker on the high school football team. "They told us we inspired them. That was incredible to hear."
The high school team was undefeated heading into the semifinals, which they played less than a week after the tornado touched down. But they lost to eventual Class 5A champions, Springfield's Sacred Heart-Griffin.
"The football team here inspired a community," said Gould, who signed autographs and even spoke to a student's father on the phone. "As professional players, we were amazed to see those kids go through what they did and then play a playoff football game."
The (Peoria) Journal Star reported that the Bears and several staffers then helped pick up debris from the tornado that damaged or destroyed about 1,000 Washington homes.
It was the second visit to Washington by team representatives, but the first by players. Bears Chairman George McCaskey and other staff members visited about a week after the storm to assist the American Red Cross with recovery efforts.
Bears corner Sherrick McManis, who grew up in Peoria, was among the 14 NFL players who took part in Wednesday's effort.
"It's very real when you're standing here right in it," he said. "Being so close to home, and actually being here, you not only see it, you feel it. Everything is destroyed."
The Washington tornado packed winds that reached 190 miles per hour. The funnel cloud stayed on the ground for more than 46 miles. President Barack Obama has since signed a disaster declaration for 15 storm-damaged counties in Illinois.