RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
2017 was a year of remarkable tragedy, especially when it came to hurricanes. The Atlantic hurricane season caused billions of dollars in damage. One monster hurricane after another made landfall, devastating places from the eastern Caribbean to Texas. Christmas marks four months since Hurricane Harvey hit Refugio, Texas. Jimmy Maas of member station KUT reports the town, 40 miles north of Corpus Christi, turned to football to carry it through its recovery.
JIMMY MAAS, BYLINE: Sometimes so much happens so fast that looking back, events seem to have taken place both forever ago and just yesterday. That was this football season in Refugio, Texas. Head coach Jason Herring.
JASON HERRING: A hurricane would wipe out almost any football team in the world, but our kids have been hit in the mouth since they were that little by life. So the hurricane was just another bump in the road. Does that make sense? Our kids are so resilient because they've had to be their whole life.
MAAS: Hurricane winds up to 140 miles an hour whipped the town. Small tornadoes ripped off roofs, and downpours soaked what was inside. And that was only the beginning, says coach Herring.
HERRING: It's a shame there's not a manual for how to deal with the hurricane after the hurricane because I'm going to be honest with you, I've never been through one. And the hurricane after the hurricane is 10 times worse than the - a thousand times worse than the hurricane itself.
MAAS: About 2,800 people live in or Refugio, most are of modest means. They work on oil rigs, at hospitals and schools. Most residents did not have wind insurance. Some did not have any insurance. The one structure at the high school that was not damaged was the athletic field house. Coach Herring and the staff set up cots in the weight room for displaced players to sleep overnight.
Through just circumstance, Herring became the point person for a lot of relief efforts. Money, supplies, volunteers, food and water made their way to the field house. Much of it came from nearby communities - district rivals that are used to losing big to Refugio High School. Three weeks after the storm, many of the players were still camping out at the field house. Then in the second game of the season, another blow.
CHARLIE HENDERSON: Casey was doing really good on offense, and this was going to be the first time that he played defense.
MAAS: This is Charlie Henderson. He's talking about his son, Casey.
HENDERSON: So when they went in on defense that very first play, and he was making a tackle, and he never did get back up. He's just laying there, you know? We knew something happened. Something bad happened.
MAAS: Casey Henderson, a 17-year-old junior, broke his neck. He was taken to San Antonio for surgery and rehab. Because of the damage to the stadium, the Bobcats had to play most of the season on the road. Still, this is not an underdog story. Refugio is the defending state champion in football in its division. They've won two state championships since 2011. Odds are pretty good that when your team plays Refugio, you will get beaten by a lot.
And despite all the setbacks, Herring's team made it back to the state final this week. For the 13th time out of 15 games, the team, the band, the town would load up buses and head out. Their opponent - the Mart Panthers. The venue - AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. The game started as most Bobcat games go - Refugio High scored quickly.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).
MAAS: Two touchdowns, 14-0 in less than 4 minutes.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Defense, defense, defense.
MAAS: The Mart Panthers regrouped, hold it together, took control of the game. They scored 28 unanswered points.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)
MAAS: And as time ticked down, a rare loss began to set in on the sidelines and in the stands. The final score was 34-21. School superintendent Melissa Gonzales sums up the season.
MELISSA GONZALES: It's the one constant we've had in our lives this year. Everything else seems to be in turmoil, but football is still there and still keeping us going.
MAAS: She and her husband, the county sheriff, have been living in an RV behind their storm-damaged home all fall. She says even four months later, displacement is the norm. Thirteen percent of all Refugio students still don't have a permanent home. All of the public housing in Refugio is closed indefinitely. Most of those residents have had to commute from the town of Beeville, about a half hour away.
Full recovery is a long way off for Refugio, though the rebuilding and rehabilitation is visible. Three months ago, after his on-field injury, football player Casey Henderson couldn't feel or move his extremities. Today, he's standing and walking in spurts, like, from the bedroom to the kitchen. His family's home was destroyed in the storm. Coach Herring and others raised the money to rebuild it. The contractor worked for free. Most importantly to his mom, he is out of the hospital and with his family. Nichole Henderson.
NICHOLE HENDERSON: Casey's walking. We have our family together. We have this gorgeous house thanks to coach Herring and Brian Miller. I'm happy we're all together. There's really no words to describe it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND PLAYING)
MAAS: And while, this year, there was no state title for Refugio, the team provided 15 weeks of hope. Bobcat coach Jason Herring says football has been strong medicine for him, for his players, for the town. For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Maas in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.