• Coming together

  • The greatest football rivalry in Eastern Jackson County survived the ultimate test this summer.

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  • The greatest football rivalry in Eastern Jackson County survived the ultimate test this summer.
    That's when members of the reigning Class 6 state champion Blue Springs Wildcats joined ranks with the 2011 state champion Blue Springs South Jaguars in a week's worth of work, dedication and bonding in poverty-stricken Harmon, Jamaica.
    It was the fourth charitable trip organized by Wildcats assistant coach Matt Marble, who works through the Won By One organization that organizes weeklong trips to Harmon.
    Marble had been talking with South assistant Dan Sundberg about a joint effort where members of the two squads could interact and make a difference in an area that is so remote that you can't find it on most maps.
    “Dan and I go to church together, and the past couple of years we've talked about something like this,” Marble said after an early-morning practice session this week. “We didn't know how it would work out – but it was just amazing.
    “We've always respected South. Kelly (Donohoe, Blue Springs head coach) and Greg (Oder, South's head coach) are good friends and we have a great rivalry with that school, but I gained a whole new respect for the program, the kids and Dan (Sundberg).
    “I think we all learned down there that we don't have to dislike our opponent to compete hard against them. I am going to enjoy seeing how some of their players that went on the trip do throughout the season. When it comes down to it, all our players are someday going to be the leaders of our entire community, not just on one side or the other.”
    Sundberg echoed Marble's comments in the South locker room following one of the Jags' early summer camp sessions.
    “There were so many wonderful things about the mission trip,” Sundberg said, “and I want to be able to express what it meant to me and everyone from South who spent the week in Harmon.
    “I was a little bit concerned about it being the first mission trip with players from the two schools. How would the kids interact? Would there be any problems? Well, the answer to that was no. I saw a side of our players that I had never witnessed – a side that featured their humanity and their humility. Seeing Wildcats and Jaguars work side by side was special.
    “But what was even more special was seeing them interact away from the work site. You see one side of a player as a coach. At Harmon, I saw a side of players from both teams that I will never forget. And I hope they never forget it either.”
    The liaison between the two schools was Blue Springs senior linebacker named Gunnar Strickland.
    Page 2 of 3 - “The first day there, the Wildcats were on one side of the room, the Jaguars were on the other, and I knew we had to do something about that,” Strickland said, grinning, “so that night I went over to their room and started talking.
    “The next day, we all began interacting, and after that, it was like we'd been together forever. But we weren't there to just interact with our big rivals, we were there to make a difference in the lives of some people who didn't have much of anything. But they were the happiest people I'd ever been around.”
    That seemed to be the theme that wove in and out of the conversation between everyone who made the trip.
    “The first night, Gunnar broke the ice between the two teams, and from that point on, it was all about helping those people,” said South senior wide receiver Cole Conners. “If the people in Harmon had food, water and family, they felt like they had it all. I didn't know what to expect, but I'd never seen poverty like that. I didn't know poverty like that even existed.
    “Now, I know that cool cars and clothes don't mean anything. They're nice to have, but it's friends and family that really matter to me now, and I learned that from going down to Harmon.”
    During the day, the players and other members of the volunteer staff would dig foundations for the 16-by-12-foot structures that would serve as homes for two lucky families.
    “Those homes meant everything to those people,” Blue Springs senior lineman Blake Frisch said, “and they're not as big as my bedroom. I mean, they're not as big as my bedroom ... but it's their home and we were able to help them get that home, and I'll never forget the looks on their faces when it was finished.
    “I'm so proud of what we accomplished and it was great to share it with the guys from South. We found out we can be rivals and friends.”
    They also discovered that it didn't take back-breaking work to make a difference.
    “I spent some time talking to an elderly lady, and I think she had as big of an impact on me as I hope I had on her,” Blue Springs senior safety Kaleb Prewett said. “She told me she was one of the luckiest people in Harmon, and I asked her why.”
    Her answer made Prewett do some re-evaluating of his life and priorities.
    “She told me she had a shade tree,” he said, shaking his head. “A shade tree – wow. That really made an impact on me.”
    Page 3 of 3 - Blue Springs senior tailback Donald Garcia spent hours at an infirmary where families drop off relatives they can no longer take care of.
    “The hard work was good, but visiting that infirmary made an impact on me that I will never forget,” Garcia said. “There was an old man sitting on a bed, rocking back and forth, talking about how he was waiting for his family to come pick him up.”
    The elderly patient had been sitting on the same bed for more than a decade, and he never received a single visit from a member of his family.
    “That's so sad – so much of what we saw down there was sad,” Garcia said, “but we made some people happy. I was able to talk to that old man, we were able to build two homes and we were able to interact with a lot of the kids in the community. We brought a lot of smiles to Harmon.”
    And some tears.
    “We played soccer with a lot of the kids in the town, and one little kid named Ricardo kept hanging around us,” South senior defensive end Sterling Umstattd said. “He was having so much fun, and when he found we were leaving the next day, he asked me, 'Can I come home with you?'
    Umstattd paused for a moment, took a deep breath and continued.
    “What do you say to a kid who lives in that kind of poverty who asks if he can come home with you?” he asked. “I just told him to enjoy his life, to pray and that maybe someday he could come to the United States, or at least get out of that poverty. I think about him every day.”
    Follow Bill Althaus on Twitter: @AlthausEJC

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