CLEVELAND, Tenn.—Storm? What storm?
Lance Thompson didn’t have time to worry about that big, black, angry cloud that was beginning to swirl into a funnel right before his eyes. The University of Tennessee defensive line coach was too busy dialing numbers on his iPhone, calling this coach and that coach about their very best high school football players.
So as he drove through north central Alabama nine days ago, he thought he was avoiding the worst of the bad weather tearing up the Heart of Dixie’s tornado alley. He’d even called the UT football offices back in Knoxville for a Weather Channel update. They told him to steer clear of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, which he was doing.
But now he was talking to a coach at Arab High School in the northeastern part of the state. The coach told him, “Dude, are you crazy? We’ve got a tornado warning out. The kids haven’t been here for hours. You need to find you someplace safe as soon as possible.”
Thompson finally realized he needed to focus on that big, black angry cloud instead of potential Volunteers. He suddenly understood, “That thing is huge.”
He heard a tornado siren in the distance. He watched a tree crash to the ground right beside his Toyota 4Runner.
“Everything got eerie really quick,” he said. “Very scary.”
Now nervous to the point of panic, he reached for his iPhone and Googled what to do when caught on the road in a tornado.
“It said, ‘Get to a ditch; roll down your car windows; bend down as low as you can in the floorboard of the backseat,’” Thompson recalled Thursday during the Big Orange Caravan stop at Cleveland Country Club.
“And I did just that. I drove that car into a ditch and climbed into the backseat.”
Barely dodging disaster, Thompson decided to head for his cousin Jamie Bradshaw’s farmhouse in nearby Union Grove, Ala.
“By the time I got there I could see a tornado moving along a tree line about 800 yards from his house,” he said. “I ran to the basement. Three or four minutes later, it was gone. It missed the house but it tore up his farm. There were dead dogs, horses, cows, pigs and chickens all over the place. What a wild day. Mother Nature can get intense.”
Mother Nature didn’t shake up just Thompson last Wednesday among UT coaches. New head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin came home late that night to find the windows blown out in the apartment he’s renting until his family arrives from Missouri at the close of the school year.
“I was so tired I didn’t even clean it up,” he said. “I just went to sleep.”
Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt reportedly experienced the same destruction across the back of her home.
“I don’t think we got hit across the board as badly as they did in Chattanooga and Cleveland,” said Bob Kesling, the Voice of the Vols. “But it was pretty bad in a few areas around Knoxville.”
It was so bad that when Thompson walked outside his Knoxville home the next day he found several dead ducks near his property.
“The hail got ’em,” he said. “Hit ’em in the head.”
The stories will keep coming like this for some time, some worthy of a chuckle, many more the producers of tears. Thompson’s iPhone is filled with unsettling pictures, including one that shows two tornadoes crossing Lake Guntersville at the same time.
Then there are those signs of hope, such as the Cleveland chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which announced this week that it would suspend all new construction to concentrate on repairing and rebuilding as many Bradley County homes as possible that were damaged in last week’s disaster.
As for Thompson, someone asked him if he might use the experience as a recruiting tool, as in, “I was even willing to drive through a tornado to recruit you.”
Said the veteran coach with a slight grin: “No, I’ll just show them our depth chart.”
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...