State Colleges

KCAC football: McPherson's Bettasso keeps Joplin close to heart

McPHERSON — As the sun set on Sunday, May 22, Joe Bettasso lay asleep on his couch.

The McPherson College football coach had planned to go back to his hometown of Joplin, Mo., that weekend, but decided to cancel the trip when a McPherson alumni group requested he speak to them.

Bettasso was, after all, a hot commodity. The KCAC Coach of the Year in 2010, Bettasso, only 28, led the Bulldogs to the best season in school history in his first season, going 10-1 and making it to the NAIA playoffs for the second time in school history.

Heady stuff for a young coach.

But that night, he was beat.

"My younger sister, Amanda, when she calls she'll just talk and talk and talk," Bettasso said, smiling. "So I don't always pick up the phone when she calls. That night, I woke up to the phone ringing and saw it was her... I don't know why I decided to pick up."

Amanda was panicked. The first thing she told Bettasso was that their mother and father were fine. But the house they'd grown up in was gone.

"She just couldn't articulate what had happened, and I don't blame her," Bettasso said. "I couldn't figure out what happened. At first I thought maybe there'd been a fire... but I turned on the television and I found out pretty quickly what it was."

An EF-5 tornado had struck his hometown. His parents had managed to get one call out, to Amanda, to let her know they were alive. Hannah, Bettasso's other little sister and a sophomore at Joplin High, was out of town at a track meet. Little brother Barney, they would learn later, had watched the tornado sweep across his parents' home from the other side of Joplin. Amanda lived in Arkansas.

Bettasso's mind raced... the friends he'd grown up with... the hometown college he'd played football for, Missouri Southern... dear God, he thought, did the town even exist anymore?

Bettasso drove east, into the night.

* * *

Like most lifelong Midwesterners, Bernard Bettasso heard the tornado sirens in Joplin and went to his front door to look outside.

What the longtime Joplin physician saw barreling towards his two-story house on Winfield Avenue took his breath away.

"The trees were moving in a way I'd never seen before and there was this big blog of gray-green about 100 yards away, moving towards us," Bernard said. "Just this wall of nothingness. You couldn't even see a tornado. Then I heard what sounded like a freight train."

Bernard headed to the basement with his wife, Jewell, and his sister, Nancy.

As the tornado ripped their house to pieces —"our house exploded," Bernard said — a toilet shot down the stairs and into the basement.

"Honey," Bernard deadpanned to his wife, "I guess we don't have to fix the upstairs shower anymore."

* * *

Missouri Southern linebackers coach Atiba Bradley and Joe met on the football team at Joplin High when they were sophomores. Two years later, the best friends decided to play together at Missouri Southern, where Joe started for three years at defensive back and Bradley was an All-MIAA linebacker.

Roommates through college, they became graduate assistants together when their playing days were over.

A lot of late nights, a lot of talking about dreams and the future and who was going to be a head coach first.

Their bond runs deep.

"What is the true story of Joe Bettasso? Is that what we want to know?" said Bradley, laughing. "The truth is he is a selfless man. He puts his players first. He puts other people first. And his coaching is a reflection of who he is."

The night of the tornado, once Joe was able to pick up radio signals out of Joplin, he discovered that authorities weren't allowing anyone without a Missouri driver's license to enter the city.

So he turned around and drove back to McPherson, slept several hours, then headed back to Joplin.

It wasn't until the next afternoon that Joe was able to get into Joplin and see his parents. By then, Bradley and a group of Joe's longtime friends of had already come to the Bettassos to check on Joe's parents and sift through the wreckage.

"We were so fortunate," Joe said. "My father had everything insured... we survived... our inconveniences are minor compared to the people who lost loved ones."

According to Bradley, when Joe hit Joplin, a plan quickly sprung into action.

Like his father, who began going to different triage centers around town within hours, Joe went to work.

"We were going through what was left of the Bettassos' house and then Joe shows up and all of a sudden, we're organized," Bradley said. "We had a big group of good-sized guys and he just started us with his neighborhood, going door-to-door and moving the bigger items and he led the charge, just making sure everybody was OK.

"That's Joe. Once he knew his family was safe, he went to work for his community."

* * *

The month after the tornado was hectic for Bettasso. Every time he was in McPherson, his mind was in Joplin. Every time he was in Joplin, his mind was in McPherson.

It wasn't until around the end of June that things started to return to normal. Bettasso's parents moved into a rental property and will rebuild their house in the same spot.

"We were in constant contact throughout that time, and (Joe) knew he had complete freedom to go back and forth, to take as much time as he needed," McPherson athletic director Doug Quint said. "What's amazing, is through all of that, he and his assistants managed to finish off the last bit of recruiting and we had the biggest group of players coming in in school history."

Picked second in the KCAC in the preseason, Bettasso has upped the ante with the Bulldogs' schedule, opening Sept. 3 at Missouri Valley and traveling to Los Angeles to take on NAIA power Azusa Pacific on Oct. 8.

His perspective, however, will forever be changed by what he witnessed in late May and early June.

"I think that in situations like this you are usually taught something, or reminded of something," Bettasso said. "I think I was reminded that the majority of stuff that I might complain about is not a real life crisis. My family is not facing a life crisis, they are alive and will be rebuilding soon. The people that cannot afford to rebuild are facing real hardships in life. The people that lost loved ones are going through real problems in life. The daily grind of a work day is not a hardship.

"I'll get off my soap box now... I'm just really proud to say I'm from Joplin."

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

  Comments