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June 13, 2013
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As Brian 'Jake' McCrae laid in a hospital bed recovering from back surgery, he could not take his eyes off the television.
It was May 20 and McCrae watched as an EF5 tornado ripped through the heart of Moore, Okla. -- and reopened the memories of Hurricane Charley for McCrae.
"I was (lying) there feeling sorry for myself, and as I watched this, I kept thinking back to Charley (in 2004) and all the struggles we went through at Bartow (High School)," McCrae said. "For us, it was about getting back on that football field. Getting the kids together and finding out who needed what."
McCrae, the head football coach at Jacksonville (Fla.) Bishop Snyder, didn't just lie there any longer. He got on the phone and started making calls. He reached out to his coaches, to his friends -- asking what they had.
"I remember watching friends from Fort Meade and Lake Wales who lost everything," McCrae said. "They lost their equipment, their football fields. They had nothing."
McCrae called a few coaches in Oklahoma to find out what they needed.
Thus was born 'Sooner Equipped' -- a drive to fill a 53-foot semi-trailer with football gear to send to Oklahoma schools.
"We'll fill this one and then we'll ship it," McCrae said. "Then we'll fill another one. Florida knows what it's like."
Yes, Florida is overly familiar with the devastation that Mother Nature can bring to schools. Programs such as Pensacola Pine Forest, Navarre, Miami Southridge, Punta Gorda Charlotte and many more have felt the wrath of a natural disaster.
"I saw this football field with the field house down, debris everywhere, and it took me back to the time with (Hurricane) Charley," McCrae said. "Friday nights were so emotional for those who lost everything. They (Friday nights) were so healing for everyone. To be able to get away from the misery of everything to come out and root for their team for three hours.
"We want to make sure that those kids have Friday nights in Oklahoma," McCrae said. "It's a time they can get away from everything else.
"I just made a few phone calls, talking to coaches to see what we could do. And before you know it -- it takes off like lightning."
McCrae had no idea how successful the effort would be until his phone started ringing.
"Now I have a 53-foot trailer sitting at our school, and a shipping company committed to taking the supplies out to Oklahoma," he said. "We want to fill the truck and ship it -- then fill another one."
Normalcy is important for the kids who have lost everything. McCrae remembers making phone calls to his players to "see who needed anything" after the devastation of the hurricanes that crisscrossed Florida in 2004.
"I remember sitting on the back porch calling all of my coaches and players trying to see who needed anything," McCrae said. "There were a couple that we couldn't get a hold of and they didn't show up for a couple of days. We found out they'd lost everything."
McCrae watched as the eyewall of Hurricane Charley passed over his house in Bartow. That was in mid-August as football season was about to begin. Then came Frances and Jeanne, two more hurricanes that wreaked havoc on the state of Florida again.
"And don't forget Ivan," McCrae said. "Those people in the panhandle know this feeling all too well. You're a football coach, you're a shepherd -- and you don't have sheep -- you have kids."
The reality of what happened in Moore, Okla., sunk in with McCrae after talking to a coach at Southmoore, who told him that 18 of his players lost their house -- "lost everything."
"That hit me hard," McCrae said. "That's almost 65 percent of my entire roster. This is such a small thing that I'm doing, but it's so worth what I'm doing.
"We need to take care of this. As coaches, we need to help these schools and kids get back on the field.
"This is such a small thing for us, but for these kids -- it's everything"
Determining what to get and who to get it to -- therein lies the biggest challenge.
"There are so many schools that have yellow tape around their buildings," McCrae said. "They can't even get into the school to see what they're missing."
The effort was started locally, but has mushroomed into a national mission -- with a reach that will impact the lives of kids, coaches and parents everywhere.
"We aren't just doing this for high schools," McCrae said. "We're doing this for little leagues that have lost their fields. We're doing it for football leagues that have lost their gear. We want to find out what they need and see if we can provide them with the supplies they need to get back to normal.
"The most important thing I tell my kids is this: you have a choice. When something confronts you, you have a choice to do something or do nothing," McCrae said. "I turned that around as I was laying there in the hospital bed feeling sorry for myself. I want to do something -- not nothing."
Bob Vetzel of Hills Van Service -- a national van line -- has donated the trailer and will pay to get it to Oklahoma.
"He heard what we're doing and he wanted to do this," McCrae said. "His wife teaches at the school and he doesn't care if it costs him money -- it's all about the kids."
To make a donation or find a need, email McCrae at email@example.com or you can ship sporting equipment and supplies care of Bishop Snyder High School -- attention Sooner Equipped -- to 5001 Samaritan Way, Jacksonville, Fla., 32210