Burwell: Spagnuolo pitches in to help storm victims

2011-04-26T00:25:00Z 2011-04-26T14:04:53Z Burwell: Spagnuolo pitches in to help storm victimsBY BRYAN BURWELL | bburwell@ post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8185 stltoday.com

On Monday afternoon, as the storm clouds over Rams Park turned an angry gun-smoke gray, the conversations inside the building were similar to so many others in a community still trying to cope with the harsh devastation of Friday night's tornadoes.

Everyone has stories. When Steve Spagnuolo woke up on Saturday morning and realized the destruction that had ripped through his adopted city, he wanted to do something. The Rams coach is lucky. He and his wife Maria live in the heart of the city, miles from the twister's destructive path. "When you hear the storms are coming, the first thing you do is pray that you don't get hit," Spagnuolo said. "Then when you don't get hit, you thank God that you didn't, and you immediately think of those who did get hit."

When they turned on their television on Saturday morning, the Spagnuolos wanted to do something, they just didn't know what. The coach knew the drive to work would take him right past the communities hardest hit. Bridgeton and Lambert-St. Louis International Airport are only minutes from Rams Park and driving down Interstate 70 that morning, Spagnuolo called the team's security director Steve Miller and asked the former local cop if there was any chance he could drive into one of the communities and lend a hand, show a simple act of kindness or offer moral support.

"I knew I couldn't do much," Spagnuolo said, "but if I could just go over just to tell someone 'Hey hang in there,' I know it isn't much. But I wanted to do something."

Miller explained that the police were telling people to stay away. "He told me, 'Steve, they're not going to let you in there. The police are trying to keep people out of there.'"

So by the time Spagnuolo arrived at Rams Park morning, the frustration got worse. He wanted to make sure all the team's employees were safe and secure, but because of the lockout he could only check on the non-football personnel in the building.

The lockout's restrictions on no fraternization with the players meant that Spagnuolo had no official way of determining whether any of his players or their families had been touched by the storm. About the only thing he could do was check on their Twitter feeds. But that didn't stop the coach from finding a way to do something for his community. KTVI (Channel 2) and the Salvation Army held a telethon Saturday night to raise money for the victims of the storm, and by 9 p.m., Spagnuolo was down at the television station manning the phone banks and soliciting donations.

"The frustrating thing is that I know if our team was here and this was a normal offseason, they would all be right here (at Rams Park) and they'd be getting together to do something for the people who suffered in this storm," Spagnuolo said. "I know my guys and I know they would be doing something. I wouldn't be surprised if some of them are dong things on their own right now. But I know for sure if this were a normal offseason, we sure would be doing something together as a team. I just don't know what you can physically do right now, but if we had the team together, we would do something."

Maybe that time will come sooner than Spags thinks. On Monday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson lifted the NFL lockout. Perhaps if the legality of Nelson's ruling holds up on appeal, Spagnuolo's players will be back at Rams Park before the weekend and they can do something together as a team to help the storm's victims. In the meantime, Spagnuolo had to settle for working the phones for the telethon.

For more than an hour, Spagnuolo answered phones and talked with hundreds of people who wanted to lend a helping hand. Every time the phone rang, he picked it up and answered "Thank you for calling the Salvation Army. This is Steve Spagnuolo, would you like to make a donation?"

And every few calls, the solicitation went both ways.

"Yeah, as soon as a few people heard my name, I did get some draft advice," Spagnuolo laughed. "A few people just asked me who we were going to draft. A few others suggested who we should draft. And then there was this lady from Illinois."

When this call came in, the woman never mentioned football. But as Spagnuolo was wrapping up the transaction, checking to make sure that all her information was correct, he asked the woman a question.

"Is the name on the credit card the same as the person making the donation?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

"And what's the name?" Spagnuolo asked.

"Mikel Leshoure."

After spending the past few months immersing himself on every name available in the NFL draft, Spags recognized the name of the University of Illinois tailback.

"Hey, wait a minute," he laughed. "You must be an Illinois fan, huh?"

"For just a moment, she had me," Spagnuolo said laughing.

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Bryan Burwell

Bryan Burwell covers a wide spectrum of sports as a columnist for the Post-Dispatch.

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