FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry couldn’t believe the damage.
The sophomore said it’s one thing to see pictures and video clips of the tornado ravaged communities of Mayflower and Vilonia. It’s another to be staring directly at the destruction, which isn’t far from his hometown of Little Rock.
“It’s part of my community and part of just who I was and where I come from,” Henry said in a phone interview last Friday. “It’s just hard to see pain and suffering in this community and in Central Arkansas. It’s just a hard time to go through.”
Henry, along with group of Arkansas athletes from numerous sports, wanted to do their part in the recovery effort in Central Arkansas on Friday. After completing final exams, a group of approximately 30 Arkansas athletes traveled to the communities affected by the tornado that carved a path through the state on April 27.
The contingent included six football players: Henry, punter Sam Irwin-Hill, linebacker Brooks Ellis, quarterback Austin Allen, safety Alex Brignoni and wide receiver Drew Morgan. The Arkansas athletes boarded a bus in Fayetteville early Friday morning and spent the day lending a hand with whatever was needed.
“As Razorback athletes, the state rallies around us a lot,” said Henry, who already was in Central Arkansas and met his teammates for the volunteer work. “They rally around us during our season. So we’re just trying to give back to our community, to rally around our community and give back to them and just become one state.”
A portion of the day was spent in a distribution center, sorting through and handing out supplies. But Irwin-Hill said the group also took a trip to survey some of the damage, getting a chance to offer some encouragement to tornado survivors.
Irwin-Hill described the damage as a “surreal sort of feeling.” But he also credited the families for their determination to work through the devastation.
“You just feel really, really bad for the victims who were involved,” Irwin-Hill said. “It was very devastating seeing it. … But the people are really, really great. They have great spirit. It’s just good to see that.”
The support from Arkansas athletes capped a week that began with a benefit baseball game between Mayflower and Vilonia in Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock.
Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema and basketball coach Mike Anderson participated in the event, which drew more than 8,000 fans and reportedly raised $130,000 for tornado victims. Bielema said he was blown away by the response.
“It was absolutely awesome,” Bielema said Wednesday. “I think all the things we believe about Arkansas were represented right there in that one ballpark.”
Henry believed the same spirit was evident in Friday’s work in the area. He and Hill both said they felt fortunate to be able to lend a hand in the recovery efforts.
“It’s amazing,” Henry said. “Just putting a smile on peoples faces and giving them joy and giving them something to smile about just through this hard time in their life, there’s no greater feeling than that.”