Switching schools. One’s last senior tackle. The prestige of clinching a fourth-straight Suburban Lakes League title. The looming imminence of a juggernaut of an Ottawa-Glandorf Titans’ squad stomping its way into Comet Stadium for the program’s third-consecutive home playoff game.
The disappointment of essentially being relegated to a back-up role on offense during one’s bittersweet swansong senior season for his new team, when he was a bona fide rising star and basically a “Mr. Do-It All” for his old.
It’s nonetheless hard for 11-0 Genoa’s soft-spoken, well-grounded power running back, and quietly-determined defensive end Chris Cuevas to sweat the proverbial “small stuff” these days.
In the early morning hours of June 6, 5-10, 210 pound Cuevas was force-fed a heaping spoonful of responsibility, crushing personal loss and sheer terror as a tornado that barreled through neighboring Lake Township and parts of Ottawa County, where it tore through the middle of his Reiman Road home while he was still inside.
Miraculously, it left him shaken and scared, but still standing. Almost exactly five months to the date, he realizes how lucky he is to still have the opportunity to even be talking about O.G., inside the friendly confines of a stadium that’s still standing, next to so many of his maroon-and-gray-clad family and friends who are alive and well.
“It’s like nothing you could ever imagine,” shudders the 18-year-old Cuevas, who since transferring to Genoa from a then-formidable, grassroots Woodmore Wildcats’ middle school program approximately four years ago has been fully-absorbed into the by-now legendary 44-4 (under Coach Mike Vicars) Comets’ football family.
Cuevas has won two varsity letters while rushing for a hard-fought 125 yards on 18 attempts for three touchdowns and a solid 6.7-yard average, and catching two passes for 34 yards and a touchdown during the 10-game regular season, for ‘09’s high-octane playoff Comets.
“We were coming back from Greg Hillabrand’s graduation party, and on the way home, I thought I heard sirens, so I rolled down the car window, and we heard sirens going off all over the place, which is when I thought to myself, ‘Man, this isn’t good,’” he said.
“So, yeah, from that point on, we hurried up, and made it back to my house on Reiman, and I told my sister and my friend to stay with me, because there was no way I was going to let them try to go back out into it, because the weather reports on TV were all talking about rotations, and how all of this really weird stuff was happening,” he said.
“You could see that it was getting pretty scary outside, which is when the power went off,” he adds. “There was just like this huge, huge, dark, scary cloud of chaos out there, and it was then and there that I had one of those moments where I said to myself, ‘Wow! This is really happening to us. We need to take cover somewhere, and we need to do it fast!’ And that’s when we ran into a closet in the middle of my house, because everything started to happen all around us really fast.
“And really, all we could hear was these really big, and heavy objects being flung all around the house, as they smashed into other objects, and really that’s the only way I can even describe it,” he said, adding that at one crucial point during the tumult, that he peeked out of the trio’s hiding place, only to witness a monstrous wall of wind and blackness roaring between his and one of his neighbor’s houses, after which he closed the door tight, and proceeded to huddle over top of his sister and friend.
“I mean, we could actually hear the house being torn apart, and the tornado itself . . . well, it sounded like everybody always says, like a passing freight train, when you’re literally standing outside your car right by the tracks, and it speeds by. And even though in reality we were only in that closet around 30 seconds, it seemed like hours, even days before the thing was finally over,” he said.
“Though for some reason, while we were inside, I knew I had to be strong for both them and myself, and I knew that we were personally going to be okay,” reflects Cuevas. “But I can tell you right now, nothing could ever prepare anyone for what I saw the moment I opened up that closet door, which is when I saw that my entire house had been destroyed.
“I mean, it was a two-story house, and we were on the ground level, and when I opened the door, it was dead-quiet out there,” he continues. “It was really, really eerie, because there were still all these flashes of lightening going on, and when the sky lit up, and we looked to the left of the house, and we looked to the right, we could see that everything was gone. There were pieces of glass, splintered furniture, and parts of our car and other houses laying all around – everything that I had known was gone, except for the little part of the house that we were in.”
Everything except for some good, old-fashioned intestinal fortitude, that is. He acted fast to get his two companions to the safety of a neighbor’s basement next door, after which he called for help in the first and only name he thought of at that defining moment, Comet teammate Andrew Hayes and his dad Mike.
Upon receiving his “adopted” son’s then-desperate cry out for help – after all, that’s how Mike, aka “Coach Flagpole” affectionately refers to Chris – Hayes would pile his entire family into the car, speed away from their Main Street home to help fellow Comet in need.
“As they were cutting across the yards, I saw Andrew first, and at the same time he saw me, and we just sort of dead-sprinted for one another,” Cuevas said. “And I’d been able to pretty much keep it all in, until I grabbed him, and that’s when all of it started to come out, and remember saying ‘It’s all gone, man! It’s all gone.’ But they were the first people there for me, to make sure me and my family were alright. And I’ll never forget that love.”
Mike, who also arrived on the scene right around the same time as Andrew, recollects this of the surreal night: “I remember grabbing him, and saying to him, ‘You’re here. There’s a reason for everything, and you’re still here.’ And you know what? It’s funny how things happen in life, because Chris and Andrew had become really good friends, and then the tornado happened, and it just further bonded us together like family. And I can promise you . . . that’s a bond that will never go away.”
“Football has just helped me heal, and it’s taken my mind off of what happened last summer,” said Cuevos, meditates Chris, who as of week nine versus Otsego, had torn a swath of destruction through the rest of the SLL like a mini-whirling dervish himself, digging up approximately 380 yards on the ground in 46 attempts for nine touchdowns (and an impressive 8.3-yard average), with a 104-yard outing against the Knights back on Oct. 22, during which he broke one off for 50 yards, for one of his two scores. “I’m not saying I needed to go back, and run a bunch of ‘bellys and ‘traps,’ but I needed my brothers. I needed the guys. And that’s been the highlight of my time spent at Genoa so far.
“I get to be a part of a family that’s had so much success,” he said.