A Most Unlikely Liverpool FC Story
If I were to tell you there is a man in Alabama in the United States who has based his humanitarian work on a popular song sung by supporters of a football club in England (that’s soccer for my American friends), and who has never once visited the U.K.- let alone the city that made it famous- you’d probably shake your head and ask why.
This story is for the Reds in Liverpool who put their hearts and souls into a team and city, and a mindset that has taken root around the world and in my head and my heart. This story is for the supporters around the globe who share that same love and understanding. It is a story that shows sports can transcend the game itself and become something altogether different.
This is my story. YNWA.
My tale is a long and winding one, but my journey in life is based on my very simple belief that we are in this together and we should take care of each other. In 2005 I watched a replay of the Champion’s League final and heard “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung by the crowd at Atatürk Olympic Stadium, and it struck me to my core. What a wonderful sentiment. I still get goosebumps thinking of the booming anthem echoing over the pitch and the legends made that day.
After years of cleaning up after tornadoes and helping folks rebuild after disasters in Alabama I met my greatest personal challenge in August of 2005, just a few months after the famous Champions League final. But it was a challenge that set me on my path to never ever let anyone walk alone if I could help it.
The Forgotten Town of Hurricane Katrina
On August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina roared ashore on the coast 5 hours southeast of my home in Alabama. It devastated the coastline of Mississippi, and flooded the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana. Over 1,800 died, and the true number who perished may never be known. I was a newlywed at the time and I dragged my poor wife down to the coast more times than I can count from 2005–2007. I discovered a little town known as Pearlington, Mississippi and, while it was ground zero for the greatest destruction from the hurricane, it was so isolated from the rest of the coast that it became known as “The Forgotten Town of Katrina” as the recovery went on. Nearly a year on in 2006 and some were still in tents or living in homes sheltered from the elements by blue tarps.
Of all the families I worked with I will never ever forget George and Margaret Ladner. It broke my heart to see so many folks left behind and forgotten about, but there was something particularly heartbreaking about this elderly couple who were known as the helpers in the little town who couldn’t help anyone after the storm. They lost everything when their home of 50 years was washed away in the 30 foot surge of water from the Gulf of Mexico that pushed the Pearl River over its banks and throughout the town.
We managed to get George and Margaret’s home rebuilt by 2007 but we were struggling in the days before widespread social media usage to get much attention on the little town. In January of 2007 my worst fear came true. We lost a resident of Pearlington to suicide. He was disabled and struggled to help his family. With the lack of support, and not being able to care for his family, he gave in to the depression that never seemed to lift for some in that corner of Mississippi post-Katrina. I was done. In a world where people suffer daily, it broke me to see the result of being forgotten, or at least feeling as if the world has forgotten you. I said I’d never do anything like that again.
And, of course, life never allows you to say never and mean it.
A Storm Outbreak for the Ages
From April 25th to April 28th, 2011 the United States was hit with a once in a generation tornado outbreak. In my home state of Alabama on April 27th we had 62 tornadoes in one day alone. There were at least 1998 injuries reported and 238 people lost their lives within 12 hours.
Knowing how rural some of these storms were — and that they were some of the most violent ever recorded — I knew I had to do something. I could not bear the thought of what I knew would occur if people were forgotten about. I knew what would happen. On top of that, my home region in Alabama was hit with 29 tornadoes alone. My parent’s hometown of Cordova, Alabama was nearly destroyed after being hit by two tornadoes, one in the morning and one in the evening. Many of my family members lost their homes. It was an unprecedented event and I knew it would take an unprecedented response.
So I set out to do something that was akin to bringing Liverpool and Manchester United fans together in a relief and recovery effort.
In my state there are no professional teams. As a result the two largest Universities are the biggest sports programs here, and the most popular sport is college football (oblong handegg as John Cleese called it one time I believe). The rivalry between Auburn University and the University of Alabama is one of the fiercest in the United States. My school is Auburn University, and we gather to celebrate wins in town at Toomer’s Corner. Hence the name for the group.
On that day in 2011 The University of Alabama had a tornado go right through the middle of their city. Sadly 41 people died. At that point the rivalry was second to everything.
I used the connection our schools had to build a network throughout the southeastern United States to respond to the disaster, and the people came together in a way I could never have imagined. Even with thousands displaced, and whole towns destroyed, no one was left to walk alone. From April of that year to September I drove my car 16,000 miles (25,750 km) across four states in my home region to network the people working in each area, and set up a supply chain to share resources. From farmers to teachers to school lunch room ladies to nurses, and every profession in between, people stepped up and worked so brilliantly to help their communities and to support other areas of the state.
I told countless people throughout the effort, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Not one person had any idea of the reference but they certainly appreciated the sentiment. And it felt so good to know that, unlike my previous experience, it wouldn’t happen in this disaster recovery effort. No one would be left behind.
Liverpool Around the World
With my experience in hand, and hope in my heart, I set out to work far from my small town in Alabama in 2016. I applied to be chosen for a year long volunteer program in Ghana, specifically an isolated area in the northern region where witchcraft allegations and banishments still plague the area. The appeal was that this wasn’t an organization where white people parachute in and tell locals how to live. It had a simple mission and that was to support the Ghanaian organizations on the ground who had been doing the hard work for many years, and to follow their lead. It was certainly an education in a post-colonial nation and all the complexities that entails, but it was more so an education in a culture that is still in touch with something a lot of nations have lost, the idea of the greater good.
And my goodness did I meet some of the most ardent LFC supporters in the world! Miles from the chain restaurants, Apple Stores, and movie theaters on the coast, out on the dusty savanna 18 hours away by bus in the middle of nowhere, I met a man who ran a small radio station. When I wasn’t working in the villages in our efforts to get the women back to their homes — many who were elderly and had been banished for decades — I was on the air talking football with my fellow supporters and sharing some top notch banter with supporters of other clubs. Since I wore LFC shirts most of the time, including my prize Gerrard shirt, most of the locals who didn’t know my name just started calling me “Liverpool”. As I rode my motorcycle through the little towns and villages I’d hear “Livahhhpoooool” from folks gathered at market or selling wares on the street. No one could tell you who Tom Brady was but they could tell vivid stories and memories of Rush and Dalglish.
Not a one of us there had ever visited the city in northwest England but we shared a bond for a club we had only seen on television and heard on the radio. And I’m sorry UK television broadcasters but the pirated feeds in the dark and dusty backstreet buildings where we gathered were some of the best I had seen!
In a year where I didn’t see my wife Jennifer or my 8 year old son Connor, and doing work in the most desperate of situations where people were on the edge of survival daily, my Liverpool fandom helped me connect even more with locals. We spoke different languages but everyone spoke football. We laughed together, we cried together, and we cheered on the mighty Redmen together.
By the end of the year our partner group in Ghana, Songtaba, had managed to get 14 women returned to their home villages and their families with our support. I am grateful for my time with them and the lessons we all learned together.
Life in a Pandemic
Upon my return home I helped start a non-profit dedicated to mutual aid and built upon the ideals of the words we sing to our favorite club. Initially it was started to help isolated communities in Alabama plan for disasters and respond to them. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, a different kind of disaster, and we made a pivot.
In between my time in Ghana in and the pandemic, I had worked in response to Hurricane Michael on the gulf coast in 2018, and a tornado in 2019 that had hit in Beauregard, Alabama just miles from my home . Even in the isolated area it killed 23. As with all disasters I end up with folks who become like family to me. One of them in particular is David Kelley, a man who lost 10 of his neighbors but who somehow survived the storm. He has a chronic lung disease and, in the early days of the pandemic, he couldn’t get masks with all of the shortages.
I wasn’t going to let that happen. I found a woman in my town who sewed reusable cloth masks and set out to get 4 made for him. I’ll be the first to admit we had no idea how the masks worked or if they gave any protection at all. We now know that they protect us from spreading the virus. At the time I just wanted to make sure my friend was taken care of in any way that I could. I noticed the interest was high and decided to reactivate our network we built in 2011 to respond to the tornado outbreak.
As of today we have made and distributed 125,000 reusable cloth masks and we have distributed enough material to make over 250,000. Some of our hardest hit areas in Alabama were the meat packing plants. Our volunteers in those areas got 10,000 masks into those plants. At the height of the effort we supplied masks to organizations and individuals in 8 states, fully outfitted three Alabama hospitals with supplemental PPE, and also supplied all eight Covid-19 wards at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston with sewn surgical caps.
And it all started with refusing to let a friend walk alone.
On August 29th, 2020 my family and I returned to Pearlington, Mississippi for the 15th Anniversary of the storm. We had returned throughout the years but this time I had a gift for the little town who helped set me on this journey. It was handmade by a friend to commemorate the day.
It was a beautiful sunny day. Many of the wonderful people I had worked with from 2005–2007 were there. Instead of tears of sadness there were tears of happiness and joy. With the pandemic we weren’t able to hug each other the way we so wanted to, but we updated each other on our lives and reminisced about the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina. In the years since 2005 George and Margaret Ladner had passed away, but their daughter was there to share in the moment. I know George and Margaret lived out their remaining years in comfort and without worry, and that’s all I ever wanted when I showed up in Pearlington.
I wrote this as a Liverpool FC story because, while it may be my story, I believe You’ll Never Walk Alone is more than a song, and the city of Liverpool, the supporters all around the world, and the club gave that gift to me. I come from a working class mining town that is filled with so many folks like those I’ve come to know from Liverpool. I will visit Anfield one day and I will think of how far I’ve come and I will think of my home. I will sing You’ll Never Walk Alone at the top of my lungs. I will sing it and think of all of the people I’ve met on this journey who were in need, and for those who stepped up to ensure they were cared for and made it to the end of the storm.
I will sing it with gratitude for what it now means to me.
Big thanks to LFC Atlanta and the first group of supporters I got to know, and for the lifelong friends I now have from that group. Thank you for starting it, Stuart! Thanks to the lads at LFC Birmingham for always being so welcoming and bringing me into your group. A big YNWA to my buddy Paul Benson who has promised me a match at Anfield one day if I can get there. Let me get through this pandemic my friend. I’ll figure it out eventually! And a big virtual hug to all of my fellow supporters. You can find me on twitter at @warrentidwell and if you want you can support my nonprofit, Hometown Organizing Project, at http://www.hometownorganizing.org/donate