Faced with an emergency, a lot of us run away.
But some of us run towards.
That's what LaMichael Howell did this week when a tornado tore up his college campus.
Howell, a three-year captain of the Shaw University football team in Raleigh, N.C., was planning dinner with friends in his off-campus apartment Monday afternoon when the power went out. Moments later, the lights came back on and the news came in: a tornado had blown through the area and done catastrophic damage.
Howell decided to drive to campus to see for himself. And he'll never forget what he encountered.
"The student union was a wreck," says the 23-year-old senior. "Power lines were down. I couldn't see. Every turn you made, you had to turn back around. Trees everywhere. Dumpsters turned upside down."
No one at the school was seriously hurt, but several dormitories were left uninhabitable. Many of the 2,300 students enrolled in the school, which is the oldest historically Black university in the South, had no place to sleep. Even the field goal post on the practice field was twisted into a pretzel, with the crossbar bent 90 degrees into a vertical position. Classes were eventually canceled for the rest of the semester.
"It hurts," Howell says. "I've been there for four years. It really did something to me."
What it did to him was turn him into an action hero. Howell went from dorm to dorm, picking up friends and strangers alike and ferrying them to his tiny apartment. Back and forth he went in his gray Crown Victoria, asking who needed help.
"Hey!" he yelled from his window, through the wind and wet, "you need a place to stay?"
Howell piled students into his car and navigated the dangerous streets back to his place.
"I spent three years with these people," he says. "I gotta look out for them. I told them, 'I won't leave you out to dry.' "
By the time it got dark and impossible to drive, Howell had 12 people at his place -- several of which he had never met before.
He hosted them for two days, until they could figure out a way to get home. Howell shared his bed, sleeping head-to-toe with a teammate. He gave up his pillow and an extra mattress, which he put on the floor. He started a loop of his favorite movies. And when everyone woke up the next day, he cooked bacon, eggs and biscuits for 13.
And Howell isn't some third-stringer. He's a regular BMOC at the Division II school, starting all four years at cornerback and leading the Bears to three conference titles. In 2010, during an undefeated 7-0 conference run, Howell had 35 tackles, 18 assists, an interception and nine pass breakups.
But he will likely be best remembered for something he did after his final game. Wednesday night, he helped the last of his guests move out of his apartment and got ready to head back to his hometown of Mobile, Ala. He'll be back one more time as a student, on May 7, when he graduates.
"To end my senior year this way is bad," Howell says. "Shaw means everything to me. It's my school. It's me. I'm a part of the university."
To help, make your tax deductible check payable to Shaw University Disaster Relief Fund, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, 13 E. Hargett Street, Raleigh, NC 27601.
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