Harvesting hope: How a farm community came together to help one of its own

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

The boy would have loved it out there last Saturday.

He would have been up before dawn, feeding the cattle, feeling the brisk wind as it reddened his cheeks. He would have relished walking across the soft Illinois dirt in his work boots as the sky turned yellowish pink. The other boys, his football teammates, would all be sleeping. Not Hayden Schaumburg. He didn't live for Friday nights the way he lived for Saturday mornings.

But Hayden wasn't out there last Saturday.

So the people came instead.

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Hayden Schaumburg (GoFundMe)
Hayden Schaumburg (GoFundMe)

Two weeks ago, Schaumburg charged down the field to block for his Watseka High teammates on a kick return. There was a fierce collision, and the 16-year-old junior collapsed onto the field.

"Went down in a heap and never moved again," says his head coach, Steve Lucas. "I've been around this game for 40 years. I knew it wasn't good."

Lucas ran onto the field and looked into his player's eyes. They were searching.

"Hey, Dad, are you there?" Hayden asked.

Clint Schaumburg arrived and bent over his son. "I'm here," he said.

"Dad," Hayden said, "I'm scared."

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Hayden Schaumburg is one of those rare kids who happens to be popular and successful and not the least bit pretentious about it. He's the "hardest working player on the team," says Lucas, and he's also on the track team, in the show choir and a member of the National Honor Society.

"If I had his heart in my other players' bodies," Lucas says, "we'd never lose a game."

Hayden's heart, though, is in farming. He's his school's chapter president of the Future Farmers of America, and at 16 he was already working the 2,000 acres of land owned by his dad in the county seat about 90 miles due south of Chicago. Hayden has learned to drive the combine and manage a small plot filled with sweet corn. He's shown cattle at the Iroquois County Fair.

"It's been embedded into him since birth," says family friend Shawn Peters. "It's truly what he enjoys. He knew when high school football was over, he'd be done playing. He accepted that."

Hayden wanted to go to agriculture school at the University of Illinois, and then come back home to help his dad.

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Hayden was laid out on the football field for 45 minutes that October night. His mom, Jolyn, stood watching with her hands covering her mouth. There was a plan to airlift him north to a Chicago-area hospital but it was too windy. So Hayden was taken by ambulance.

"It's stuff you're not prepared for," Peters says. "I was a little bit in shock. This is the stuff you see on TV. And being from Podunk, sometimes TV is not enough."

Hayden needed eight hours of surgery. He had broken his neck.

His coach drove up to visit him, not knowing what to expect. "As a coach," he says, "you think this only happens somewhere else." Lucas walked into Hayden's hospital room and saw a player he considered as a son, lying there sedated and helpless. Hayden wanted so badly to greet his coach, to show him some emotion. He shrugged his shoulders so emphatically that the nurse had to reset all the machines.

The coach began to cry.

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"Is there anything I can do?" is a question many of us ask when consoling someone who has been hit by tragedy. Most of the time, there isn't an answer to that, other than prayer. In this case, though, there was something. And it seemed so clear and obvious that nobody in town remembers who came up with the idea.

"It just kinda happened," Peters says. "This is what a farming community does."

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(Courtesy of @TheChadColby)
(Courtesy of @TheChadColby)

With the Schaumburgs still by their son's side at Loyola Medical Center, their farm back home sat waiting to be harvested. And so last Saturday, before dawn on the first day of November, more than 100 people arrived at the Schaumburg farm. Some came with tractors, some with auger carts, some with semis ready to load. Some brought lunch, some brought bright yellow safety vests, and some just came with their bare hands and their time.

At 6:30 am, the people of Watseka said a prayer for Hayden. Then they got to work.

Eight combines moved slowly through the crops of corn, tearing it out of the ground and removing the kernels. People and machines kept coming as the temperature climbed through the 50s. By late morning, there were 16 combines and 30 trucks ready to haul the harvest to the grain elevators in town.

"Very emotional," Peters says. "Very focused. The whole aura about the day was upbeat. It was positive. Everybody knew what it was about: helping your fellow man."

By mid-afternoon, more than 1,000 acres had been harvested. Weeks of work was done in a matter of hours. One combine driver lifted Hayden's 10-year-old brother, Evan, into the cab so he could take a short turn at the wheel. The people of Watseka marveled how the day before was windy and the day after was bleak and that Saturday was so perfect for farming.

"There was something much greater than us at work that day," Peters says.

In all, more than 125,000 bushels of corn left the farm in less than 10 hours.

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Every player on the Watseka Warriors wore Hayden Schaumburg's number on their helmet. (Courtesy of The Daily Journal)
Every player on the Watseka Warriors wore Hayden Schaumburg's number on their helmet. (Courtesy of The Daily Journal)

On the night he was hurt, Hayden's football team, the Warriors, ran out the clock. The opponents pulled their starters. There was thought of forfeiting the next game, but Hayden wouldn't want that, so the Warriors played.

Watseka High has University of Alabama-styled helmets, with the numbers on the right side, so the players decided to tear off their own numbers and stick on Hayden's – 66. They all played as No. 66 that night. They all played for No. 66.

The season has since ended, and yet support continues to pour in from all over the state. University of Illinois head coach Tim Beckman even called.

"I just got a poster and checks from Champaign," Lucas says. "They don't know us from the man on the moon. It's just amazing."

It will be a while before the Schaumburgs return to town. Hayden will have months of rehab, and the family has set up a website to raise money. There is promise, though. Hayden has more sensation in his arms and he had a full meal for the first time just this week. He is off his ventilator.

The family is not ready for an interview, but already one of Clint's comments has been passed throughout the community: "It's gonna be tragedy to triumph."

Nobody cares how long that triumph takes, as long as it happens. Hayden is a tough kid from a tough town, and in places like Watseka they have plenty of patience and plenty of hope.

"I just want to see him walk to the middle of the field with that 66 jersey on," Lucas says, "as my captain."

There is a football field, and a cornfield, and an entire town of fields, waiting for a Friday night or a Saturday morning when that boy comes home.

 

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