Amid the heartbreak and the debris and the tractors and the Army Corps of engineers picking through the soul of the war zone that is now Smithville, Miss., Reggie Kelly saw a Bengals shirt. He gave Jeremy Duke that big you're-good-and-so-is-life Reggie smile and asked, "Hey man, where'd you get that?"
"I've kept up with him ever since he left to go to Mississippi State," says Duke, 32, two years younger than the venerable Bengals tight end. "I actually went to see a Reds game last summer on vacation, but since Reggie was from around here, I bought a Bengals shirt. I'd never met him until today. He's awesome. For him to go out there and open up his arms like that, it was great."
While Kelly has been tweeting about Wednesday's trip to Smithville, the residents have been twittering about his visits to preschoolers at the GELI Promise School in the morning and then to high-schoolers at the Smithville High School football field that was leveled by an EF-5 tornado on April 27. After it roared through the northeast Monroe County hamlet of 800, 17 were dead and 13 of the town's 15 businesses were gone.
"I tell you what. Reggie's got a natural attraction to kids," says Smithville mayor Greg Kennedy. "The kids love him. The toddlers. I mean, he was high-fiving the three- and four-year-olds and the older kids were excited too. We've been trying to tell people that good things can come out of bad and that was exactly his message to the kids. He and his wife … you won't find two better people."
Kennedy, 50, figures they had about 30 seconds back in the late afternoon of April 27. The mayor and two clerks were the only ones in the town hall when they raced to the board room and wedged themselves under the big table.
"It was the strongest piece of furniture in the building and it was the only thing left," Kennedy says. "We crawled out of there. There were some people who were in cars out on the street that got thrown into the building that were injured, but we didn't have a scratch."
Scott Cantrell, the Monroe County School District Superintendent who lost seven buildings, says the power company lost 229 meters in 30 seconds.
"They were probably businesses and from our buildings, but it was mostly single-family homes," Cantrell says. "The devastation was everywhere."
Not that it mattered, but among the damage may have been another state softball championship for Duke's girls. Smithville had been to three of the last four state finals and won one of them. The regular season was over when the tornado hit, but they lasted only two rounds in the tournament.
"We had four girls lose their homes, but everybody kept playing," says Duke, who also teaches American history at the high school. "All they had was pretty much what they had on their backs. It was an emotional time for everyone."
Duke remembered when Kelly played at Aberdeen, about 30 miles down the road, and because he's a big Mississippi State fan he became even a bigger follower when Kelly moved to Starkville to play.
"I dropped my kids off at the preschool and went over to the high school to see him," Duke says. "He signed his football cards with (the biblical verse) 3:16 ad that really impressed me because I'm a Christian too. The preschool kids got two cards in a children's book and he gave the kids at the high school cards and $50. That's going to be a big help."
Smithville on this Wednesday in June was the perfect place for Sheila and Reggie Kelly. His spiritual calm and commitment to team play has been a bedrock of the Bengals locker room, where there have been a few tornados in his eight seasons.
"I believe somebody right here in this position is going to achieve greatness in their lifetime," Kelly told the high schoolers, according to The Daily Journal. "And I look forward to the day where I can sit here and say I was in the midst of all that."
Kelly had to make himself heard above the equipment clattering away to get the school and field in shape for August. But he was heard loud and clear. He told the media when he arrived that what he and Sheila were doing was "small," but they just wanted to help with some kind of inspiration.
Turns out, it wasn't all that small.
"A lot of people around here remember Reggie from when he played at Mississippi State," Cantrell says. "And the younger ones, any time they see a big guy from the NFL, they love that. I would expect you'll see some more Bengals jerseys showing up around town now. Everyone enjoyed it."
Like the lockout, Kelly's future with the Bengals is up in the air. What we do know is his charisma and good deeds, not to mention the maroon and white of Mississippi State have kept him a popular figure in these parts. Kennedy says one of Kelly's old high school teachers was among a group from Aberdeen that came over to see him. When he visited a trailer where volunteers were handing out groceries, one asked him to sign her Ole Miss shirt.
"He spent some time writing a long message on that one," Kennedy says. "He was signing a lot of Mississippi State stuff. Cowbells. Footballs. We're having a fundraiser next week with a silent auction and a golf tournament and that stuff is going to help. Reggie's donating some other things like his Bengals jersey and his cleats. They look like water skis they're so big."
And Duke got that photo standing with Kelly.
"It was an honor to have them here," Kennedy says. "It was a great day. He made people feel good."
Like the guy in the crowd with the Bengals shirt.
"I think," Duke says, "he really lifted the spirits of the kids."