After Monster Tornado, Kentucky Rebuilds Soccer Fields

For Luis Pardo, the American Dream is green. 

It’s not the color of money, mind you. It’s the color of a pristine lawn laid out for a soccer field. 

That dream remains after a killer tornado devastated his Kentucky town and ripped through his businesses.

Chili’s Dream: From Chile to Mayfield

About the turn of the century, Pardo, known to all in Mayfield, Kentucky, as “Chili,” left his native Chile to play college soccer at Mayfield’s now-defunct Mid-Continent University in the United States. He was a decent player, having trained with Hamburg FC when his family lived in Germany for a year. 

Once having moved to the U.S., he stuck around. Mayfield, with its population of about 10,000, became his home. He started a family. He became a force in the community as a businessman, starting an auto-repair shop, a restaurant and a used-car lot. 

But that dream of a perfect soccer field never left him, and for years he plotted ways to make it happen. About a year and a half ago, he took his life savings and built The Soccer Factory, mostly with his own hands. 

Soccer Complex and Community Center

The Soccer Factory, opened in October 2020, was a training facility and a field.and just about anything else needed for the engagement of all things soccer. 

The facility was an instant boon to the community, a place where kids, particularly those from underprivileged families, could hang out with Chili, who served as coach, teacher, leader and mentor. Adults flocked to the field, too, The Soccer Factory became something of a community center.

Ten minutes in December destroyed it all. The violent, long-tracked tornado that swept across Western Kentucky on Dec. 10 decimated much of Mayfield and left little more than exposed slabs of rock where The Soccer Factory had been. The auto-repair shop and the building that housed Chili’s Restaurant fared no better. 

Some of the grass and turf that had covered the soccer field was deposited blocks away.

Canceled soccer game saved lives

Gage Lynch and Luis “Fish” Ajanel were two of the players scheduled to play a game the night of Dec. 10. When they got the text from Chili that the game had been canceled, they were disappointed. So was Mayfield High soccer coach Luis Fabian, who was supposed to be there with his 3-year-old daughter. 

Later, Fabian somberly told ESPN, “I could have died.”

“I’m like, what if Chili hadn’t canceled?” Fabian went on. “A lot of stuff goes through your mind. I’ve been kissing my wife. I kiss my daughter. I’m really thankful. We are really blessed.”

Photo courtesy of The Soccer Factory

Years of Work Gone in 10 Minutes

Talking with WZTV from the closest big city, Nashville, Chili said, “You never think something is going to come in less than 10 minutes and take 15-20 years of work.”

He had put so much money into The Soccer Factory that there wasn’t $500,000 left to pay for insurance. Chili had been in negotiations for a less onerous insurance package when the monster tornado struck. 

Chili’s dream being what it was, three days later he went to The Soccer Factory to try to clean up. Dozens of his students and their families showed up, too, everybody doing their bit to clean away the debris. 

Then a little soccer magic struck. 

‘The Ball, it Looks Good’

Several hours into the cleanup process, one of The Soccer Factory’s soccer balls emerged from the rubble. It still had most of its air; it was still usable on the soccer pitch. 

“The ball, it looks good,” Chili said in recalling the moment with more than a little awe. “It’s still inflated. So, my little one, my 6-year-old, he’s like, `Throw me the ball.’ And I just threw it to him.”

With no further prompting, a soccer match broke out. It was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise bleak landscape.

After Tornado, Cleanup Begins

About 90 people died as a result of what is being called the Quad-State Tornado, which hit Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee, in addition to Kentucky. Many more were injured.

The headlines have moved on to other topics, but the cleanup and rebuilding goes on. And Mayfield and Chili have had help moving toward what will be a new normal.

Basketball, NFL Players Pitch In

Chris Vogt, a 7’ 2” center from the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, found out his family’s home in Mayfield was still standing, even though so much was ruined. He started a GoFundMe account to help everybody else in town. The hope was to raise $10,000. As of Feb. 4, more than $197,000 had been donated for the Mayfield community.

The basketball teams for Murray State, Kentucky and Louisville have all held fundraisers for the impacted communities. Beachwood High School, Mayfield’s longtime rival, has sent multiple trucks to Mayfield filled with donations. 

Former NFL players George Wilson and Bryan Hall, both played for Paducah-Tilghman High, which has been playing football games against Mayfield High for the last 110 years. They have put the rivalries aside in efforts to assist in the rebuilding. 

Their delivery of goods, including Christmas presents for Mayfield’s kids, were trucked in and unloaded by Wilson, Hall and about half a dozen of Paducah-Tilghman players. 

Baseball Memorabilia in the Rubble

Another Mayfield native, Major League umpire Hall “Tripp” Gibson, caught the first flight home to help in the cleanup. The family house and his father’s office were gone, although he came across some of his memorabilia. It was interspersed among occasional pieces of turf from the soccer field. 

“It took me a minute to realize which building was my dad’s office,” Tripp told ESPN. “I couldn’t find it for a little while. But then I started recognizing items in the rubble. A lot of baseball memorabilia from my years in the minor leagues and in the major leagues.”

But Tripp’s family, which had considerable real estate holdings in Mayfield, lost at least 20 buildings in the town.

Rebuilding Soccer Strong

As for The Soccer Factory itself, the need is for new turf, for soccer goals and balls, and for replacements for destroyed structures. Chili’s group has also started a GoFundMe account. As of Feb. 4, $205,000 of a $300,000 goal has come in. 

But Chili and his troupe aren’t waiting for that cash infusion. They are doing the heavy lifting, donning heavy gloves, removing shards of glass from the grass, picking out loose nails from the turf. Some five-dozen people have taken part in the restoration. 

It will be a while before there is new grass, a rebuilt field and training areas. 

Already, however, hope and even some version of joy is returning to Mayfield.

Main Photo Courtesy of The Soccer Factory

John Hickey

John Hickey

John Hickey, contributing writer at LawnStarter, has been around sports as a writer and blogger since the earth was young. He's worked at the Oakland Tribune and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for AOL/FanHouse and Sports Illustrated. As he writes this, he looks out his window and sees a lawn badly in need of mowing.