STORM LAKE, Iowa | Todd and Tammy Thomas sat quietly -- for the most part -- in the back row of the west bleachers at J. Leslie Rollins Stadium in Storm Lake on Saturday.
They were happy to be in Iowa, watching in person -- for the first time -- as their son, Tariq Thomas, played football for the Buena Vista Beavers.
They counted their blessings more than the yardage their son, a freshman running back, gained in a dramatic 39-38 overtime victory over the Central College Flying Dutch.
The couple, after all, had just flown in from Fort Myers, Florida, where they experienced a brush with Hurricane Irma.
"I'm just happy to get a hot shower here," Tammy Thomas sighed. "We've been without power at home for six days."
Yes, sometimes that fan sitting next to you at a game is there for an escape, a break from reality for a couple of hours.
That helps explain the weekend getaway for the Thomases, who joined 6 million fellow Floridians in evacuating their home just over a week ago as Irma, with her 140-mile per hour winds and ensuing storm surge, zeroed in on the "Sunshine State."
"We were very lucky, very lucky," Todd Thomas said during halftime. "The eye of the storm was three miles east of us. By the grace of God, the only damage we had was a couple of shingles. We know people who had it a lot worse."
Low-lying areas in and around Fort Myers, he said, took on much of the storm surge. Still, the damage around their neighborhood was a fraction of what folks in Texas sustained in Hurricane Harvey.
"We were told to evacuate the day before the storm hit," Todd Thomas said, referring to Sept. 9. "We went a few miles inland to higher ground at Lehigh Acres to wait it out."
Tariq, meantime, kept tabs on his family from the shores of Storm Lake, where he's in his first month of classes as a BVU freshman. Tariq Thomas enjoyed a fun collegiate football debut on Aug. 31 when he rushed for 87 yards in a 31-27 victory over Mayville State.
His parents couldn't get to the season-opener, as 1,624 miles is a long way to go for a college football game. A few months earlier, Todd and Tammy penciled in the game against Central as their chance to see him play.
Just so happened that their flight north came as Florida dug out or shook out the effects of Irma's unwelcome visit.
"This was Hall of Fame weekend at Buena Vista, so we planned to come see it," Todd said. "We were very impressed with our visit here, and Tariq loves the place."
I wondered how a running back from Fort Myers finds his way to Storm Lake. Turns out, Thomas isn't the only one. There are five players from Fort Myers, as well as gridders from Arizona, Alaska, Texas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Nevada, California, Hawaii, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa, and one from the United Kingdom.
Tariq, according to his parents, was set to follow an uncle's footsteps at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. That dream disipated with an SAT score that wasn't quite high enough, and a torn labrum that wasn't quite healthy enough.
"He couldn't get into West Point, so we started looking," Todd Thomas said. "And this is about education, not football. Football isn't a life decision; your education is."
Coach Grant Mollring, hired last December as football coach at Buena Vista, made a recruiting trip to the Fort Myers area and talked up the small Iowa Conference school in Storm Lake. According to the couple, Mollring's presentation mirrored the experience Fort Myers prep Lavaris Preston had in his freshman year at BVU one year ago.
Travel is nothing new to Tariq, who was visited Korea and Japan with his parents. Todd Thomas, who worked for years at Sony, has visited 63 countries. And, being a part of diversified student body, they reasoned, was a big bonus. Being that far from home would allow Tariq the chance to become more independent.
Still, his parents pulled and strained with his every step on Saturday, as he peeked and poked, prying and trying for extra yards against the Central defense. Tammy, a workforce management coordinator, rose and put her arms in the air as their son scored. Todd, a middle school teacher, kept the video camera running.
"I need a couple more touchdowns and then maybe I can calm down," Tammy said.
The team didn't give her much a chance to sit throughout the second half as BV and Central traded late scores that sent the game into overtime. Buena Vista clinched the contest when Tariq handed the ball to senior T.J. Lint who burst across the goal line for the winning 2-point conversion.
"What a game!" Todd Thomas exclaimed as he hugged his son following the contest.
Tariq shook his head and said he was thankful his parents could get there to see it all. "Incredible," he said, likely exhausted and in a state of wonder.
I walked away as they continued to hug and hash over what just happened; how their afternoon of "relaxation" in the wake of a hurricane unfolded in a heart-stopper of a game on the shores of a body of water named Storm Lake, of all things.