STORM LAKE, Iowa -- Josh Werge carries an ID card from six years ago, his freshman year at East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. It's a conversation piece.
"That's the East High of 'High School Musical,'" he says of the 2006 Disney hit. "They filmed 'High School Musical' at my first high school, East High in Salt Lake City."
Werge, 18, went to school there for part of his freshman year. His mother, Martha Tongo, moved the family east to Storm Lake, Iowa, in March of that year and Josh finished the year at Storm Lake High School, a place he'd change for the better before graduating in 2017.
Werge starred at running back and linebacker on a Tornadoes football team that claimed a district title, the school's first, his senior year. He lettered in basketball three seasons and played soccer three years. The teams he was on qualified for state tournaments in football and soccer.
After spending his freshman year in college on the football team at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, Werge returned to Storm Lake, where he's a sophomore running back studying physical therapy at Buena Vista University.
"Welcome home, Josh Werge!" screamed public address announcer Mike Frantz as Werge toted the pigskin for the first time as a Beaver in the team's season-opening 39-27 victory on Aug. 30 at J. Leslie Rollins Stadium. Werge would later add a touchdown run.
Werge jumped into his teammates to celebrate, then nodded toward Storm Lakers Todd and Barb Lange, two of his most ardent supporters, as they cheered with other Beaver fans.
"Josh's mom couldn't be there as she moved to Des Moines over the summer," says Barb, a former track All-American at BVU and now a principal at Storm Lake Elementary School. "But Todd and I were there and Rudy Wieck (Storm Lake High School football coach) snapped a picture as Josh was pointing at us after the touchdown."
"I enjoyed my time last year at Northwestern and I really liked the football coaches and being part of the team," Josh says. "But I have more of a support network in Storm Lake. I'm glad to be back here."
Werge recalled coming to Storm Lake as a freshman and meeting the Langes' son, Parker Lange, on his first day in the Buena Vista County seat. The classmates shot baskets together and formed a friendship that continues. Parker, a freshman basketball player at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa, plans to see Josh when the Beavers, who are 1-1 on the season, visit Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, for a conference football opener on Saturday.
"Josh just melts our hearts when he walks into the house," Barb Lange says. "His mother has worked so hard for him and the family and she is thrilled he is going to college."
Martha was pregnant with Josh when she and Paul Werge were forced to leave their homeland by the northern government of Sudan in 1999, fleeing a region beset by civil war for years. "They were looking for a better life for our family," Josh says.
The family settled in Salt Lake City as Paul worked and learned English. Martha, who speaks her native Mabaan language, stayed home with their children, who would grow in number from two to five. The family spent one summer in Storm Lake nearly a decade ago. They also resided in Houston, Texas, from 2004 to 2008, and Josh remembers a 2-month stretch in which the family joined two other families in a large home.
"There were 16 or 17 of us living in the house in Houston," he says, noting the group also included his cousin, Lamar Mulgae, a fellow Storm Lake High School graduate and a freshman on the current Morningside College football team. "All of the boys were in one bedroom, there were eight boys at the time."
Josh doesn't complain about cramped living conditions, or the fact his family relocated several times during his childhood. He speaks with reverence about his parents, his older sister, and the teachers, counselors and coaches who helped see him through. When asked about a tale involving his routine each high school morning, Werge discloses that he and his mother shared a vehicle for parts of his junior and senior years.
"We only had one car," he says. "I would take Mom to work at the kill floor at Tyson at 5:10 in the morning. I'd come home and help get my younger brothers ready for school. I'd take them to the bus stop a couple of blocks away and then my other younger brother and I would go to high school."
His mother's move to Des Moines represented a step up in her labor career, Josh says, and allows the family a tad more freedom. Josh added a contribution by working in maintenance at Tyson over the summer, using a small portion of his income to make purchases late this summer for his younger brothers.
"I was working 50 hours per week sometimes and 40 hours per week other times this summer," he says. "Tyson pays really good and it made me feel good to buy things for my brothers instead of always asking Mom. She couldn't get everything for us."
His mother, he adds, stressed to him that obtaining an education was a top priority, his way of climbing the socioeconomic ladder. If football played a role, that was fine. But, football was not to be the end-all, be-all. The Langes agreed with Martha and helped her son navigate the financial aid, transfer and enrollment processes.
"We told him, 'You're on the 40-year plan, not the 4-year plan," Barb Lange says. "We know Josh loves football, but it's his education and his career that will last a lot longer."
Josh Werge agrees. He's excited to have both football and academics working in sync on the shores of Storm Lake. As the interview ends, he prepares for anatomy class, one of five courses he's taking this semester. Once the class ends, he'll get to his homework, tackling an assignment while occupying an odd study nook; the kind of scene that could have worked in "High School Musical."
"I do my homework in Coach (Joe) McLain's office," the Beaver running back says with a smile. "I can focus in there."