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GALLERY: Hendrix Park's 'Welcome back'
Hendrix Park welcomed back players, coaches, fans and parents Saturday, April 22, a little over a year after the park, an institution in North Bryan life, was destroyed by an EF4 tornado. - photo by Jeff Whitten

Bryan County District 1 Commissioner Noah Covington threw out the ceremonial first pitch Saturday morning at Hendrix Park, about a week after a planned Bryan County Recreation Department “Welcome Back” ceremony to mark the return of spring sports was rained out.

For Covington, and others, the event was yet another benchmark since the April 5, 2022 EF4 tornado tore through North Bryan, killing one person and injuring at least a dozen more while destroying public and private property and nearly obliterating the park.

“It’s been a very long year,” said Covington, who called the damage wrought by the storm breathtaking. “The first three four months we were just recovering, making sure people were safe, dealing with county issues and insurance. Then you can begin to focus on the amenities.”

There’s been no shortage of focus on the park, according to county officials. And though there’s still work to be done, Covington said it will be.

“The park will be restored 100 percent,” he said. “The county staff has worked hard, the insurance company has been really good to work with, it’s important that the park be restored to what it was.”

In all, the county’s damage amounted to a claim with the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia of more than $17 million - -reportedly the largest claim in the ACCG’s history. While the damage was extensive, it apparently wasn’t enough to qualify the county or cities for FEMA aid. That’s slowed some recovery efforts, but so has supply chain issues.

That includes a new gym to replace the old one left a twisted mess by the tornado, and it should be complete by early 2024, Covington said.

“It’s important that we get it back to 100 percent of what it was for people to enjoy it,” he added. “It’s important for the community.”

Hendrix Park was once a place where the Army landed helicopters. The property was later converted to the park – initially with two fields, one for football, the other for baseball and softball. Covington recalled playing on it as a kid around 1979, 1980.

“I grew up out here, I met my wife (Kim) out here, my kids grew up out here, and now my grandkids are growing up here,” Covington said. “I saw my dad (Fred Covington) put in time here working as a volunteer. He taught me to be a volunteer, to volunteer my time and give back out here, so it’s a very special place to me and to a lot of people.”

Covington passed on a passion for Hendrix Park to Winston Johnson, who was coaching a T-Ball team on Saturday. Johnson played for Covington as a kid.

“Man, I can’t even count how many days I spent out here,” Johnson said. “I was probably out here Monday through Saturday as a kid all year round, and now as a coach it’s the same thing. I’ve been out here coaching for seven years and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

A member of two Hendrix Park 12U football teams that won district championships, Johnson volunteers as a coach for football, basketball, baseball and conducts speed and agility training. “Whatever I can do for these kids,” he said.

He was at home in Ellabell when the tornado hit, but he was spared.

“I remember being shocked, scared, worried about the family, worried about the community,” he said. “This park is a big part of our community. It does a lot for our youth and it gives us a place and time to come out and get some exercise. It brings people together, gives us a place to watch our kids play.”

Johnson said he has four children playing recreation sports now, and tries to pass on his experiences to them.

“My experiences here were probably some of the best times of my life, and I still have friends to this day,” he said.

There seemed to be a good deal of enjoyment at Saturday’s event, as more than 200 spring sport participants in baseball, softball and T-Ball took turns running the bases as their names were called out over the loudspeaker. Then, the first set of games began on four fields while lines formed at the concession stands.

Elizabeth Waters, a softball player on the Icebreakers said she was at her grandmother’s house in Pembroke when the tornado hit.

“It was scary,” she said, adding that the devastation left her crying. She called the work done to re-open the park “amazing.”

“I think they’ve done a pretty good job,” Waters said.

Ellis Floyd was more focused on his first trip onto the field as a member of a T-Ball team.

“I think T-Ball has probably been my favorite sport of all time since I played it,” he said. “It’s the only one I’ve ever played.”

Asked what position he plays, Floyd had a ready answer.

“I play T-Ball,” he said. For Johnson, it’s about the time families get to spend together.

“You don’t get this time back,” he said. “This time is more precious than you know or they know.”

Photographs by Jeff Whitten. 

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