A HELPING HAND

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Flathead senior Daniel Long stands in his home that was destroyed by fire. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

The crowded van he was riding in had just entered the city limits of Spokane, Washington, when Daniel Long’s phone rang.

Long, a football and rugby player and wrestler entering his senior season at Flathead High School, and several teammates had almost reached the halfway point on their trip from Kalispell to Portland, Oregon, for a wrestling camp as he whipped out his phone and answered.

His neighbor was on the other end of the line with an ominous alert.

“They told me there was smoke coming out of my house,” Long recalled. “I didn’t believe him at first.”

Just after he hung up, Long’s phone was flooded with pictures of his home as the neighbor passed along visual proof of the unfolding blaze.

Long’s disbelief quickly turned to dread as reality set in.

“He just busted out in tears,” said Michael Lee, a close friend of Long’s who was sitting beside him on the van when the call came. “He was devastated, because that’s all his child memories.”

Long immediately alerted his father, who was also out of town at the time of the fire, before slumping back into his seat to attempt to process the whirlwind of emotions into which he’d just been swept up.

Tears filled his eyes and uncertainty crept into his mind as the van continued toward Portland.

After calling the rest of his family to relay the news, one of the first people Long dialed was Flathead football head coach Kyle Samson.

The two have forged a close relationship in Samson’s four years at Flathead.

He is the only varsity head football coach Long has ever known. Long, a member of the first class Samson has coached all the way through high school, has even developed strong bonds with Samson’s wife and three children.

The coach, arriving back in Kalispell on Sunday after visiting family over the weekend, missed the first call from his lineman. He called back shortly thereafter and found a distraught Long struggling to deliver the crushing news.

“He just was trying to get it out to me,” Samson said. “It’s always tough when you’re a coach. These are like my own kids. Next to my family, this is my family. These are my kids, especially a kid like Daniel who’s been so close to me and my family.”

Samson immediately knew he had to do something.

His first order of business was to start a fundraiser on GoFundMe.com, a popular crowd-funding website.

Samson shared Long’s story and information on the fundraising effort across social media and encouraged his players and coaches to do the same. Neither he nor Long expected what came next.

Money poured in, not just from Kalispell residents, but from across the state.

Several friends of Samson’s from the coaching ranks caught wind of the story and encouraged their own teams and communities to contribute. In total, the GoFundMe page has been shared more than 500 times.

Long checked its progress between each session of workouts while in Oregon at the wrestling camp. Each time he did, the number of donations and the amount of money raised had shot up an “insane amount.”

Approximately $1,700 was raised in the first 24 hours after the fundraiser was established.

“I never thought I’d have to go through a time when I would need help like this, but now that I do need help, it’s crazy to see how many people are reaching out,” Long said.

“People I don’t even know are reaching out, because the word got out and people just care. It’s really awesome to know how many people are willing to help when someone’s in need.”

The extent of the damage to Long’s home was unknown until he returned home.

When he did, he discovered most of his belongings were lost.

The fire, which investigators believe started on the back deck, collapsed the roof and completely destroyed the upstairs portion of the two-story home west of Kalispell before first responders were able to extinguish it with the help of four water tankers that were brought in from around the Flathead Valley.

The one downstairs area that was destroyed happened to be Long’s closet. The only clothes that were salvageable were those stored in the top drawers of his bedroom dresser, as the bottom drawers fell victim to water damage.

“I had a week’s worth of clothes with me in Oregon,” Long said. “I had those clothes, and other than that, the other clothes in the house, they’re gone.”

Somewhat miraculously, his letterman jacket and football equipment were untouched. Long had pulled them from his closet and placed them on his bed just before leaving town. His high school yearbooks also escaped the blaze’s wrath.

Soon after he returned home from Portland, Long received a phone call from Samson, who told the senior to swing by his house.

Long arrived to find a multitude of totes and bags full of clothes and household items, many of them donated by fellow members of the Flathead football program. Others came from people he’d never even met.

“I think it just kind of lit a spark of support throughout the community, which I think is really special given the circumstance Daniel has to deal with,” said John Hinchey, a senior wide receiver at Flathead and another close friend of Long’s. “For the situation that he was in, I think it was tough to be happy. But I think the support really did help him through it.”

Samson made one thing abundantly clear to Long upon his return to Kalispell — don’t feel pressure to rejoin the football team right away.

After all, he had much more important things to worry about than protecting his job as the starting center for the upcoming season.

Even so, when the team convened for a workout on Monday at 5:30 a.m., Long was there.

“He didn’t even have any clothes to work out in,” Flathead offensive line coach Alex Cummings recalled. “I don’t think he’s ever missed a day that I can remember anywhere along the line. He’s just a program kid for us. He’s always there.

“He’s like an emotional engine to our team. He’s always setting the tempo. He’s getting kids fired up. He’s getting kids ready to go.”

Instead of taking time off from the sport, Long has used football as an escape of sorts. It gives him an outlet, a place to go where his worries consist of snap counts and blocking schemes instead of insurance claim forms.

“It definitely can be a healing thing,” Samson said. “It’s something that they’ve done, that they’ve always done, that they know.

“There’s lots of things nowadays teenagers can resort to that are definitely not productive, but I think for us — for me and my friends, at least — football is something that’s really good that helps you just kind of get away from what’s going on in your life,” Hinchey said.

When the time came to present Long with the proceeds from the GoFundMe, Samson knew the football team had to be involved.

On the opening night of team camp, Samson presented Long with a check for $2,000 in front of his teammates and coaches.

Everyone burst into applause as Long received it. There were hugs and more than a few tears.

“That was about as special for me as I’m assuming it would have been for Daniel,” Hinchey said. “I was standing right by him. I was putting my arm around his shoulder telling him I love him when he went up to get the check. I think it was just a really representative situation of how close our community is and how supportive we are.”

Samson has attempted to create a “family” atmosphere around the football program since taking the job at Flathead in 2014. He and his coaches constantly harp on it, and sometimes their words can become just that.

Long has seen those words morph into action since the tragedy occurred.

“It’s (indescribable), the gratefulness I feel from everything,” Long said. “It’s just unbelievable. I’d do the same for them, and they know that. We always preach about being a family, and we’re always together no matter what. We have each other’s backs. It really showed when this happened.”

The efforts to aid Long and his family in their recovery are not finished quite yet.

The GoFundMe page remains active and open for donations, and Samson is still gathering clothes and other household necessities to pass along to Long.

Still, Samson wanted to do more.

Shortly after the fire, Chris Gillette, a friend of Samson’s and the owner of Fatt Boys Sports Bar in Kalispell, pitched the idea of turning Flathead’s annual preseason gathering at his restaurant into a fundraiser for Long.

Samson loved it, and the rest of the Flathead community jumped on board quickly.

Gillette donated a whole hog to roast and the use of the restaurant’s parking lot for the night. All proceeds from the “parking lot pep rally” will go directly to the Long family. The event is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Fatt Boys.

Long and his coaches and teammates alike expressed their excitement for the event.

“Not only to stuff my face,” Hinchey said with a laugh. “I’m also looking forward to getting me, the community, a bunch of my friends and family there. The proceeds go to Daniel, and I think it’s going to be a fun community-type event as well as a fundraiser.”

“I’m really excited to go and hang out and talk to all the people (who donated),” Long said. “It’s going to be a fun event, for sure.”

While Samson realizes all of the money in the world can’t replace what was lost, he hopes the community’s efforts can help soften the blow the house fire dealt to the Long family.

“We take pride in being close and taking care of our kids,” Samson said. “Yeah, he’s a football player, but more importantly, he’s a young man who’s a part of our team and a part of our family.”

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