By Richard Polen
Globe Sports Writer
Fun and Kansas City Chiefs football returned to Joplin for thousands of fans Thursday who patiently waited for autographs and photos of some of their favorite players.
The Chiefs, who saw some of the damage during a debris-cleanup effort Thursday morning, spent the afternoon reconnecting with their fans in the parking lot west of Forest Park Baptist Church.
“I thought it was fun because my dad is always working and we finally got to have fun,” said Seth Cummins, 9, whose red Chiefs T-shirt was covered with autographs on the back. His father, Brock, is the missions pastor for the church.
By the time the Chiefs packed their tents and inflatable playground equipment, area fans had the opportunity to meet with the team that had supplied truckloads of bottled water and other donations in the days immediately after the May 22 tornado.
“It’s amazing. They’re thanking us for coming,” said Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli. “Come on. It’s the least we can do.
“Over here, we’re just shaking hands and taking pictures. There’s such a huge swing of emotions,” he said. ”You think about whose house was this. You wonder how the people are who lived there.
“People here support us and we need to support them. In football, the way we live is very insulated. It helps us to come here and get back to reality.”
In addition to relief supplies and financial aid, the Chiefs granted $50,000 toward the staffing of a Heart to Heart medical trailer at 20th and Main streets, where volunteers sought treatment for cuts and other wounds as the debris removal effort began.
Pioli, who came to Kansas City from the New England Patriots, downplayed the significance of winning the AFC West championship last season.
“It was a step in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go,” he said.
Among the players on hand were quarterback Matt Cassel, rookie wide receiver Jon Baldwin and linebacker Andy Studebaker.
Baldwin, the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick last spring, said he had not experienced the aftermath of a tornado or hurricane during his college career at Pittsburgh.
“We’re just trying to do what we can do to help out,” said Baldwin, who is from Aliquippa, Pa. “A lot of people came out today. We just wanted to show our appreciation back.”
Looking forward to the 2011 season, Baldwin said, “We just have to get the camaraderie and win a lot of games.”
Baldwin was among the players, coaches, executives and members of the Chiefs’ front-office staff who wore specially designed T-shirts and caps during their appearance in Joplin.
The merchandise is part of the Chiefs’ effort to help raise money for disaster victims in Missouri and Kansas. Baseball caps and T-shirts sell for $20, while performance T-shirts sell for $22 through the Chiefs’ Online Pro Shop at kcchiefs.com beginning July 1.
“It lets people know there’s still a need — a need for volunteers and donations,” said Misty Frost, director of Mission Joplin at the church. “This was really fun, but it hasn’t been just the Chiefs. It has been like this every day, whether it’s a church group or a youth group. Every state has been represented.”
The Chiefs spent the morning in different ways. Some removed debris that remains a month after the storm in the yards of homes. Some served as personal shoppers, helping tornado victims find the relief supplies they needed, Frost said.
“Every Joplin kid has been affected,” she said. “Just to have fun for our kids is crucial.”
Camp Hope Joplin, which had been scheduled before the storm, is designed to address some of those needs, she said. The camp is scheduled from 10 a.m. to noon July 2 at the Field of Dreams, one mile east of Seventh Street and Duquesne Road.
“We’re it in for the long haul,” she said. “We’re committed to Joplin for the duration.”
The Chiefs’ efforts will continue as well, Pioli said.
“We’ve donated water. We’ve donated cash,” he said. “We have a plan. This will be sustained.”