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Hurricane Season (Part 2)

An excerpt from
HURRICANE SEASON:
A COACH, HIS TEAM, AND THEIR TRIUMPH IN THE TIME OF KATRINA
By Neal Thompson
Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster

 

                                             
                                              (click book cover above to read Swampland's review)

From Chapter 9, "For the Love of the Game (continued)
________________________________________


Across the rest of the country, young men are charging onto their fields of battle tonight. At the bigger schools with the deeper pockets, players are greeted by pyrotechnics, elaborate set pieces, and choreographed explosions or fireworks, mimicking a Super Bowl halftime show. They blast through giant archways that are replicas of their team mascot, streaming onto the field through the mouth of a bulldog or an alligator. Some teams emerge dramatically from a fog-machine-generated cloud of smoke.

In southern Louisiana, and along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, though, the season is in absolute shambles. Hundreds of opening-day games have been canceled, and no one knows when players might be able to get back on the field. Some coaches are looking at the prospect of having no season at all.

Just ten days ago, the Patriots had been in peak condition, and fired up for what many of them believed would be the biggest, toughest game of the year. They'd heard that the Cottonwood Colts had raised more than one hundred thousand dollars to travel all the way from Utah, so they knew their opponent was fired up, too. They couldn't wait to prove that a little 2A school could beat a big 5A school through sheer determination and smarts.

The spotty performance in the jamboree game certainly exposed some of the Patriots' weaknesses. But what better way for Kyle and the others to make a statement at the start of the 2005 season than to beat Cottonwood?

As Preston Numa said in anticipation of the game, "I can taste it." Instead, they're out of commission, and it's killing them.

Tank English has been sitting atop his spackling bucket and fishing without success for nearly a week. He's still at his mom's cousin's house in Alexandria, two hundred miles from home. He and his mom have been sleeping on air mattresses on the floor in a den with fifteen other family members and friends, including his mother's elderly friends who evacuated with them on Sunday.

His mother has been calling J.T. practically every hour, but keeps getting the same error message. Occasionally she reaches his voice mail and leaves a message, but she and Tank both know J.T. doesn't do voice-mail, just as he doesn't do e-mail. They keep hoping that maybe he'll answer, or that he or one of the other coaches will call them, giving Tank some reassuring marching orders.

Tank is by nature relentlessly cheery and optimistic. His mom has never seen him so miserable, so somber and quiet.

He's always struggled to keep his weight down, ever since childhood, when he was too heavy for the playground football leagues. Ever since coming to John Curtis in the fourth grade, the coaches have helped him stay active and control his weight. Now, without the regular workouts, and with nothing to do but fish and eat, he's already put on ten pounds. He feels he had played well in the jamboree game, but now worries that all the hard work over the summer is just slipping away. "I just want some normalcy back in my life," he tells his mom.

She knows how important football is to him, and she's desperate to help him get back to what he loves most. The pain of losing his father during his freshman-year football season is still raw, and football is what got him through mourning. Now, his dream of becoming the leader of the mighty Curtis defensive line, of catching the eyes of the college scouts and earning a scholarship and making his father proud, is imperiled.

Althea is also worried about how she's going to support them. For twenty-three years, she worked to make her day care business, the Little Professor Development Center, a success. But the center is in the Uptown section of New Orleans, most of which remains under water. Even if the waters drained tomorrow, she's sure the building will have suffered long-term damage. And even if by some miracle she's able to reopen quickly, will her clients return? She caters to inner-city families and their children, and she's deeply concerned about how they have weathered Katrina.

She's equally concerned about her own home in Kenner, but it's been impossible to get any details about her little house on Tulane Drive. She has suggested to Jonathan--she never calls him Tank--that they temporarily enroll him in a school in Alexandria, where he can get back to playing some football, at least until New Orleans and John Curtis are reopened. He won't even talk about it. When he finally manages to get through to his friend Preston Numa one day, he learns that Preston is leaving his Texas motel and will immediately move into an apartment with his mom in Baton Rouge, and, incredibly, he's already planning to enroll at Woodlawn High there.

Preston tells Tank that he's not crazy about the idea. But, like Tank and Althea, Preston and his mom are a team, with no siblings and no father in the house. Preston's mom has a good job with the IRS and can't take a chance on turning down her employer's request that she transfer. Preston really has no choice, he tells Tank. Along with Mike Walker, Tank and Preston were planning to be the rock-solid core of the Patriots' defense this year. Preston is a born and bred New Orleanian and a lifelong Saints fan (on his MySpace page, he lists football as his occupation and describes himself as a "7th ward hardhead") and the thought of moving to Baton Rouge is killing him. He asks Tank to come to Woodlawn High with him, but Tank says no thanks.

Tank's conversation with Preston only firms his resolve... there's no way he's going to start fresh with a strange new school or team.

"It's the law," his mother says to him at one point. "You have to go back to school." A few of the relatives chime in, too. But Tank is adamant. He's not going to school anywhere except John Curtis, and he's not playing football for some other team. He plans to keep fishing until he gets his life and his friends back.

Kenny Dorsey has already learned that his home and his entire Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood have been destroyed. In recent days, the huge barge that landed on his house has become a national symbol of how disproportionately Katrina terrorized the Lower Ninth. Now, Kenny is wondering if his school is gone, too. His family has spent six tense days in the crowded home of his great-aunt in Lake Charles. Kenny is normally a quiet, impassive kid, so his dad can't tell just what's going on inside his head. He's mostly been playing Nintendo games with his sister and cousins. Occasionally, he walks off by himself and, when he returns, his dad has noticed more than once that his eyes are moist and red.

The TV news repeatedly shows aerial shots of the steel-hulled cargo barge called ING 4727, which had recently delivered a load of cement to New Orleans via the Mister Go waterway and came loose from its moorings during the storm. Already, a group of Lower Ninth homeowners are preparing to sue the barge owners, but the Dorseys don't hold out much hope that they'll see any financial recompense.

The barge, which will soon become a morbid tourist attraction, visited by Prince Charles and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, is a constant reminder to the Dorseys that there's nothing left for them in New Orleans. They're planning to move into an apartment in Lake Charles. Kenny's parents are figuring they'll hunker down there while they decide what to do next, and whether to return to New Orleans at all.
Kenny is desperate to return to John Curtis but, in the meantime, he and his sister will enroll at LaGrange High School, where Kenny will talk to the coach about joining the team. Kenny's dad is even thinking of bending the family's religious rules and allowing Kenny to play football on Fridays and Saturdays, to give his son an escape from his ravaged new life.

Kyle Collura has been at his aunt's house in McCall Creek, Mississippi, a rural patch more than a hundred miles north of New Orleans. His aunt owns a large piece of farmland, and Katrina's winds shredded trees and fences that have littered the property. Kyle and one of his cousins have been busy cleaning up. He's actually relieved to have work to do. It's a good workout, and will help him stay in shape, and it keeps his mind off the sadness and confusion. With the power out at his aunt's house, he and his family went days without seeing any of the televised images of Katrina's destruction. A cousin has since brought a generator, and they've been able to hook up the television. Like Tank, Kyle keeps trying to find ways to stay away from the screen.

Kyle typically handles life's ups the same as the downs, with a laconic shrug and a mellow self-confidence, a belief that everything will work itself out. Now he's worried about everything: his house, his school, and his football season, which seems to be over before he's even had a chance to throw his first completion in a real game. He was hugely relieved to get through to J.T. late last night. Yet, while J.T. assured him that the school was fine and they'll reopen in a week or two, it just doesn't seem possible. Catching bits of TV news, it's hard to imagine he'll be back home any time soon. Still, J.T. told Kyle he was looking for games, and if there's even a chance they'll be playing again, Kyle will keep chopping wood and hauling brush, maintaining his body as best he can.

Kyle's mom is counting on J.T.'s assurances that John Curtis will reopen soon, and has decided not to enroll Kyle at another school--not yet. His father, a carpenter, has spoken with his boss and plans to head back into Jefferson Parish this weekend to start tackling demolition and cleanup work, and Kyle is hoping his dad will get some better information on the status of their house in Kenner.

Mike Walker has been calling J.T. and e-mailing the other coaches constantly but hasn't had any luck getting through to any of them. His dad has been frantically trying to get word on his hospitalized mother. On Thursday afternoon, three days after Katrina, he finally reached a Red Cross worker who said that Mike's grandmother had been safely evacuated from the hospital in Kenner. She was loaded onto the back of a pickup truck and taken to nearby Louis Armstrong Airport, where she was transferred by plane to a South Carolina hospital. She's still in critical condition, but has stabilized, and it looks like she's out of danger and going to pull through. Mike's father has flown to be with her. Meanwhile, Mike and his mom and sister checked out of their Dallas hotel and drove to Lafayette, Louisiana, where, incredibly, they've found an available hotel room, mainly because there's a messy hole in the ceiling. The Walkers live in the Jefferson Parish town of Metairie, just west of downtown New Orleans, and they're terrified that the flooding has spread into their neighborhood. Mike's dad, a manager at a Folger's coffee plant in the city, and his mom, who works as a legal secretary, are also both worried about the status of their jobs, though they've learned that the huge Folger's manufacturing plant wasn't too badly damaged.

Mike keeps punching the buttons of his cell phone's tiny keypad, sending text messages to friends, such as "where u at?" and "how u doing?" or just "sup?" If he hears from any of them, his first follow-up question is, "u playing football?" On Friday, he finally has a real conversation with his teammate, Jacob Dufrene, who is back at his home in Cut-Off, which is south of New Orleans and, despite some storm damage, at least habitable. Jacob is thinking about enrolling in a new school near his home, and invites Mike to come live with him for awhile and attend the new school. Mike isn't ready for that yet. Like Tank, he can't imagine starting over at a new school.

That same afternoon, Mike's mom, Donna, finally reaches Coach Johnny. Donna says she's thinking of sending Mike to live with the Dufrene family, where he and Jacob could go to school together until John Curtis reopens. Johnny tells her it'd be okay for Mike to enroll elsewhere, but that he should think twice before playing football there: According to the state's high school athletics rules, if Mike plays for another team, he'll jeopardize his eligibility to play for Curtis later in the season.

Mike is usually the family joker and loves to make his parents or sister crack up, but he has been oddly quiet the past few days. On Friday night, with his dad still in South Carolina, and with the offer to live with the Dufrenes weighing on his mind, his mom and sister decide to take him out to eat at his favorite restaurant, Outback Steakhouse. On the way home, Mike sees some lights up ahead and bolts upright in his seat, shouting to his startled mom, "Look! Lights! Football lights!" He begs his mom to go watch the game. As they pull into the parking lot, the familiar blare of marching bands and the cheerleaders and the crowds gives him the chills. They get some popcorn and sit in their car in the parking lot, looking out on the field as two unknown teams go at it. At first, Mike is loving it, feeling that familiar adrenaline rush. Then he starts to think about how he should be out on the field right now, slamming into Cottonwood's offense.

Mike knows his main weakness as a linebacker is a lack of speed, and he was determined to make up for it by playing smart this year, reading the offense well and being a factor on every play. He did just that in the jamboree game, and knows J.T. was impressed. Suddenly, the game seems far away, and his enthusiasm wanes. At halftime, he turns to his mother and says, "Okay, we can go now."

The hotel in Lafayette has a pool and a small exercise room, and Mike decides to start swimming laps, lifting weights, and taking long runs on the treadmill. He's not ready to transfer to another school, and he's not going to let himself get out of shape.

Though a few John Curtis graduates have made it to the NFL--an impressive feat for a school with fewer than 500 students--and many have played at top colleges, the truth is that few Patriots have a real shot at top Division I-A colleges, much less the NFL. High school, as J.T. often tells them, may be the high-water mark of their sports careers. Yet, if there's even a slim chance of making it to LSU or Ole Miss, the time is now, this season. A player simply has to be seen by the scouts or captured on film, making great plays.

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