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Hurricane Season (Part 3)

An excerpt from
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)

College recruiters have been watching Joe McKnight since he was a freshman, and were eager to see how he'd perform this year. Joe knew they'd be watching and spent every day this summer working out in the weight room and running laps at Lincoln Playground while wearing a weighted vest. He knows he's good, but also knows there are others better than him, and he intends to keep working harder than all the rest.

J.T. has already been prepping Joe on how to speak to college coaches. J.T. will call a coach, because NCAA rules prohibit them from calling Joe, and then hand the phone to Joe, who speaks quietly, twirling the cord in his hand. "Yes, sir ... Yeah, I know a lot about Michigan," he says. "No, sir, I don't have any questions ... Yeah, I'll try to come up and see you soon."

Football has always loomed as Joe's ticket out of Kenner, and now the season is starting without him. Joe is still living with his friends, the Tuckers, in Shreveport. After a few days at a Holiday Inn, they've all moved into an apartment in town, owned by a relative of the Tuckers. Joe has finally spoken with his mom, Jennifer, and learned that she and his little brother, Jonathan, safely evacuated and are staying with relatives in Innis, fifty miles northwest of Baton Rouge.

Mike Tucker has enrolled his son and daughter at nearby Evangel Christian Academy, a well-known private school in Shreveport that's taking in hurricane evacuees and, in many cases, waiving tuition. Joe is thinking about signing up at Evangel, too.

Evangel is similar in many ways to John Curtis: a small school that's turned itself into a football powerhouse with a string of football championships behind it. The school's most recent star, John David Booty, is now at the University of Southern California as backup quarterback, poised to take over when the starting quarterback, Matt Leinart, graduates. Leinart will go on to win the 2005 Heisman Trophy, bound for the NFL.

As at Curtis, the Evangel coaches have been accused of running a football factory. When other Louisiana schools complain about the dominance of a few of the state's football programs, Evangel and John Curtis are always mentioned in the same sentence. And when the LHSAA last year changed its rules and stopped allowing smaller schools to play up against larger schools, Evangel was bumped all the way back from the state's highest division, 5A, to the lowest, 1A.

That's fine with Joe, who just wants to play. Ever since third grade, when he started at John Curtis, Joe has felt most at home on the football field. It's the place where he feels in control of his life, where everything else just disappears. He still remembers his first touchdown.

The first time he touched the ball on offense, he fumbled, and continued to fumble the rest of his third-grade season. Coach Corey believed in Joe and kept calling the same plays and kept giving Joe the ball. In the season's last game, the Patriots were losing 6 0, and Joe just kept fumbling. Then, late in the game, on a run up the middle, he broke through a hole and sprinted fifty yards for his first touchdown, which tied the game. Corey went for a two-point conversion, calling the exact same play. Joe was stopped at the goal line, but managed to spin around his tacklers to score, giving the Patriots the victory and teaching him a lesson he'd never forget. He had recently recounted that very story for a Times-Picayune reporter, and the lesson he said he learned was this: "Don't look back."

With his return to John Curtis now in question, Joe has decided not to look back. Evangel's season has been unscathed by Katrina. The team, the Eagles, is known for its fast-paced, air-attack offense and--if Joe plays for them--he might be able to rack up more points than he would have at Curtis. And maybe, like John David Booty before him, he'll get scooped up by USC and be on his way to the NFL. In the short term, he'll be able to create a new life for himself, a fresh start. If the Tuckers stay in Shreveport, maybe he can keep living with them. There'd at least be food in the house. Maybe he'd even have a bed.

He hasn't mentioned these plans to Mike Tucker yet. Nor to his mom. Joe has always been afraid of moving out of his mom's house for good. Whenever he stays with friends or cousins or the Tuckers, the understanding is always that it's just a temporary thing. To make a permanent move would be like giving up on his mom. Katrina may be providing Joe the perfect excuse to make a definitive move without hurting her. He tries not to think about how J.T. and the other assistants and his teammates at Curtis will react to his transfer.

The Curtis coaches have been so good to him, but he can't help it. The idea of playing for Evangel is too alluring: a new beginning, new people, and a new place. He finally visits with the coaches at Evangel. One of them, Ronnie Alexander, knows all about Joe McKnight: "One of the best athletes to ever walk on this campus," he'll later say, and encourages Joe to enroll. The coaches even offer to let Joe play running back and wide receiver. He'll be their new star.

J.T. knows he's got to act fast to keep his team together and rebuild the season. He starts calling coaches all around the state, even teams in Florida and other southern states, trying to land games. "Our responsibility is to make our kids realize we all have to pick ourselves up, that we all have to move forward," he tells his sons. "We can't allow ourselves to get down. And we're going to have to do a good job as the adults to make sure we keep them busy, keep them moving toward the future." He quickly learns that the four schools in his new Class 2A district, all of them roughly an hour west of New Orleans, have not sustained any significant hurricane damage and will be able to play their regularly scheduled games. For this season, anyway, the move to the distant district has ironically worked in their favor. Those district games won't begin until late October, however, so J.T. needs to find opponents willing to play sooner. He keeps calling every coach and every school he can think of.

When he finally manages to land a game against Ferriday High, a big school north of New Orleans across the Mississippi from Natchez, the other coaches, thrilled at the prospect of salvaging their season, begin frantically calling their players.

Each coach is responsible for a dozen or so players, whose cell-phone numbers and e-mail addresses they'd collected at the Saturday practice before Katrina. They send an e-mail, then try the cell phone. If they manage to get through to a player by cell, they quickly tell the kid that the school is fine and that the football season will happen. They then tell the kid to call, e-mail, or text message other players, and to spread the word that John Curtis is reopening soon. If they can't get through by cell they send a text message that reads "we are opening" or "we're coming back" or "everything is fine."
Johnny, whose Nextel cell phone has worked better than the others for making and receiving calls, is among the few coaches who's communicated with numerous players, mostly via short text message saying "heard school's not opening" and "heard school washed away" and "what do we do?" Those he's been able to talk to have sounded near tears asking him what they should do, telling him their parents are pressuring them to enroll at other schools. He reassures them that the school is coming back, but the parents still find it hard to believe that John Curtis can reopen soon. They're still hearing so much bad news about how long New Orleans area schools will be closed.

Complicating the situation further is an emergency ruling by the LHSAA to suspend its normal eligibility rules and allow displaced student athletes from storm-affected parishes to play for any school they choose, essentially making them free agents. The prohibition against returning to play for Curtis later, which Johnny had just warned Mike Walker's mother about, has been lifted. Kids are being lured to schools with appealing recruitment offers. Larry Favre, the coach at Fontainebleau, which John Curtis played in the jamboree game, is interviewed on ESPN and accuses another school of looting four of his players. The head of the LHSAA, Tommy Henry, acknowledges to a Times-Picayune reporter that he's heard about coaches volunteering at shelters as a way to recruit new players.

Johnny receives calls from players saying that schools are pressuring them, telling them John Curtis is underwater or fell down. Some private schools are offering free tuition or assuring kids spots on the varsity team. For the seniors, the offers are enticing; they're worried about not playing at all in their last year of high school. Johnny finds himself practically shouting at kids or their parents, trying to convince them that John Curtis and the surrounding River Ridge neighborhood is not underwater. "I'm tellin' ya, I'm standing on the field right now," he tells one player. He even offers to drive by families' houses to assure them it's still standing and not flooded.

"I'm in front of your house," he'll tell them. "It's fine."

The John Curtis coaches learn that one of the first post-Katrina football games in Greater New Orleans will be played Friday, September 9, when the St. James Wildcats host the Terrebonne Tigers. "We know it's not the most important thing," St. James's coach Rick Gaille tells the Times-Picayune. "But it does give some sign that normalcy for everybody could be right around the corner."

Tommy, Johnny, and a few of the assistant coaches decide to drive down. The Patriots are scheduled to face St. James later in the season, so tonight is a great chance to scout them. With so many schools still closed, coaches and players converge on St. James and sit in the stands alongside rival coaches and players from all across southern Louisiana. The game is like a reunion of sorts, and the talk revolves around which schools are open and which aren't, about whose season is dead and whose is still alive.

At one point, a coach from a rival school leans over to Leon's son, Steve, and says, "I heard John Curtis fell down." Another coach adds, "Yeah, and I heard Joe McKnight ain't coming back." In no time, others chime in, having fun with it, "John Curtis is not going to be the same," one taunts, "you all are going to lose McKnight." What was supposed to be a nice break from the sweaty chores at the school and the increasingly tense confines of the Baton Rouge apartments has suddenly become a bust, an infuriating reminder that life for the John Curtis Christian School and its Patriots is still up in the air. On the drive home, Tommy expresses the dread the others are feeling.

"I don't like this," he says. "It doesn't feel right." He can't stop thinking about kids he's worked with for years--his kids--suiting up to play football for a rival coach, and asks the others, "Do I really want other coaches to coach my players?" Back in the apartments, Jeff has more bad news.

While watching the sports report on Johnny's television, he saw a brief clip about the Evangel Eagles, who lost 45-10 to the Texas High Tigers of Texarkana.

The only bright spot for the Eagles was the opening kickoff. On that play, Joe McKnight, the Eagles' new all-purpose kick returner, punt returner, running back, and wide receiver, caught the kickoff at the Eagles' ten-yard line, blasted past the first few defenders, spun, and sprinted down the sideline. As soon as he hit the open field, he opened his stride, looking effortless as he passed midfield. A defender approached from the side, and Joe reached out with one arm and swatted the guy down like he was a mosquito. Joe seemed headed for a touchdown, but was finally pushed out of bounds inside the fifteen-yard line, having taken the ball back seventy-five yards. He twisted his ankle at the end of the play, limped off the field, and did not return again all night.

"I don't like this at all," Tommy says, and shuts the door to the small bedroom where his wife and two children are sleeping.

More information:www.hurricaneseasonbook.com

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