BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — Myles Brennan passes it nearly every day on the way to school.
To most, it’s just an empty plot of land.
It’s no different than the other bare plots sprinkled down North Beach Boulevard, the picturesque bayside drag in this quaint coastal town. They are evidence of a crime committed 11 years ago by a force so powerful that it still leaves people shivering with emotion.
To Brennan, this plot of land is, in a small way, still home.
He spent the first 7 years of his life here.
He fought off the supernatural, the ghosts that shoved him down the stairs and the old Civil War generals, in full regalia, that stood over his bed watching him sleep. No, really, his mom said: The property — the one she’s standing on right now, on this sun-splashed Wednesday — is haunted, and the house was, too.
He fished off that pier, now a mangled jumble of wooden pylons rising from the Bay of St. Louis, seen easily on this afternoon because it’s low tide.
He dined at a first-floor dinner table, once positioned where he’s standing now, near the only remains of the four-bedroom home — fragments of the house’s cement foundation peeking out from overgrown grass.
He learned to play football here, throwing the pigskin with his two older brothers, weaving around and between the property’s 15 oak trees, many of them at least 200 years old and wider than a barrel of oil. Three of them remain on the land; a dozen others were uprooted and carried out to sea, victims of the biggest natural disaster to hit this town.
Hurricane Katrina took everything from Myles Brennan and his family.
What’s strange is, without it, maybe things don’t end this way.
Without it, the family doesn’t live on a boat for three years, docked in a Destin, Florida, harbor. All five family members — Myles, his parents and his two older brothers — refer to those years the same way: “The best of our lives."
Without it, 8-year-old Myles doesn’t play for the Destin Dolphins, the little league team that moved him from receiver to quarterback when the starter suffered an injury — the beginning of his crazy football journey.
Maybe he doesn’t break the Mississippi high school record for career passing yards. (He did it by the fourth game of his senior season.) Maybe he doesn’t throw for more touchdowns than any player in state history, zipping 150-plus TDs as St. Stanislaus’ star QB.
Maybe he doesn’t sign with LSU on national signing day Wednesday as one of the most highly touted, sought-after quarterbacks in the nation.
Maybe he doesn’t enter LSU’s jumbled QB competition with such gusto and honesty.
“I know what I have to do,” Brennan said. “It’s not a new environment. I mean, it is new, the college level, but having to work and outwork people and earn a starting spot is not going to be nothing new to me.
“More stuff has been taken from me than given by many stretches. I’m not coming there to waste four or five years. I’m coming there to lead that team to a national championship.”
A little 'chaos'
“The chaos drill,” Brennan says. That’s his favorite.
Imagine if dodgeball and football got together and had a child. That’s the chaos drill, a combination of sports to emulate the pressure a quarterback faces in the pocket.
In the drill, Brennan has three receiver options, but he won’t know which one to throw to until someone barks the order. That happens after he takes his drop and while he’s ducking dodgeballs — yes, dodgeballs — being hurled at him by a coach.
There are plenty of other wacky drills, too — like the rock drill. Just replace the dodgeballs with five water bottles, filled halfway with rocks.
Oh, and Brennan is blindfolded for that one.
“I had to listen to the bottles coming,” he said. “I’d have to hear it to miss it.”
The creator of the drills is Bill Conides, the new football coach at Denham Springs High School and Brennan’s coach for his three seasons as a starter at St. Stanislaus.
You may have seen some of these drills. The videos have gone viral. A skinny high school quarterback is dodging rock-filled water bottles while zipping 12-yard slant passes — so of course they’ve gone viral.
The drills are the talk of campus at St. Stanislaus, an all-boys Catholic school a half-mile from the Brennans’ old home and just 20 miles east of the Louisiana-Mississippi border.
“Oh, I’ve heard about them,” said Stace McRaney, the school’s athletic director.
McRaney coached Brennan in junior high. The quarterback captained an eighth-grade team that went undefeated. McRaney hasn’t called so many passing plays for an eighth-grade team in nearly three decades of coaching, and he doesn’t expect to do it again anytime soon.
“He made plays you don’t see a lot of eighth-grade quarterbacks make,” the coach said.
McRaney saw the same plays years later as Brennan passed his way into the Mississippi record books and led his team to the state championship game in 2014 and 2015. As a senior last year, he threw 324 consecutive passes in the regular season without an interception, a wild ride that ended with three postseason picks.
Those are still nagging at a player who watches 10 hours of film during game weeks. Those are just the hours he spends studying tape at home in his room, said his father, Owen.
“In all my years as a coach, I’ve never seen a quarterback like him, with all of the intangibles,” said former LSU center Jeff Jordan, St. Stanislaus’ new coach, who was an assistant the past two years. “He’s got the height, release, velocity, pocket presence, feet, competitive nature. I’ve seen less talented and committed players get drafted.”
Dennis Johnson’s name rang out Wednesday in LSU’s football operations center.
On this Wednesday afternoon, Brennan reaches into his back pocket, digs into his wallet and pulls out two bills — a $10 and a $2. They show their age, thin as tissue paper and stained, ripped and torn. The green has turned white in some places.
These are artifacts, two of the few possessions saved from the Brennan home. They were stuffed in Myles’ child-sized wallet that he found buried in sand on the property months after Katrina’s landfall — when it was finally safe for the kids to visit.
“We took a carload of children to the site too early. We had all the (Brennan) boys,” said Monique Culpepper, a close friend of the family. “We got out of the car for a little while, were walking around, and then some neighbors ran over to us.”
A neighbor told her to get the children back in the car and out of the area.
“There were dead bodies in the lot over,” Culpepper said.
During the storm, the water rose more than 20 feet, surging onto shore and submerging the two-story, four-bedroom home. Megan Brennan, mother to Myles, Bo and Hunter, has seen video of two waves crashing into the area of the home, wiping it out.
The home was only about 6 months old. The Brennans had rebuilt after a fire engulfed their previous house on that same plot of land.
The hurricane did something far worse.
The Brennans found their car a few blocks away, some 12 feet off the ground and tangled in a tree. Their Boston Whaler boat was in one of the property’s three oak trees that survived the storm.
Only Owen’s gun safe, half-buried in sand, survived and remained on the lot.
“Saved two guns out of there,” he said.
The family evacuated to Jacksonville, Florida, to stay with family members during the storm. They didn’t leave the Sunshine State permanently for another three years. The five of them lived on a 70-foot yacht docked in Holiday Isle in Destin.
Fishing trips were a monthly, if not weekly, thing. They would unhook the yacht Friday night and cruise several miles into the Gulf of Mexico, not returning until Sunday night.
“We’d catch the fish, clean them, and my mom would fry them right there,” said Bo, at 23 the oldest of the Brennan boys.
“It took us away from the devastation of Katrina,” said Hunter, the middle child.
It wasn’t all rosy.
Owen still worked in New Orleans in the family restaurant business, commuting from Destin on Sunday night, staying in New Orleans all week and then commuting back Friday. He did that for three years.
Owen and Megan are New Orleans natives, raised in the Garden District and Uptown, respectively. Decades ago, Owen’s grandfather started the Brennans’ expansive, New Orleans-based restaurant franchise. You may recognize a few names: Commander’s Palace, Palace Café and Mr. B’s, to name three of the more than one dozen spots.
Owen left the family business years ago and is now working in the catering industry for Pigéon Family Catering. He couldn’t help but stay in the food business. It’s in his blood — just like fishing, hunting and everything else.
He has passed it on to his boys.
“I didn’t know what a great LSU Tiger he was until I called one morning and his dad said, ‘He’s dove hunting,’ ” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said of Myles on Wednesday. “I said, ‘Doesn’t he have school?’ He said, ‘He goes out, comes back at 7:30 (a.m.), takes a shower and goes to school.’ I said, ‘That’s an LSU Tiger right there.’ ”
More than a decade later, signs of Katrina’s wrath linger here.
St. Stanislaus’ old gymnasium and chapel, washed out during the storm, remain boarded up. FEMA would not cover the full cost to restore them. Katrina cottages — small, portable homes used by many after the storm — are still scattered throughout the town.
Things are looking up, though.
Downtown Bay St. Louis is alive with bars, restaurants and arts and craft stores. St. Stanislaus’ enrollment, about 550 before Katrina, has climbed back to nearly 400.
On this Wednesday afternoon, the school is celebrating the signing of five football players to college scholarships. Brennan is the most highly regarded of the group, ranked as high as the sixth-best pro-style quarterback in the 2017 class.
He’s likely the most celebrated football player, at least on the high school level, to come through here. The school did produce Doc Blanchard, the Army fullback who won the Heisman Trophy in 1945.
“He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Joe Gex, a loan officer at a local bank who has also been sports editor for the local newspaper, The Sea Coast Echo, for the past 25 years. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player.”
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Accuracy and precision are Brennan's best qualities, Gex said. He has an ability to fit footballs into windows the size of a volleyball.
That said, the likelihood of Brennan using a redshirt in 2017 is high, skipping the year so he can pack on weight. Even Brennan realizes that, saying he expects to be at LSU “four or five years.”
No one would mistake Brennan for being brawny. He stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 180 pounds. That's the only negative Jordan can find in the QB.
“If you had to create a prototypical pocket quarterback for the SEC,” Jordan said, “it would be Myles.”
How he transformed into that guy is quite the tale.
Maybe it’s a good thing, that hurricane. It’s the glass-half-full perspective, but Megan Brennan can understand it.
The Brennans’ bayside home stood on ground once occupied by a Civil War hospital. The Brennan boys spent their childhood haunted by ghosts, their parents blowing off the claims until they experienced it themselves.
A full Catholic mass was held in the house at one point, and the Brennans hanged crosses and prayer notes throughout the home. Priests performed two exorcisms there, and a third was scheduled for the week after Katrina hit.
The Brennans have since sold the property. The family didn’t rebuild because of new flood codes and skyrocketing insurance rates, Megan said.
But she knows the real reason: the ghosts.
“Well,” she said, “the priests told us, ‘They're still here.’ ”