In those early dark days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans, longtime McDonogh 35 football coach Wayne Reese would use his connections to get back into the city.
And while things might have appeared bleak, especially when it came to the chances for sports to recover during a time when priorities were better directed elsewhere, Reese said what he saw made him never lose hope.
“Somehow you could just look at the people and look at things and know that it was going to be all right,” Reese said. “Maybe it wouldn’t be exactly like it was before. But maybe it would turn out a little bit better.”
And, sure enough, it has.
On this 10th anniversary of the event that defined the area’s modern history and that of its inhabitants, sports in New Orleans has not only merely survived, but by and large it has prospered.
It obviously starts with the rebuilding of the Superdome, the return of the Saints. But consider the rest:
After a two-season stay in Oklahoma City, the Hornets returned, were purchased by Tom Benson, were rebranded the Pelicans and now with Anthony Davis are poised to be a title contender.
Tulane has moved out of the Superdome and into its own football stadium, which stands alongside a new baseball stadium, a basketball practice facility and a renovated arena.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl is a College Football Playoff semifinal site once every three years and has a new relationship with the Southeastern Conference and Big 12 that assures its place in the postseason firmament. The New Orleans Bowl has enjoyed record support, and the Bayou Classic isn’t going anywhere.
The Fair Grounds continues to stage major prep series for the Triple Crown and, thanks to pressure applied by the state’s horsemen, has improved its infrastructure.
The Zurich Classic remains on the PGA Tour and, while its future appears shaky, at least the first Grand Prix of Louisiana is in the books, as is an AVP tournament.
The Zephyrs soldier on, although the VooDoo has now twice come and gone.
The names and the locations of the high schools may have changed, but they’re all enjoying better facilities, especially for football. Ditto for the playgrounds.
The only significant local sports entity whose reduction in stature can be directly linked to Katrina is UNO athletics. And that is an unfortunate byproduct of the school losing almost half of its pre-K enrollment.
“Sports never went away, and it was never going to,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “So many of us grew up on NORD playgrounds, and sports was an integral part of creating leadership in New Orleans. We’ve spent $151 million on new recreational facilities because the grassroots are so important. Not only that, the Saints have become a Super Bowl champion, and we now have the Pelicans. People should feel very good about the direction we’re going in.”
They do, especially where the Saints are concerned.
While the full story of just how serious Benson was about relocating and how the NFL, wanting to avoid a public relations disaster, dictated that the team would play in New Orleans in 2006, but only if the Superdome was reopened, may never be told, there’s no doubting how it created a deep emotional attachment between fans and franchise.
“I always believed that Saints fans would rally to the team,” said Arnie Fielkow, who was fired from his post of executive vice president of the Saints after voicing his concerns about Benson’s intent to keep the team in San Antonio. “But the response they showed between Katrina and the beginning of the 2006 season was nothing short of incredible. They came out in droves to buy tickets to make sure their team was never going to leave here.”
In fact, relocation isn’t even part of the discussion anymore.
As former Saints quarterback, current broadcaster and father of “Who Dat Nation” Bobby Hebert puts it, “Right now, people can feel like the Saints are always going to be not just part of their lives, but the kids’ and their grandkids’, too.”
But 10 years ago, things weren’t anywhere near so secure, not just for the Saints but just about every other aspect of sports in the city.
The Tulane campus was closed in the fall of 2005, and Athletic Director Rick Dickson said suspending all athletics for at least that semester was a serious option. Instead the football team was relocated to Louisiana Tech and played 11 games in 11 different stadiums.
“It was one thing to shut down the university,” he said. “But when you start stopping clocks in athletics, it impacts teams staying together, a lot of other things. If we’d stopped football that fall, I truly believe that we’d be here in 2015 and just now saying, ‘Welcome back, Tulane football.’ We probably would have revisited the review, too.”
Small wonder that this fall the school is inducting into its athletics hall of fame all 300-plus athletes from the 2005-06 teams, many of whose sports were dropped that year.
Paul Hoolahan, CEO of the Allstate Sugar Bowl, engineered a move of the game that year to Atlanta — without which, he said, the bowl’s future would have been jeopardized.
“We had to pull it off,” he said. “Otherwise, there were others who would have loved to have pushed us aside. And then if we had stumbled, it wouldn’t have looked good. Luckily, our membership didn’t flinch in doing what it took to make it a successful event.”
Sometimes, the importance of sports went beyond the playing field.
The Holy Cross campus was destroyed by the flooding, and its students and staff were scattered throughout the country.
But within a few weeks, football coach Barry Wilson was able to gather his players in Baton Rouge, where the team managed to cobble together a six-game season, including an emotional game against archrival Jesuit.
“Our enrollment had been declining, and if we hadn’t kept things going that fall, I’m afraid we would have lost the school,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t just football, but I think we made people think, ‘If we can save this, then we’ve got 150 years of history worth saving, too.’ ”
Today, Holy Cross has relocated to Gentilly with a FEMA-funded campus that is the most impressive in the city.
Likewise, Xavier University is now playing in a $25 million, 3,000-seat convocation center that is superior to many Division I facilities. But women’s basketball coach Bo Browder recalls how difficult it was to tell his 2005-06 team that there would be no season.
“From a personal and professional standpoint, it was one of the lowest moments of my life,” he said. “We have five seniors coming back from a team that had beaten Tulane, UNO and Nicholls State the year before, and we were ready to do something at the national level. But when you looked around and saw so many people who had lost everything, you realized that nothing is guaranteed. Those young ladies proved to be very resilient.”
So did those who were children a decade ago.
Reese and McDonogh 35 are in a new building this year, and the local public schools, after enduring losses of their students to other places, are at their strongest athletically in years.
“Before the storm, we had tremendous athletes in the inner city,” Reese said. “And now it’s like the ones who left are coming back. Right after the storm, kids were striving to be the best they could be, and it seemed like we’d washed all of the bad products out. In a way, the storm was good to us because it helped turn things around.”
Sometimes it was athletes doing it for themselves. The Delgado baseball team did virtually all of the fundraising and physical work to repair Kirsch-Rooney Stadium so that it could have a 2006 season.
“We needed to get back up and running quickly,” coach Joe Scheuermann said. “And the experience bonded our kids more than anything we could have done because we were rebuilding our own field. I think the fact that our team consisted entirely of local kids is the reason we survived.”
And in the end, perhaps it has been that survival and prospering of sports at the grassroots level that was more important for our future than the return of the Saints.
Yes, the community rallied the team and the rebuilding of the Superdome. It was one sign of a return to normalcy after we’d come so close to losing it all.
But without the sound of children playing — as they were this week in Pontchartrain Park, a few hundred yards from where Landrieu was participating in a ceremony at the Youth Baseball Academy facility at Wesley Barrow Stadium — our lives would be much more emptier than if we were merely missing the Saints.
Fortunately, we’re missing neither.