The LHSAA has taken more shots from critics than a worn punching bag since opting to split its football playoffs more than two years ago.
This story isn’t about that. It’s about the time the LHSAA got it right when so many things went terribly wrong after Hurricane Katrina.
Former LHSAA Commissioner Tommy Henry remembers it well and so do several local coaches, including Dutchtown’s Benny Saia.
Within three days of the storm and two days after massive flooding in New Orleans the LHSAA’s executive committee approved emergency measures that allowed students displaced by the storm to gain immediate eligibility at the schools they were now attending.
Through the program approximately 5,000 Louisiana students and several hundred from Mississippi got the chance to play, providing a life raft for those who were cast adrift literally and figuratively.
“The storm hit on Monday, and we were back at work Tuesday,” Henry recalled. “I was in my office that morning when B.J. (Guzzardo, assistant commissioner) came in and said, ‘This is really bad, the levees in New Orleans broke.’
“So I turned on the TV and saw it. It was horrible. I was like most other people. I stayed up watching it for hours and hours, wondering what was going to happen to all these poor people.”
The next day Henry got a call from Louisiana’s then Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard, who wanted to know what the LHSAA was going to do. Picard told Henry students displaced by Katrina were enrolling at other schools around the state. Could these students play?
Ultimately, the answer was yes. Henry drafted the proposal to grant displaced students eligibility where they were currently living. It also provided a provision that allowed students to move to other schools as they made their way back home or found new homes.
The LHSAA’s executive committee approved Henry’s proposal during a conference call Thursday and the LHSAA staff worked some long hours afterwards.
“It was a mess because you had birth certificates and other paper work missing,” Henry said. “The staff worked extremely hard. We processed 4,200 requests for Louisiana students fairly quickly.
“Then the requests for Mississippi students came in. That was something we hadn’t thought about, but we made it work. I’m proud of a lot of things that happened during my 24 years as commissioner, like the hardship program. But what we did after Katrina, which was followed by (Hurricane) Rita (the storm that hit the Lake Charles area), is the thing I’m most proud of. The LHSAA had a chance to make a difference and we stepped up.”
If you say Hurricane Katrina helped turn Dutchtown High into a football power, Saia won’t argue. Dutchtown was a 3-year-old school still trying to forge its athletic identity.
Running back Eddie Lacy, now of the Green Bay Packers, was one of kids displaced by Katrina who came to Dutchtown soon after the storm. Landon Collins, now a safety with the New York Giants, followed, hoping to eventually be a Griffins running back like Lacy.
Two days after Katrina, thoughts of victories or star players were the last thing on Saia’s mind. There were lessons about kindness that contradict the stories of competitive greed that make headlines now.
“Two days after the storm we had 22 new football players,” Saia said. “We were scrambling around trying to find equipment for them. Our players were bringing clothes, shoes and food from their houses. Some of these kids came toward Baton Rouge with just the clothes on their back.
“When the coaches got out to the field for that first practice, the players were already there. They were showing the new kids all the plays and teaching them our system, knowing full well the guy they were teaching might replace them in the lineup. I’ve never forgotten that. We were so proud.”
Some players stayed only a few weeks before returning home. Others stayed the entire year and some stayed permanently at their new schools.
Henry acknowledged the downside, stories about football coaches going to shelters looking for football players. It did happen. One school, Bastrop High, was sanctioned the next year.
The stories of kindness and compassion are what shines through now, 10 years after Katrina.
“You made things work,” Denham Springs coach Dru Nettles said. “The biggest thing I remember is that the season was disrupted. Teams lost games, and I don’t think the season settled down until maybe Week 5. “The kids who came in weren’t a problem. You made room and welcomed them.”
Lacy and Collins are proof of the impact of Katrina has had on high school athletics in Baton Rouge since the storm. Another player displaced by Katrina, running back Shane Andrus, led Christian Life to the Class 1A title game in 2008 rushing for 2,842 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Henry contends that the true measure of what the LHSAA did in 2005-06 wasn’t measured in victories or titles.
“Families lost more than possessions, they lost a way of life,” Henry said.
“Instead of being in their home with the comforts they were used to, some of these kids were staying with 10 other relatives. Or they were in a shelter.
“The idea was to give them the chance to go to practice for two hours a day and play games. It was outlet. We gave them something that was normal.”