Cyril Lemon is from New Orleans.
He was born here. So was his mother. His dad still lives here.
Lemon spent the first 12 years of his life in New Orleans, raised in a house off St. Ferdinand Drive in the 9th Ward, spending time at his grandmother’s house in Gentilly, going to school at Parkview Elementary.
But New Orleans is not the place Lemon calls home. Hurricane Katrina changed all of that.
The day before Katrina hit, Lemon’s mother, June, called 50 households in their church, Smoking for Jesus Ministry, and organized an evacuation to Texas, intending to ride out the storm and return, the same way they had done when Ivan hit the city the year before.
“Oh yes, we thought we were coming back,” June said. “We didn’t even bring enough clothes.”
Lemon, then 12, piled into a car with the rest of his family and left for Lumberton, Texas. Two months before Katrina, June had scouted the Emmanuel Fletcher Retreat Center as a possible spot for the church’s family retreat. Now, it represented a haven for roughly 200 church members.
The adults watched on television as the levees broke. By choice, the church’s adults decided to keep the kids away from Katrina news coverage.
“We watched cartoons,” Lemon said.
Three days turned into a week, then another week. The Lumberton community entertained the children, throwing a skate party, then a trip to a water park. Lemon enrolled in a Lumberton middle school.
Then Hurricane Rita hit, and Lumberton sat squarely in Rita’s path. The church’s caravan took off again, searching for a new haven. Eight times they stopped, only to pick up and move again.
For Lemon and the rest of the kids, the trip felt a little like a vacation, a driving tour of Texas.
“We were kind of in shock,” June said. “We wanted to shield the kids from the worst of it.”
What June and the rest of the adults knew was that the church wasn’t going back to New Orleans. Most of the congregation no longer had homes. The Lemon household was under 9 feet of water.
Then the church found an apartment complex in Marble Falls, a small town 45 minutes north of Austin. Brand-new, Vistas Apartments had enough vacancies to house every family in the church, and the Lemon family moved in with the rest of the community.
That’s when Lemon realized he wasn’t going back.
“That was pretty much the end-all, be-all,” Lemon said. “We were staying here for good.”
The decision to leave New Orleans permanently didn’t hit Lemon hard, although the racial transition was jarring. Lemon had grown up in a predominantly black community; Marble Falls was mostly white, but the town embraced its new residents, and the church’s decision to move en masse provided instant community.
As Lemon started making new friends, he moved on from the life he left behind. His father, Orion Duplesis, was still in the city, and Lemon saw him in February of 2006, but it was impossible to make contact with the friends he had in New Orleans.
June remodeled their home and sold it. Lemon wouldn’t return to the city until 2009.
“At the time, being a 12-, 13-year old, I was just trying to be an adolescent,” Lemon said. “I was trying to fit in with the new people that I was going to school with. I was thinking about the friends that I had, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”
The move to Marble Falls opened opportunities Lemon had never had before.
“I look at it as a blessing,” he said. “I wouldn’t be the man I am today without Katrina, without the Lord’s guiding me, my mom, my church, my family to all the places I’ve been.”
Marble Falls offered a better education. And it offered football.
Lemon had been too big to play park football in New Orleans. His Marble Falls middle school had a team of its own. Lemon took to the game quickly, starred at Marble Falls High and parlayed it into a scholarship and four years as a starter at right guard for North Texas.
Four NFL teams offered him a shot after the draft. Lemon chose the Saints.
But the New Orleans he returned to doesn’t feel like the one he left, even though his father and other family members still live in the city, and Lemon’s position with the Saints has given him a chance to see that side of his family more than he has in a decade.
“It’s not the same. The same people aren’t here. The same buildings, the same businesses aren’t here,” Lemon said. “It’s New Orleans, but it isn’t New Orleans.”
Lemon calls Texas home now. His mom, along with the rest of the church, still lives there.
Now the undrafted free agent is hoping he can catch on with the Saints and get to know this version of New Orleans.
“I lived here as a child. I never lived here as an adult,” Lemon said. ”So it was like, ‘Come back here, give back to the city, be a part of the team that really brought something to the city after Katrina.’ This was everything for the city, and now I’m a part of it. Hopefully I get to keep being a part of it.”