An unprecedented honor after a ‘harrowing experience’: As they enter Tulane’s sports Hall of Fame, athletes affected by Hurricane Katrina take a look back _lowres

Advocate Staff Photo by Travis Spradling--Tulane quarterback Lester Ricard tries to make a throw, as LSU linebacker Darry Beckwith bears down on him in the LSU-Tulane football game on Sept. 23, 2006 in Tiger Stadium.

Lester Ricard can pinpoint the moment he knew the 2005 Tulane football team was not going to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

The Green Wave, which had gone 5-6 a year earlier, entered the season with the hope of winning Conference USA and was coming off a 31-10 victory at SMU to even its record at 1-1. A day before playing Southeastern Louisiana on Oct. 1 at Tiger Stadium in what would be the third of 11 games in 11 cities, the team bussed from its temporary home on Louisiana Tech’s campus to stay at English Turn in Algiers.

It was their first time in the Crescent City since the storm, and the harsh reality of post-Katrina New Orleans hit them hard.

“On our way down from Ruston, we were kind of having a good time talking,” said Ricard, then a hotshot junior quarterback from Denham Springs who had thrown 21 touchdown passes in 2004. “But when we crossed over the spillway and got into Kenner, we realized we could possibly not ever come back to New Orleans again.

“I distinctly remember looking at Loyola Drive (the first exit past the spillway) and thinking we’ll never be in New Orleans. Driving by the Superdome on our way to the West Bank, I thought there was no way the city could ever recover from it.”

The Wave barely beat Southeastern Louisiana and went winless the rest of the way, finishing 2-9.

“It was just mental exhaustion,” Ricard said. “It was not really understanding and knowing where we were going to play our next game. It took a toll on us as the season went on.”

His experience and that of everyone else that year is the reason the Green Wave inducted all 308 athletes from the 2005-06 season into the Tulane Hall of Fame on Friday night. No group of college athletes anywhere at any time has gone through what they did, carrying the banner for Tulane as a whole while adjusting to new locations and new temporary schools without having an idea what the future held.

They will be honored again at Yulman Stadium on Saturday afternoon during Tulane’s homecoming game against Connecticut.

As rough as the year was, Ricard is thankful for the lifeline football provided for the entire team. He remembers turning on the water for the first time in the Louisiana Tech dorm Tulane occupied that fall and having it come out black. He watched a rat run across a teammate’s foot when they got on an elevator. They shared their dorm with three floors full of Katrina evacuees from New Orleans.

“As bad as we played, ultimately I feel like we were the ones who kept the campus relevant,” Ricard said. “We were getting a lot of the national spotlight. It was imperative that we played and became the beacon of light Tulane needed at that moment. There was so much turmoil going on, but we made it because we loved our teammates. We really loved each other.”

Ricard could not attend the Hall of Fame ceremony because he was fulfilling his duties as an assistant football coach at Hahnville High, but he planned to be at Yulman Stadium this afternoon. Jami Montagnino, a star on the women’s basketball team in 2005-06, signed up for both.

Unlike football, Tulane women’s basketball did not implode that year. After evacuating to Dallas for Katrina, the women were placed at Texas Tech for the fall semester, along with the baseball team.

“We had no idea what was going to happen,” Montagnino said. “It was just, ‘Pack a bag, and let’s go.’ The toughest part was mentally grasping that we were actually going to have a season. We were unsure about the future of the university and the program.”

They had to practice as early as 5:30 a.m. to avoid conflicts with the Texas Tech basketball and volleyball teams. Yet, a year after going 11-16, they improved to 15-12.

Montagnino, a junior, was the only upperclassman on the roster.

“Surviving the season was our main goal,” she said. “We weren’t even thinking, ‘Let’s have a winning season.’ We actually came out with a lot of good by living on one dorm floor (at Texas Tech). We spent so much time together that we bonded more than we normally would have.”

After the fall semester, the team returned to New Orleans and played the first athletic event in the city since Katrina, beating Central Connecticut State on Dec. 18.

A year later, they became the first Tulane team to win a league championship post-Katrina, finishing 13-3 in Conference USA.

“I’m proud to be a part of that (legacy),” said Montagnino, now in her second year of Tulane medical school after a professional career in Italy. “We were a close-knit group. Our situation was unprecedented. I really appreciate the university’s gesture in honoring the season that we went through.”

Doug Dickson, the son of retiring Tulane athletic director Rick Dickson, was not as fortunate. He and the rest of the men’s track and field athletes never competed for the Green Wave after Katrina. The program was one of eight sports the school suspended, and it did not return until 2009.

“We had just hired a new decathlete coach who we were really stoked about,” Doug Dickson said. “We were excited about having specialized attention.”

After taking classes at SMU for the fall semester, he learned in December that the track program was not coming back. He considered transferring to a smaller school to play football but decided to stick it out at Tulane, accepting an offer to coach the Newman High middle-school track program as a volunteer.

His star pupil was Odell Beckham Jr., the son of Tulane track and field coach Heather Van Norman.

“I realized the world did not revolve around me,” he said. “I could transfer somewhere else or come back and be part of something much more important: helping New Orleans recover.”

He has mixed emotions about going into the Hall of Fame. Even though his off-campus apartment flooded and his athletic career ended, he feels he did not have it nearly as rough as the athletes who kept playing.

“I appreciate getting recognized for having our team canceled, but for the football and the basketball players, that was a harrowing experience for them,” he said. “I just have so much respect for everyone on those teams.”