Some memories from the storm of our lives …
For months after Hurricane Katrina, I’d meet up with sports writers from other parts of the country who would ask, “How did you make out in the hurricane?” I felt guilty telling them our power was out for a couple of days and I lost a couple of boards off my fence in the back yard, considering the destruction that befell New Orleans and the Mississippi gulf coast.
The house where my wife grew up in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, within sight of the London Avenue Canal which was one of the ones that breached, was inundated by nine feet of water. It’s gone now. I can still drive by the house where I grew up in South Baton Rouge and I sometimes feel guilty about that, too.
We live a couple of miles from LSU’s campus. When the wind’s right, you can hear the chimes from the Memorial Tower or hear the LSU marching band practicing for that week’s halftime show. In the week after Katrina, the soundtrack of our lives wasn’t bells or music, but helicopter rotors chopping the air or an ambulance wailing on its way to where Katrina victims were being processed at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. When a helicopter passes overhead now or I hear an ambulance anywhere nearby, I can’t help but think back to those days.
With the sick and dying filling the PMAC and helicopters touching down next door at Bernie Moore Track and Field Stadium, LSU officials made the decision to move the season opener with Arizona State to Tempe. It was the right choice. LSU won an absolute thriller of a game 35-31, with JaMarcus Russell completing a 39-yard fourth-and-10 pass to Early Doucet for the winning points with just over a minute left. It was a game that had Louisianians, wherever they found themselves displaced, cheering and for a moment forgetting their troubles. In that sense, it may have been LSU’s greatest win ever.
Speaking of Russell and the PMAC, one of the few uplifting stories in Katrina’s aftermath was the story of Fats Domino being rescued – and winding up in Russell’s apartment. Domino grew up and still lived in the Ninth Ward, and after the storm he was rescued from the balcony of his home, brought to the Superdome (where he was processed under his given name, Antoine Domino) then shuttled up to the PMAC. Russell, who happened to be dating Domino’s granddaughter at the time, was like many LSU athletes helping volunteer at the PMAC when he came across Domino and brought him and about 20 of Domino’s family members back to his off-campus apartment. For days no one knew if the New Orleans music legend had survived the storm, but the day Domino decided to leave, Russell called LSU sports information director Michael Bonnette to tell him that Domino had been staying with him. Bonnette and LSU photographer Steve Franz hustled over to Russell’s apartment complex and got a picture of the future No. 1 NFL draft pick and the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. I felt fortunate to get to help tell that story. Somehow, you knew that the world learning that Fats Domino survived the great disaster would in some small way help everyone know that eventually, things would be OK.
After Hurricane Rita ravaged Southwest Louisiana a few weeks later, LSU played Tennessee in the first Monday night football game in Tiger Stadium history. LSU led 21-0 in the first half but the Tigers ran out of gas and lost 30-27 in overtime. Many Tiger fans vilified then new coach Les Miles for that, but few of them realized many LSU players had spent weeks with a dozen or more displaced relatives living with them. They simply had nothing left in the tank. LSU would reel off nine straight wins after that to reach the SEC Championship Game, lost there to Georgia 34-14, but routed Miami 40-3 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to finish 11-2 and wind up No. 5 in the final coaches’ poll. Personally, I think Miles did a great job holding his team together through a time when almost all of his players had family touched in some way by Katrina and Rita, and managed to have a highly successful season besides. When you think about it, it was coach of the year-worthy stuff.
I recently came across my credential from the Saints’ 2006 season opener against the Atlanta Falcons. There was never a game like it. So much more than an emphatic 23-3 victory over a bitter rival, it was a huge signpost on New Orleans’ road to recovery. There were still flood water marks on buildings within sight of the Superdome on Tulane Avenue and thousands of New Orleanians still scattered across the country, but the game was a symbol of rebirth for the Crescent City. The pent up emotions that spilled out of the stands and onto the field transcended sports.
It was a reminder that sports aren’t important, until they really are.