Nine years after he left New Orleans behind because of Hurricane Katrina, Georgia Tech’s Tony Zenon can’t wait for his first game back in the Crescent City.
Zenon, a fifth-year senior starting slot back, finally will get to perform in front of the relatives who remained when the Yellow Jackets face Tulane on Saturday at Yulman Stadium.
“It’s going to be good,” he said. “A lot of them down there haven’t seen me play ball at all besides peewee ball.”
Zenon is the reason his family never returned. After graduating from Gregory W. Francis Middle School in Gentilly, he was set to attend St. Augustine as a ninth-grader when his mom and stepdad evacuated along with him and his younger brother 24 hours before Katrina hit.
First they headed west toward Houston. When that path was blocked, they turned around and went east, stopping in the southwestern Georgia town of Albany at the first available hotel. They expected to stay there no longer than a couple of days.
Katrina had other ideas, leaving a 6-foot watermark in their New Orleans East home. Zenon enrolled in an Albany private high school, Deerfield Windsor, and when his stepdad checked on the house in New Orleans about three months later, he decided it was unsafe.
Then his parents let Zenon make the family’s most important decision.
“They asked, ‘Do you want to go back (to New Orleans)?’” he said. “If I had wanted to go back, we would have moved back that way. But I wanted to stay at the high school I was at because it was a great education, and the football team was pretty decent. I just decided to stay.”
It was a hard choice. He knew he would miss the cousins he had hung out with since early childhood. He knew it was a huge adjustment going from the largest city in Louisiana to Georgia’s eighth-largest city (population: 77,334) in a rural part of the state.
Still, the decision felt right. The only possessions he took in the evacuation were his video games, two shirts and a couple of shorts. Everything else was ruined, and his initial experience in Albany went well.
“The people there welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “I won’t say it was the easiest thing, because I was used to the big-city life. But it wasn’t as hard as you’d think, because we made friends early on, and it went from there. I had my family with me.”
Getting into his school helped, too. Most of the public schools in Albany would have rejected him because he did not have his transcripts, so Deerfield Windsor became the ideal landing spot.
Zenon, a small guy (he still is only 5-foot-8, 177 pounds) playing for a small program in the Georgia Independent School Association, racked up phenomenal numbers in an old-fashioned Wing-T offense. He rushed for 2,264 yards (9.28 average per carry) in his senior year alone, finishing his career with 5,684 yards and 65 touchdowns.
That scheme made him a perfect fit for Georgia Tech’s option attack under coach Paul Johnson. Planning to go to Marshall, Zenon jumped at the chance when the Yellow Jackets offered him a scholarship.
His career has not gone as planned — he started only two games in his first four years and had only 41 yards from scrimmage last season – but his role should be much bigger as a senior. He started at A-back (the slot) against Wofford in the season opener, catching a career-high three passes for 70 yards while rushing once for 14 yards in Georgia Tech’s 38-19 victory.
“He’s had a really good camp,” Johnson said. “He brings a lot of experience to the table. He’s been in the program for a while, he knows what the expectations are, and he knows his assignments. He’s good in space with the ball, so hopefully we can get him out in space with the ball some, and he can do his thing on Saturday.”
Johnson started by saying Zenon was just a good person. He will graduate with a degree in business administration in December and already is close enough that he is taking only one class this semester.
He never complained about his lack of playing time, and that unselfishness is paying off in his final year.
“Whatever I can do to make for my team, that’s what I’m going to do, whether it’s running, blocking for a teammate or catching the ball,” he said. “I just want to help my team win however I can.”
Zenon does not have any Tulane connections. Most of what he knew in New Orleans is gone, including his middle school, which was demolished last year.
Yet life has worked out pretty well for him. His thoughts will be happy rather than sad when he takes the field Saturday, and they will all be related to football.
“We know they (the Green Wave) are going to be excited for their first game at a new stadium, but we are going to be excited, too,” he said. “We want to be on all cylinders before we get into ACC play. We are going to match their intensity.”