SAN ANTONIO -- I guess we had taken a wrong turn or something, because in an instant, a cop car was racing toward us. It cut off our path and slammed on its brakes, sliding to a halt just inches from our bumper. And just like that, Donte' Stallworth's trip to a San Antonio shelter for Katrina evacuees seemed to be over before it began. An officer hurried up to the driver's side window, leaned into the car and asked who we were with and what the heck we were doing.
"I'm with the Saints," replied Stallworth. "And those are my people in there."
And that was all that had to be said. After a few moments, the cop apologized and showed us where to park. She explained that she wasn't used to seeing pro football players in town.
"Well," Stallworth said, "you better get used to us, it looks like we're gonna be here a while."
Like the rest of the nation, Stallworth spent most of last week glued to his TV watching the unthinkable unfold in living color before his eyes. Then, over the weekend, Stallworth made his way back to the Saints' training facility outside New Orleans and again, it was more of the head-shaking bizarre. On the way there he kept seeing the same eerie sight: billboards, not snapped in two or ripped to shreds, but bent, completely and neatly in half; like a string of giants on the side of the road made to bow down before Katrina.
The team's facility had been taken over by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Soldiers, trucks and helicopters were everywhere. And inside the very meeting rooms the receivers used to game plan and watch film on the Panthers and Falcons, FEMA officers, surrounded by maps, charts and equipment, were working on their own plan.
It was on his way back to San Antonio that Stallworth received a text message from teammate Joe Horn, who had been visiting evacuees at the Astrodome. Horn had gone to try and lift people's spirits, and instead ended up having his own outlook on the 2005 NFL season completely changed.
"I talked to the people," the message read, "they want us to ride we gotta ride let's get a handle on our business and then let's ride for the people."
Stallworth soaked in that message then jumped in his car, drove to the nearest Wal-Mart and cleared it out of all the water and toiletries he could find. Some of his Saints teammates visited the evacuees at KellyUSA Sunday, and the team took an entire busload of players there Tuesday. But after practice Monday at a nearby high school, Stallworth couldn't wait. And he and the Saints' tireless community relations manager, Paul Corliss, were nice enough to allow me to tag along.
"I can't describe it," Stallworth said while driving to the former air force base, where 2,000 of San Antonio's nearly 12,000 evacuees are being housed. "I have to see it with my own eyes. For me, for my piece of mind, I have to see this stuff getting to the people who needed it."
When we arrived, a handful of national guardsmen helped carry in the supplies and Stallworth was given a Red Cross smock to wear, which he slipped on over his Alicia Keys concert T-shirt as he walked inside. Really, the only way I can describe the facility is to say that if the initial emergency response to Katrina in New Orleans was embarrassingly and tortuously slow and mismanaged, KellyUSA was the complete opposite. When word came that the massive warehouse known as the Davy Crockett Building would be home to Katrina evacuees, the first thing workers did, without hesitating, was punch holes in the concrete walls so portable air conditioning could be installed.
Inside was a beehive of help with a kaleidoscope of uniforms -- police, doctors, Red Cross, national guard, volunteers and FEMA -- racing in every direction in response to people's needs. It smelled not of sewage or body odor or garbage, but of the turkey they were serving for dinner. There were phones, toys and food, water and fruit stacked 10 feet high up every available wall. There were help stations set up for every possible need. Nearby, at a desk marked "clergy," a man ate peaches out of a can with a plastic spoon while watching for news of lost loved ones on a large-screen TV.
And although there was a sea of cots, hundreds upon hundreds, laid out in every direction as far as the eye could see, once inside the warehouse it still felt like you were intruding on someone's bedroom. And at first, yeah, I felt a bit silly tagging along with a millionaire wideout as he left his cushy hotel room to drop off a carload full of water and toiletries -- what probably amounted to a drop of relief in an ocean of grief.
In this whole giant, ugly mess, I wondered, what difference could one football player could make?
See, I do believe that there are times when sports transcend the playing field and perpetuate something more than just a silly game. But I figured Katrina would most likely ruin that theory. After such cataclysmic devastation, such chaos, anguish and human suffering, who could possibly care about something as inconsequential as the NFL?