Commentary

'Hurricane Season': For the Love of the Game

Originally Published: September 11, 2007
By Neal Thompson | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Neal Thompson's "Hurricane Season: a coach, his team, and their triumph in the time of Katrina." To purchase visit www.simonsays.com. The book, published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, chronicles the remarkable recovery of the John Curtis High School football team after Hurricane Katrina. The excerpt is from the chapter "For the Love of the Game."

On Friday, September 2, all across the country, the high-school football season is about to commence. In many thousands of stadiums, from coast to coast, teenaged boys are suiting up for the season's first game, their thunderous friends and anxious families in the grandstands.

Instead of suiting up for the Battle on the Bayou against the Cottonwood Colts, Patriots' running back David Seeman is in Humble, Texas, sitting in the nosebleed seats of a high-school stadium that feels large enough to hold an NFL crowd. He has motored here on a golf cart from his aunt and uncle's house, where his family is now living. He'd always heard about Texas football, and he's awed by the biggest high-school stadium he's ever seen. But it feels absurd being a spectator on a Friday night in September.

It's not always easy for a high-school boy to pinpoint just what it is he loves about his chosen sport. The appeal varies from kid to kid. For some, it's all about the victory, about confronting an adrenalized opponent and beating them to a pulp. For others, it's the glory, the thrill of having thousands of fans and beautiful cheerleaders calling your name as you dance or dive into the endzone. Others could choose from a long list of football's more obvious attributes: pride, teamwork, brotherhood, tradition, achievement.

Some boys just like hitting people. There's something pure and raw about the sheer, physical brutality of the game, the satisfaction many players get from going head to head in the trenches against a noble peer and then outrunning, outblocking, or outwitting him, dragging him down. It may be a cliché, but it's true: a football game is a war without guns or death.

Some kids, like Kenny Dorsey, actually love the practice sessions as much as the games themselves. In practice, the endless repetitions and drills hone players' skills, developing in them a supreme confidence in their ability to throw the perfect block and make the perfect tackle.

Hurricane Season
To purchase "Hurricane Season," visit simonsays.com.
Which gets to the meat of the game: As Chicago Bears Hall of Famer Red Grange said, football comes down to two things, "blocking and tackling." Likewise, legendary college coach Pop Warner, who helped create the nation's Pop Warner youth leagues, long insisted that there's no substitute for knocking the other guy down. "When you hit, hit hard," he always told his players.

As Warner learned during a career that spanned American football's first half-century, high-schoolers are still just boys, but they're playing a man's game. Coached properly, the game can teach them more about themselves and their abilities than many classroom lessons ever could. Coached poorly, they learn darker lessons: that the slower, weaker guys get cut; that pain should be ignored; that winning is the only thing.

Because it's hardly a solitary game, each lesson, each success and failure, occurs before parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, girlfriends, and a few thousand strangers. Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen once likened football games to group therapy for fifty thousand people a week. His coach, the most legendary of all, Vince Lombardi, always stressed that execution and fundamentals were the key, just as J.T. does. But Lombardi's players always knew that winning was the real goal -- "the only thing," in Lombardi's word -- and that anything less than first place was, as Lombardi put it, just "hinky-dink."

There's a fine line between pushing teen boys too hard and not hard enough. J.T. is among those who strive to walk that tightrope, to expose kids to more physical discomfort than they'd ever imagined, then show them how overcoming that discomfort means they can achieve things they once thought impossible. It's not just a football lesson, but one they can take with them to college, to the military, to Wall Street, to forever.

From J.T. and his assistants, the Patriots have learned plenty about the thrill of victory and the payoff of perseverance. They've come to realize that Curtis football is teaching them about respect, dignity, poise, patience, trust, and the value of hard work, about life. J.T. always reminds players that he's not only coaching them to win on Friday nights, but to win every day. Yet the lessons of the game vary wildly from school to school. At many schools, coaches model themselves after stone-faced drill sergeants and pound on their impressionable young players, calling them insulting names and instilling in them that football is all about inflicting pain, being macho, being a man.

High school football has, after all, become big business. MTV has launched a reality show, Two-a-Days, featuring Alabama's Hoover High and its pugnacious coach. Hoover's games will be watched by a million viewers. Their stadium holds 15,000 and the school spends $450,000 a year on its football program, nearly twice John Curtis's entire athletic budget.

In many football-rabid communities, coaches spend huge amounts of time raising funds to pay for their twenty-thousand-seat stadiums. College recruiters now start visiting promising players as early as eighth grade, and the recruitment game has become a spectator sport in itself, played on Web sites such as Scout.com, Rivals.com, MaxPreps.com, and the magazine Rise. USA Today and Sports Illustrated are also expending more and more ink on high-school football and the recruitment game. These days, when a top high-school player signs with a top college, ESPN is there.

All of which gives players a taste of the big leagues and stokes their wildest fantasies of fame and fortune. Potential stars like Joe McKnight have been lured toward a college career since their first days of high school. Younger kids are already asking Joe for his autograph. J.T. cautions his team that only a small number of high-school players have the talent to earn a football scholarship, and only one in many thousands has a shot at a professional career. He tells them constantly that the odds are long and hopes are often dashed. Instead of thinking ahead to the NFL, they should focus on enjoying every last minute of high-school football, he says, and perform as if each game is their last.

Some players recognize that they're not NFL material, and are mature enough to enjoy the camaraderie of the sport, being part of a unique club that's one of the few places where race and economic status mean nothing. Football is a great leveler. This year's Patriots include the son of a preacher who owns his own corporate jet alongside the sons of fast-food workers. Their disparate backgrounds are irrelevant on the field. The satisfaction of pulling off a perfectly choreographed play is sublime, and the nights when everyone is doing his job, playing in synch like a well-oiled, efficient machine, and the scoreboard shows it... they'll remember those nights 'til the day they die.

J.T.'s lessons go against the grain of an increasingly zealous football culture that emphasizes the razzle-dazzle and showboating of the individual more than the team. He is wary of this trend, but tries to impress on his kids that being part of a successful team can be its own victory. As Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time rushing leader, once said: "For me, winning isn't something that happens on the field when the whistle blows and the crowds roar. Winning is something that builds physically and mentally every day that you train and every night that you dream."

Every high-school football player dreams of making the big play under the Friday night lights, hurling the fifty-yard touchdown bomb or running an interception or kickoff return the whole length of the field for a triumphant score. Among the Patriots, every last one of them also dreams of winning a championship. It's what's expected of them as a Patriot. And they'll give everything they've got to make that dream come true.

That's why it's so horribly painful, on the first Friday night of September, to be relegated to the sidelines.

Across the rest of the country, young men are charging onto their fields of battle tonight. At the bigger schools with the deeper pockets, players are greeted by pyrotechnics, elaborate set pieces, and choreographed explosions or fireworks, mimicking a Super Bowl halftime show. They blast through giant archways that are replicas of their team mascot, streaming onto the field through the mouth of a bulldog or an alligator. Some teams emerge dramatically from a fog-machine-generated cloud of smoke.

In southern Louisiana, and along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, though, the season is in absolute shambles. Hundreds of opening-day games have been canceled, and no one knows when players might be able to get back on the field. Some coaches are looking at the prospect of having no season at all.

Just ten days ago, the Patriots had been in peak condition, and fired up for what many of them believed would be the biggest, toughest game of the year. They'd heard that the Cottonwood Colts had raised more than one hundred thousand dollars to travel all the way from Utah, so they knew their opponent was fired up, too. They couldn't wait to prove that a little 2A school could beat a big 5A school through sheer determination and smarts.

The spotty performance in the jamboree game certainly exposed some of the Patriots' weaknesses. But what better way for Kyle and the others to make a statement at the start of the 2005 season than to beat Cottonwood?

As Preston Numa said in anticipation of the game, "I can taste it." Instead, they're out of commission, and it's killing them.

Tank English has been sitting atop his spackling bucket and fishing without success for nearly a week. He's still at his mom's cousin's house in Alexandria, two hundred miles from home. He and his mom have been sleeping on air mattresses on the floor in a den with fifteen other family members and friends, including his mother's elderly friends who evacuated with them on Sunday.

His mother has been calling J.T. practically every hour, but keeps getting the same error message. Occasionally she reaches his voice mail and leaves a message, but she and Tank both know J.T. doesn't do voice-mail, just as he doesn't do e-mail. They keep hoping that maybe he'll answer, or that he or one of the other coaches will call them, giving Tank some reassuring marching orders.

Tank is by nature relentlessly cheery and optimistic. His mom has never seen him so miserable, so somber and quiet.

He's always struggled to keep his weight down, ever since childhood, when he was too heavy for the playground football leagues. Ever since coming to John Curtis in the fourth grade, the coaches have helped him stay active and control his weight. Now, without the regular workouts, and with nothing to do but fish and eat, he's already put on ten pounds. He feels he had played well in the jamboree game, but now worries that all the hard work over the summer is just slipping away. "I just want some normalcy back in my life," he tells his mom.

She knows how important football is to him, and she's desperate to help him get back to what he loves most. The pain of losing his father during his freshman-year football season is still raw, and football is what got him through mourning. Now, his dream of becoming the leader of the mighty Curtis defensive line, of catching the eyes of the college scouts and earning a scholarship and making his father proud, is imperiled.

Althea is also worried about how she's going to support them. For twenty-three years, she worked to make her day care business, the Little Professor Development Center, a success. But the center is in the Uptown section of New Orleans, most of which remains under water. Even if the waters drained tomorrow, she's sure the building will have suffered long-term damage. And even if by some miracle she's able to reopen quickly, will her clients return? She caters to inner-city families and their children, and she's deeply concerned about how they have weathered Katrina.

She's equally concerned about her own home in Kenner, but it's been impossible to get any details about her little house on Tulane Drive. She has suggested to Jonathan--she never calls him Tank--that they temporarily enroll him in a school in Alexandria, where he can get back to playing some football, at least until New Orleans and John Curtis are reopened. He won't even talk about it. When he finally manages to get through to his friend Preston Numa one day, he learns that Preston is leaving his Texas motel and will immediately move into an apartment with his mom in Baton Rouge, and, incredibly, he's already planning to enroll at Woodlawn High there.

Preston tells Tank that he's not crazy about the idea. But, like Tank and Althea, Preston and his mom are a team, with no siblings and no father in the house. Preston's mom has a good job with the IRS and can't take a chance on turning down her employer's request that she transfer. Preston really has no choice, he tells Tank. Along with Mike Walker, Tank and Preston were planning to be the rock-solid core of the Patriots' defense this year. Preston is a born and bred New Orleanian and a lifelong Saints fan (on his MySpace page, he lists football as his occupation and describes himself as a "7th ward hardhead") and the thought of moving to Baton Rouge is killing him. He asks Tank to come to Woodlawn High with him, but Tank says no thanks.

Tank's conversation with Preston only firms his resolve... there's no way he's going to start fresh with a strange new school or team.

"It's the law," his mother says to him at one point. "You have to go back to school." A few of the relatives chime in, too. But Tank is adamant. He's not going to school anywhere except John Curtis, and he's not playing football for some other team. He plans to keep fishing until he gets his life and his friends back.

Kenny Dorsey has already learned that his home and his entire Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood have been destroyed. In recent days, the huge barge that landed on his house has become a national symbol of how disproportionately Katrina terrorized the Lower Ninth. Now, Kenny is wondering if his school is gone, too. His family has spent six tense days in the crowded home of his great-aunt in Lake Charles. Kenny is normally a quiet, impassive kid, so his dad can't tell just what's going on inside his head. He's mostly been playing Nintendo games with his sister and cousins. Occasionally, he walks off by himself and, when he returns, his dad has noticed more than once that his eyes are moist and red.

The TV news repeatedly shows aerial shots of the steel-hulled cargo barge called ING 4727, which had recently delivered a load of cement to New Orleans via the Mister Go waterway and came loose from its moorings during the storm. Already, a group of Lower Ninth homeowners are preparing to sue the barge owners, but the Dorseys don't hold out much hope that they'll see any financial recompense.

The barge, which will soon become a morbid tourist attraction, visited by Prince Charles and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, is a constant reminder to the Dorseys that there's nothing left for them in New Orleans. They're planning to move into an apartment in Lake Charles. Kenny's parents are figuring they'll hunker down there while they decide what to do next, and whether to return to New Orleans at all.

Kenny is desperate to return to John Curtis but, in the meantime, he and his sister will enroll at LaGrange High School, where Kenny will talk to the coach about joining the team. Kenny's dad is even thinking of bending the family's religious rules and allowing Kenny to play football on Fridays and Saturdays, to give his son an escape from his ravaged new life.

Kyle Collura has been at his aunt's house in McCall Creek, Mississippi, a rural patch more than a hundred miles north of New Orleans. His aunt owns a large piece of farmland, and Katrina's winds shredded trees and fences that have littered the property. Kyle and one of his cousins have been busy cleaning up. He's actually relieved to have work to do. It's a good workout, and will help him stay in shape, and it keeps his mind off the sadness and confusion. With the power out at his aunt's house, he and his family went days without seeing any of the televised images of Katrina's destruction. A cousin has since brought a generator, and they've been able to hook up the television. Like Tank, Kyle keeps trying to find ways to stay away from the screen.

Kyle typically handles life's ups the same as the downs, with a laconic shrug and a mellow self-confidence, a belief that everything will work itself out. Now he's worried about everything: his house, his school, and his football season, which seems to be over before he's even had a chance to throw his first completion in a real game. He was hugely relieved to get through to J.T. late last night. Yet, while J.T. assured him that the school was fine and they'll reopen in a week or two, it just doesn't seem possible. Catching bits of TV news, it's hard to imagine he'll be back home any time soon. Still, J.T. told Kyle he was looking for games, and if there's even a chance they'll be playing again, Kyle will keep chopping wood and hauling brush, maintaining his body as best he can.

Kyle's mom is counting on J.T.'s assurances that John Curtis will reopen soon, and has decided not to enroll Kyle at another school--not yet. His father, a carpenter, has spoken with his boss and plans to head back into Jefferson Parish this weekend to start tackling demolition and cleanup work, and Kyle is hoping his dad will get some better information on the status of their house in Kenner.

Mike Walker has been calling J.T. and e-mailing the other coaches constantly but hasn't had any luck getting through to any of them. His dad has been frantically trying to get word on his hospitalized mother. On Thursday afternoon, three days after Katrina, he finally reached a Red Cross worker who said that Mike's grandmother had been safely evacuated from the hospital in Kenner. She was loaded onto the back of a pickup truck and taken to nearby Louis Armstrong Airport, where she was transferred by plane to a South Carolina hospital. She's still in critical condition, but has stabilized, and it looks like she's out of danger and going to pull through. Mike's father has flown to be with her. Meanwhile, Mike and his mom and sister checked out of their Dallas hotel and drove to Lafayette, Louisiana, where, incredibly, they've found an available hotel room, mainly because there's a messy hole in the ceiling. The Walkers live in the Jefferson Parish town of Metairie, just west of downtown New Orleans, and they're terrified that the flooding has spread into their neighborhood. Mike's dad, a manager at a Folger's coffee plant in the city, and his mom, who works as a legal secretary, are also both worried about the status of their jobs, though they've learned that the huge Folger's manufacturing plant wasn't too badly damaged.

Mike keeps punching the buttons of his cell phone's tiny keypad, sending text messages to friends, such as "where u at?" and "how u doing?" or just "sup?" If he hears from any of them, his first follow-up question is, "u playing football?" On Friday, he finally has a real conversation with his teammate, Jacob Dufrene, who is back at his home in Cut-Off, which is south of New Orleans and, despite some storm damage, at least habitable. Jacob is thinking about enrolling in a new school near his home, and invites Mike to come live with him for awhile and attend the new school. Mike isn't ready for that yet. Like Tank, he can't imagine starting over at a new school.

That same afternoon, Mike's mom, Donna, finally reaches Coach Johnny. Donna says she's thinking of sending Mike to live with the Dufrene family, where he and Jacob could go to school together until John Curtis reopens. Johnny tells her it'd be okay for Mike to enroll elsewhere, but that he should think twice before playing football there: According to the state's high school athletics rules, if Mike plays for another team, he'll jeopardize his eligibility to play for Curtis later in the season.

Mike is usually the family joker and loves to make his parents or sister crack up, but he has been oddly quiet the past few days. On Friday night, with his dad still in South Carolina, and with the offer to live with the Dufrenes weighing on his mind, his mom and sister decide to take him out to eat at his favorite restaurant, Outback Steakhouse. On the way home, Mike sees some lights up ahead and bolts upright in his seat, shouting to his startled mom, "Look! Lights! Football lights!" He begs his mom to go watch the game. As they pull into the parking lot, the familiar blare of marching bands and the cheerleaders and the crowds gives him the chills. They get some popcorn and sit in their car in the parking lot, looking out on the field as two unknown teams go at it. At first, Mike is loving it, feeling that familiar adrenaline rush. Then he starts to think about how he should be out on the field right now, slamming into Cottonwood's offense.

Mike knows his main weakness as a linebacker is a lack of speed, and he was determined to make up for it by playing smart this year, reading the offense well and being a factor on every play. He did just that in the jamboree game, and knows J.T. was impressed. Suddenly, the game seems far away, and his enthusiasm wanes. At halftime, he turns to his mother and says, "Okay, we can go now."

The hotel in Lafayette has a pool and a small exercise room, and Mike decides to start swimming laps, lifting weights, and taking long runs on the treadmill. He's not ready to transfer to another school, and he's not going to let himself get out of shape.

Though a few John Curtis graduates have made it to the NFL--an impressive feat for a school with fewer than 500 students--and many have played at top colleges, the truth is that few Patriots have a real shot at top Division I-A colleges, much less the NFL. High school, as J.T. often tells them, may be the high-water mark of their sports careers. Yet, if there's even a slim chance of making it to LSU or Ole Miss, the time is now, this season. A player simply has to be seen by the scouts or captured on film, making great plays.

College recruiters have been watching Joe McKnight since he was a freshman, and were eager to see how he'd perform this year. Joe knew they'd be watching and spent every day this summer working out in the weight room and running laps at Lincoln Playground while wearing a weighted vest. He knows he's good, but also knows there are others better than him, and he intends to keep working harder than all the rest.

J.T. has already been prepping Joe on how to speak to college coaches. J.T. will call a coach, because NCAA rules prohibit them from calling Joe, and then hand the phone to Joe, who speaks quietly, twirling the cord in his hand. "Yes, sir ... Yeah, I know a lot about Michigan," he says. "No, sir, I don't have any questions ... Yeah, I'll try to come up and see you soon."

Football has always loomed as Joe's ticket out of Kenner, and now the season is starting without him. Joe is still living with his friends, the Tuckers, in Shreveport. After a few days at a Holiday Inn, they've all moved into an apartment in town, owned by a relative of the Tuckers. Joe has finally spoken with his mom, Jennifer, and learned that she and his little brother, Jonathan, safely evacuated and are staying with relatives in Innis, fifty miles northwest of Baton Rouge.

Mike Tucker has enrolled his son and daughter at nearby Evangel Christian Academy, a well-known private school in Shreveport that's taking in hurricane evacuees and, in many cases, waiving tuition. Joe is thinking about signing up at Evangel, too.

Evangel is similar in many ways to John Curtis: a small school that's turned itself into a football powerhouse with a string of football championships behind it. The school's most recent star, John David Booty, is now at the University of Southern California as backup quarterback, poised to take over when the starting quarterback, Matt Leinart, graduates. Leinart will go on to win the 2005 Heisman Trophy, bound for the NFL.

As at Curtis, the Evangel coaches have been accused of running a football factory. When other Louisiana schools complain about the dominance of a few of the state's football programs, Evangel and John Curtis are always mentioned in the same sentence. And when the LHSAA last year changed its rules and stopped allowing smaller schools to play up against larger schools, Evangel was bumped all the way back from the state's highest division, 5A, to the lowest, 1A.

That's fine with Joe, who just wants to play. Ever since third grade, when he started at John Curtis, Joe has felt most at home on the football field. It's the place where he feels in control of his life, where everything else just disappears. He still remembers his first touchdown.

The first time he touched the ball on offense, he fumbled, and continued to fumble the rest of his third-grade season. Coach Corey believed in Joe and kept calling the same plays and kept giving Joe the ball. In the season's last game, the Patriots were losing 60, and Joe just kept fumbling. Then, late in the game, on a run up the middle, he broke through a hole and sprinted fifty yards for his first touchdown, which tied the game. Corey went for a two-point conversion, calling the exact same play. Joe was stopped at the goal line, but managed to spin around his tacklers to score, giving the Patriots the victory and teaching him a lesson he'd never forget. He had recently recounted that very story for a Times-Picayune reporter, and the lesson he said he learned was this: "Don't look back."

With his return to John Curtis now in question, Joe has decided not to look back. Evangel's season has been unscathed by Katrina. The team, the Eagles, is known for its fast-paced, air-attack offense and--if Joe plays for them--he might be able to rack up more points than he would have at Curtis. And maybe, like John David Booty before him, he'll get scooped up by USC and be on his way to the NFL. In the short term, he'll be able to create a new life for himself, a fresh start. If the Tuckers stay in Shreveport, maybe he can keep living with them. There'd at least be food in the house. Maybe he'd even have a bed.

He hasn't mentioned these plans to Mike Tucker yet. Nor to his mom. Joe has always been afraid of moving out of his mom's house for good. Whenever he stays with friends or cousins or the Tuckers, the understanding is always that it's just a temporary thing. To make a permanent move would be like giving up on his mom. Katrina may be providing Joe the perfect excuse to make a definitive move without hurting her. He tries not to think about how J.T. and the other assistants and his teammates at Curtis will react to his transfer.

The Curtis coaches have been so good to him, but he can't help it. The idea of playing for Evangel is too alluring: a new beginning, new people, and a new place. He finally visits with the coaches at Evangel. One of them, Ronnie Alexander, knows all about Joe McKnight: "One of the best athletes to ever walk on this campus," he'll later say, and encourages Joe to enroll. The coaches even offer to let Joe play running back and wide receiver. He'll be their new star.

J.T. knows he's got to act fast to keep his team together and rebuild the season. He starts calling coaches all around the state, even teams in Florida and other southern states, trying to land games. "Our responsibility is to make our kids realize we all have to pick ourselves up, that we all have to move forward," he tells his sons. "We can't allow ourselves to get down. And we're going to have to do a good job as the adults to make sure we keep them busy, keep them moving toward the future." He quickly learns that the four schools in his new Class 2A district, all of them roughly an hour west of New Orleans, have not sustained any significant hurricane damage and will be able to play their regularly scheduled games. For this season, anyway, the move to the distant district has ironically worked in their favor. Those district games won't begin until late October, however, so J.T. needs to find opponents willing to play sooner. He keeps calling every coach and every school he can think of.

When he finally manages to land a game against Ferriday High, a big school north of New Orleans across the Mississippi from Natchez, the other coaches, thrilled at the prospect of salvaging their season, begin frantically calling their players.

Each coach is responsible for a dozen or so players, whose cell-phone numbers and e-mail addresses they'd collected at the Saturday practice before Katrina. They send an e-mail, then try the cell phone. If they manage to get through to a player by cell, they quickly tell the kid that the school is fine and that the football season will happen. They then tell the kid to call, e-mail, or text message other players, and to spread the word that John Curtis is reopening soon. If they can't get through by cell they send a text message that reads "we are opening" or "we're coming back" or "everything is fine."

Johnny, whose Nextel cell phone has worked better than the others for making and receiving calls, is among the few coaches who's communicated with numerous players, mostly via short text message saying "heard school's not opening" and "heard school washed away" and "what do we do?" Those he's been able to talk to have sounded near tears asking him what they should do, telling him their parents are pressuring them to enroll at other schools. He reassures them that the school is coming back, but the parents still find it hard to believe that John Curtis can reopen soon. They're still hearing so much bad news about how long New Orleans area schools will be closed.

Complicating the situation further is an emergency ruling by the LHSAA to suspend its normal eligibility rules and allow displaced student athletes from storm-affected parishes to play for any school they choose, essentially making them free agents. The prohibition against returning to play for Curtis later, which Johnny had just warned Mike Walker's mother about, has been lifted. Kids are being lured to schools with appealing recruitment offers. Larry Favre, the coach at Fontainebleau, which John Curtis played in the jamboree game, is interviewed on ESPN and accuses another school of looting four of his players. The head of the LHSAA, Tommy Henry, acknowledges to a Times-Picayune reporter that he's heard about coaches volunteering at shelters as a way to recruit new players.

Johnny receives calls from players saying that schools are pressuring them, telling them John Curtis is underwater or fell down. Some private schools are offering free tuition or assuring kids spots on the varsity team. For the seniors, the offers are enticing; they're worried about not playing at all in their last year of high school. Johnny finds himself practically shouting at kids or their parents, trying to convince them that John Curtis and the surrounding River Ridge neighborhood is not underwater. "I'm tellin' ya, I'm standing on the field right now," he tells one player. He even offers to drive by families' houses to assure them it's still standing and not flooded.

"I'm in front of your house," he'll tell them. "It's fine."

The John Curtis coaches learn that one of the first post-Katrina football games in Greater New Orleans will be played Friday, September 9, when the St. James Wildcats host the Terrebonne Tigers. "We know it's not the most important thing," St. James's coach Rick Gaille tells the Times-Picayune. "But it does give some sign that normalcy for everybody could be right around the corner."

Tommy, Johnny, and a few of the assistant coaches decide to drive down. The Patriots are scheduled to face St. James later in the season, so tonight is a great chance to scout them. With so many schools still closed, coaches and players converge on St. James and sit in the stands alongside rival coaches and players from all across southern Louisiana. The game is like a reunion of sorts, and the talk revolves around which schools are open and which aren't, about whose season is dead and whose is still alive.

At one point, a coach from a rival school leans over to Leon's son, Steve, and says, "I heard John Curtis fell down." Another coach adds, "Yeah, and I heard Joe McKnight ain't coming back." In no time, others chime in, having fun with it, "John Curtis is not going to be the same," one taunts, "you all are going to lose McKnight." What was supposed to be a nice break from the sweaty chores at the school and the increasingly tense confines of the Baton Rouge apartments has suddenly become a bust, an infuriating reminder that life for the John Curtis Christian School and its Patriots is still up in the air. On the drive home, Tommy expresses the dread the others are feeling.

"I don't like this," he says. "It doesn't feel right." He can't stop thinking about kids he's worked with for years--his kids--suiting up to play football for a rival coach, and asks the others, "Do I really want other coaches to coach my players?" Back in the apartments, Jeff has more bad news.

While watching the sports report on Johnny's television, he saw a brief clip about the Evangel Eagles, who lost 45-10 to the Texas High Tigers of Texarkana.

The only bright spot for the Eagles was the opening kickoff. On that play, Joe McKnight, the Eagles' new all-purpose kick returner, punt returner, running back, and wide receiver, caught the kickoff at the Eagles' ten-yard line, blasted past the first few defenders, spun, and sprinted down the sideline. As soon as he hit the open field, he opened his stride, looking effortless as he passed midfield. A defender approached from the side, and Joe reached out with one arm and swatted the guy down like he was a mosquito. Joe seemed headed for a touchdown, but was finally pushed out of bounds inside the fifteen-yard line, having taken the ball back seventy-five yards. He twisted his ankle at the end of the play, limped off the field, and did not return again all night.

"I don't like this at all," Tommy says, and shuts the door to the small bedroom where his wife and two children are sleeping.