Athlon contributor, former New Orleans resident and Katrina survivor John La Fleur recounts his memories of the role football played in helping him recover from Katrina's massive devastation
Epic disasters bring out the best and worst in human beings. I am not the first person to point out that. However, I can confirm the accuracy of this statement, as this was revealed by the costliest natural disaster and one of the most devastating in United States history.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina ten years ago, some people shared their possessions and even risked their lives to help those affected. People living hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of miles from New Orleans welcomed into their homes some strangers who were displaced by the hurricane. Rescuers arrived by land, air and water to pluck stranded people from rooftops, trees and other precarious locations. Charities arrived to feed and clothe those who had lost everything that they owned except for what they had managed to grab in both hands before fleeing. Heroism and compassion abounded among the devastation then greeted the survivors wherever they arrived.
Others revealed their selfish and malicious nature in response to the devastation. Thugs took advantage of limited and distracted law enforcement in order to loot superfluous items such as overpriced athletic shoes and jewelry. Landlords inflated rents to astronomical levels, knowing how many residents needed places to live and how little housing was available. People found out that family members and friends were of the "fair-weather" variety, with doors shut in the faces of those who were left homeless. Con artists swindled donors out of money intended to aid the victims. Others of the same loathsome ilk did the same to property owners desperate for repairs on their homes and businesses. The slimy underbelly of humanity exposed itself in the days, weeks and months following Katrina's destruction.
Interspersed with reports about the death and carnage were reports related to the football teams that reside in Louisiana. Speculation and rumors floated rampantly. Where would the Saints play their home games considering the obvious damage to the Superdome? Could LSU manage to host games considering that much of its campus and Baton Rouge in general had been turned into a huge evacuation camp? Would Tulane University and Nicholls State University even field teams after their campuses were so devastated that those universities suspended classes for the fall semester of classes? Outsiders, in the media and among the general public, seemed baffled as to why anyone in the state would give any of those teams any thought considering the dire situation in the state's largest metropolitan area.
As someone who endured the ordeal of evacuating from the New Orleans area a day ahead of Katrina's landfall, who briefly returned and saw the devastation then waited out my fate far away from home, I struggle now as I did ten years ago to express the relevance of football games. How could some football games matter to an exile such as myself who was on the verge of losing his career after having no home in which to live in the New Orleans area? If someone witnesses so many familiar sights and sounds being destroyed, ruined or just simply swept away by wind and water in one day, one craves to find that something of value still remains. People hope for a tiny bit of normalcy and familiarity, no matter how trivial that may seem to others.
I sat in a hotel room outside Dallas watching LSU play at Arizona State less than two weeks after Katrina's demolition of my home city. It was supposed to be the second home game. Instead it served as the season-opener on the road. The Tigers blocked a field goal then a blocked punt in consecutive possessions. LSU returned both for touchdowns in the fourth quarter, erasing a 10-point deficit. JaMarcus Russell's desperate pass to Early Doucet in the end zone in the last two minutes of the game pulled out a victory. That result did nothing to alleviate the uncertainty of my future, professional or personal. It did provide a much-needed respite from the stress of thinking about what awaited me.
The next day, I managed to find a bar showing the Saints' game at Carolina. Though I was not watching it in my home, as I would have liked, I still could forget about the maddening uncertainty weighing on my mind for a few hours. The tightly contested game provided a nerve-racking yet healthy diversion from the real drama facing me at the time. The efforts by Aaron Brooks, Deuce McAllister and the rest of the team during the game and John Carney's last-second, game-winning field goal did not help rebuild anyone's house or restore any businesses. That game did give Saints fans, wherever Katrina had dispersed them, a reason to smile after so much sadness and anger had been consuming them.
In the aftermath of Katrina, so much went horribly wrong in so many ways. However, football provided some glimmers of joy despite the horrors surrounding the area. In 2005, Nicholls State won its conference despite having two non-conference games and multiple practices canceled. LSU won its division and, in an ironic matchup, thrashed a team known as the Hurricanes in the Peach Bowl en route to a finish in the top six of both major polls. A year after the Superdome was the scene of suffering for thousands, Steve Gleason blocked a punt that resulted in the first touchdown scored in the Superdome since Katrina. He set off the first collective expression of jubilation in the city in over a year. The Saints experienced their most successful season up to that point in their history, winning only their third divisional title and advancing to the NFC Championship Game for the first time. When faced with so much negativity, the mere results of football games provided desperately desired relief.
— Written by John La Fleur, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network. A graduate of Michigan State and LSU, La Fleur also has been a Saints fan since he was old enough to understand football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)