In a season of untold hardship, Tulane's football players stayed true to their school and helped rebuild their city
This is an article from the Aug. 31, 2015 issue
ON SEPT. 30, 2005, a charter bus rolled down the near-deserted stretch of I-10 that ran through New Orleans. Thirty-two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the city was still populated mostly by aid workers and stubborn holdouts, and as Tulane's football players traveled to their makeshift team hotel—a banquet room at English Turn Golf & Country Club—what they saw out the window was a gut punch. It was the first time most of them had returned since the storm, and the city looked as if it had been turned over and violently shaken.
Quarterback Lester Ricard remembers his teammates' blank stares during the drive. "You see Humvees and the Army Corps of Engineers and military guys," Ricard says. "It's like, Where are we? It's a broken, Third World country. It was heartbreaking to see—like we'll never come back to New Orleans again."
At the time, the Green Wave was 1--1. The team was housed in a condemned dorm at Louisiana Tech in Ruston (Tulane's campus had been closed for the fall semester) and was slated to play all its games on the road. It would win the next day, against Southern Louisiana at LSU's Tiger Stadium, and afterward coach Chris Scelfo would allow his players to scatter until Tuesday, as was the custom that season. Many players from the New Orleans area used their time off to return home and see the wreckage up close. The Green Wave would not win again; they finished the season 2--9.
When Tulane players enrolled for the spring semester, much of New Orleans was still empty. Still, only three players transferred after Katrina. "We weren't going to run away," says Bears running back Matt Forte, a sophomore on the '05 team, "not because a hurricane or a storm shook us up."
The team spent that spring without facilities as Tulane renovated its waterlogged campus. Some players had lost everything they owned. Instead of dwelling on their hardships, though, they rebuilt, working with relief groups to bring their city back. "There was always something going on where you could help someone out," offensive lineman Mike Parenton says. "It never was that you were just isolated and the world is crashing in."
In November, Tulane will induct its athletes from the 2005--06 season into the school's Hall of Fame, honoring the sacrifices they made 10 years ago. The '05 football team, which had three players (Forte, offensive tackle Troy Kropog and linebacker Anthony Cannon) who went on to the NFL, still has myriad ties to New Orleans. Many alumni have homes there. Forte holds annual camps in the area. Parenton is a scout for the Saints. Ricard is a coach and teacher at Hahnville High, about 10 miles west of the city. Israel Route, a cornerback from Stone Mountain, Ga., remains in New Orleans and works for Tulane, commuting past houses he and his teammates renovated a decade ago.
Asked whether they'd do it all over again—the homelessness, the uncertainty, the 2--9 season—the players agree almost to a man: They would, without question. Football kept them sane amid the chaos, and the chaos made them the men they are today. "After that," receiver Brian King says, "I can take on anything."
THE M|M|Q|B /// PARADISE LOST
Ten years ago, Port Sulphur football coach Cyril Crutchfield nearly drowned in his small-town Louisiana high school gym after misjudging the power of Hurricane Katrina. In the days and years after the storm, Crutchfield helped rebuild the town and the team; in 2007, Crutchfield's team won the first of two straight state titles. But a controversy in '10 resulted in Crutchfield leaving the school, and a decade later the town he left and the people who once needed him most are asking whether he can ever come back. Amy K. Nelson tells Crutchfield's story of post-Katrina rejuvenation and rejection in a video at TheMMQB.com.