Sept. 14, 2005
Big Game For The Big Easy: Special Coverage|
By Jessica Garrison
RUSTON, La. - For head coach Chris Scelfo, there are two simple elements to the play Tulane is running against the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: Survival and perseverance.
After a week of evacuation, disaster and the unknown, a mere week of safety and recovery and with a whole semester of uncertainty ahead of them, Tulane football resumed "normal" operations Tuesday. Their new home, Louisiana Tech, has opened its arms as the Green Wave prepares for its first game of the salvaged season against Mississippi State Saturday night. The Big Game for the Big Easy is available nationwide through cable and satellite providers as part of CSTV's Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
Tulane arrived on Tech's campus officially on Monday night. The players had time to pick up class schedules, eat dinner and move their few possessions into a recently reopened dorm building before laying their heads on donated pillows and preparing for their first day of class and practice.
It might seem like too much pressure for your average college student to cope with, much less student-athletes who have survived and lost so much, but the Green Wave players are redefining what it means to be brave in football.
"We could have lost a lot of things beyond possessions," freshman offensive lineman Troy Kropog said. "We're just happy we're having a season."
As the La. Tech and Ruston communities offered an outpouring of support for Tulane and the hundreds of other Katrina evacuees on campus, the Green Wave players did their best to slide back into a student-athlete's routine. The security guards protecting the evacuees' dorm watched the players head to their 8 a.m. classes, and by noon Tulane began to congregate at Tech's field house for its first practice at its new home.
"The most heartfelt feeling I've had since I've been in athletics was when I woke up this morning and just knew we had a semblance of normalcy back in our lives," Scelfo said. "We're going to persevere as a football team and hope that gives [New Orleans victims] hope to do the same."
Persevering as a football team means, in part, accommodating to makeshift facilities and scrounging for equipment. The Tulane offices have been carved out of large rooms in Tech's basketball arena with temporary walls. They have only the equipment they managed to take with them in their evacuation. The team had planned to practice in Jackson, Miss., their first evacuation site, so they had practice pads, helmets, cleats, and uniforms.
"It will be a hardship for them, without a doubt," Tech coach Jack Bicknell said. "But I think everyone's definition of hardship has changed."
One set of game uniforms made it out of New Orleans, but little else to make Tulane look like the Division I-caliber program it is.
"As one of my kids said, `Coach, we're like The Replacements' and I guess so," Scelfo cracked, "We're not going to be the best looking team with the uniforms come Saturday, so bear with us...but that's not important."
The Green Wave escaped New Orleans for Jackson, where they were evacuated into a gym. Katrina followed them there as a Category 3 storm, knocking out power and literally blowing a church off its foundation before the evacuees' eyes. After sleeping on the floor in a gym without electricity, Tulane AD Rick Dickson managed to coordinate buses from Dallas to take the team there, where most of the Tulane athletic department was regrouping. Staying in the Doubletree Hotel improved the team's physical situation, but the emotional impact started to set in.
That impact was one Scelfo's own life had prepared him to to deal with.
"At 18 years old I had to deal with the death of both my parents six months apart," Scelfo said. In a tragedy, "you learn to first survive, which [the team] did getting out of New Orleans and then to persevere, which we are. I can relate to [the players'] feelings emotionally, their lack of understanding."
As the student-athletes work through their own emotions, some with the counseling available, the team as a whole is preaching hope. "We have a motto that yesterday was the hardest day," Scelfo said. "Appreciate what we have, because we have so much more than so many other people we lived side by side for so long."
Scelfo said the team's spirits had, for the most part, remained high. Having escaped New Orleans and managing to find food, sleep and shelter for his team, Scelfo shook his head in somber satisfaction.
"What more can they ask for?"
Tulane's presence has already changed the Tech landscape. Driving through campus, Bicknell saw a Tulane player, big bodied and unfamiliar, and "almost pulled over and said to him, `Where have you been!?'" After catching sight of a couple more football bodies, he laughs that it suddenly dawned on him that these were Tulane players, not an unusually tall freshman class.
"It's like we're all first day freshmen, from players to coaches," Scelfo said.
Bulldog senior safety Alton Bryant said he had already directed a disoriented Tulane player around the academic area. Tech junior OL Marcus Lindsey was just as welcoming. "Sooner or later we'll get a chance to hang out together," he said, smiling at the thought.
The Tulane players are well aware of the hospitality.
"You know what this team is?" Scelfo said. "They're appreciative. Appreciative of what they to this point have had, which is food and a place to sleep. We slept on a gym floor with no power and no air conditioning and we just have a great mindset, you know, that there are a lot of people who are more devastated as we are. And that's what I'm as proud of as anything."
Bicknell found pride in the transition, as well. He and his players played a big role in the relief effort at Tech, carrying mattresses into the assembly center that served as an initial shelter, and then moving those mattresses and bed springs up eight flights of stairs to prepare Tulane's accommodations.
"We feel good about doing this for them," Bicknell said. "I think this could turn into a real positive thing."
The Green Wave, eager to be a good houseguest, has worked their practice schedule around the Bulldogs' late afternoon practices. Before taking the practice field with his team just after 1 p.m., Scelfo fielded questions about Saturday's matchup with Mississippi State.
"It's a coaches' cliché: We're not worried about our opponent, we're worried about our team," Scelfo said, then paused.
"I am worried about our team."
With their feet firmly, if temporarily, on the ground in Ruston, La., Scelfo and the Green Wave may find their next worry is comfortably closer to football.
Jessica Garrison is an Assistant Editor for CSTV.com and will be on assignment in Louisiana this week. She can be reached here with comments or questions.
Tulane Moves In