In exile from Hurricane Katrina, the Tulane University football team landed in Ruston three months and one day before our punter, Chris Beckman, was shot in the gut with a gun suited for Cape buffalo in the Kalahari. Instead, a bullet from that .416 Rigby found its way into my friend’s liver on an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning.  
Blood Despair Love & FootballI went to church with Hillary that morning after sleeping on her couch for the first time the night before. The Episcopal service confused me – when to stand or kneel, what prayers or hymns to perform – so I just followed everyone else. Hillary was my silver lining at a time filled with so many dark clouds. I helped coach her flag football team and she helped me get through 12 weeks in foreign territory. We dated for the last eight of those weeks, so Barrett knew to call her phone when mine went unanswered.

“Beckman’s been shot,” he said without a tremble.
“What?”

“It was some sort of huntin’ accident. We’re goin’ to the hospital in about fi’teen minutes if you wanna come.”

“I’ll be right there.” Trying to process the shock and fear, I told Hillary, who peppered me with questions for which I had few answers. We kissed goodbye and I twisted my way down the spiral staircase.

Blood Despair Love & Football“Michael,” she called after me as I opened the front door, “I’m here if you need me.”
“I know,” I said with a hint of impatience. I did know and I did need her but I had to get to Beckman.

That familiar, unwelcome question came back again. It was the one so many people had been asking since the end of August: Is this really happening? I hurried back to Caruthers Hall to find Barrett and Bubba in the dorm wearing grave expressions and I knew right away that it was all too real.

Hurricane Katrina was real, too. Our evacuation had lasted 16 days, covered nearly 1,000 miles and included about 33 hours on a bus. We experienced the logjam of evacuation traffic on the Saturday before the storm hit, spending nine hours on the road from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss. When the remnants of Katrina passed through, our first home away from home was without power for 36 hours. Sleeping on the floor, showering in the dark, living in a gymnasium at Jackson State University for four days, we knew very little about the condition of our city or Tulane’s campus. Cell phone towers were down across the southeastern part of the state and those remaining were overloaded with activity. Our first glimpse of the devastation came at a truck stop on Interstate 20, somewhere in northern Louisiana. We crowded, all eyes focused on a small TV perched behind the cash register, watching news of New Orleans. That was the first time we saw the hole in the Superdome, the water in the 9th Ward, the people on rooftops.
 
For every “How bad is it?” question that small TV answered, we had dozens more, starting with: “What the fuck do we do now?”

In the short term, we simply did what we were told. Get on the bus. Get off the bus. Meet here at this time. Don’t ask stupid questions.  
    
We arrived at the Doubletree Hotel in Dallas around 3 a.m., Wed., Aug. 31. News cameras greeted us as we stepped off the buses. Our faces were on ESPN the next morning but no one wanted that publicity. The Doubletree was a definite upgrade from sleeping on the floor and living in the dark but none of the creature comforts of our new surroundings could calm our raging emotions. Every spare moment pulled our minds back to New Orleans. It was cool to meet Deion Sanders and Jerry Jones but a former NFL superstar and the owner of the Dallas Cowboys didn’t help the situation. They couldn’t tell me if I should stay with the team or attend school somewhere else for the semester. The sorority girls at SMU cooked us dinner Tuesday night and were beautiful distractions but they didn’t know when Tulane would re-open and when we could resume our lives. Uncertainty fostered feelings of helplessness in Dallas. Arriving in Ruston was like getting lost in the woods.
    
t Lincoln Parish General Hospital we found two of our coaches, the team doctor and Chris’s parents leaning against a wall near the door to the Intensive Care Unit. No one was crying, which I took to be a good sign, but their faces were clearly marked with concern. 

“Hey fellas. Thanks for comin’ out.” Bob Beckman greeted us with a forced smile. Crow’s feet skirted his eyes, souvenirs from a lifetime of telling jokes and laughing heartily. His northern Mississippi accent had no joy. He told us how Chris and his brother Daniel had been target shooting at some metal discs that morning. One of the bullets ricocheted and hit Chris just below his right lung, lodging in his liver, about an inch from the inferior vena cava. 

“They went in and packed some gauze around the wound to stop the bleeding and now we’re just waitin’ to see if it worked.”

“He’s gonna be OK, though?” I asked. “I mean, he’s gonna make it?” It was difficult to consider that Chris might die.   “Well, Michael, he’s outta the woods for now,” said his dad. “But they’ll have to go back in tomorrow and see if the bleedin’ stopped for good or if they’ll have to change the gauze out.” At least he had an answer. We were spared the stress of not knowing. The only things left to do were pray and wait.

We were all kickers – Beckman, Barrett and me. Beckman was technically a punter but that didn’t matter. Right from the beginning of camp freshman year, we practiced and partied together and our friendship had grown strong. We were a crew of near infamous repute and often players in more glamorous positions (linebacker, wide receiver, running back) would call one of us to see what was happening on the social scene. Determined not to let a little storm ruin our reputation, we threw a party at the hotel in Dallas. I still wonder how we pulled it off.
                                           
Around 10 p.m., Thurs., Sept. 8, Barrett’s birthday, the wheels were set in motion. Through various contacts in the Dallas area, we had secured 220 beers and a half-gallon each of Crown Royal, Captain Morgan, Bacardi Superior and Smirnoff. The third floor ice machine was just outside the door to my room and soon the bathtub was full of cold drinks. We made a few calls and the sorority girls began to arrive.
Soon, players who had been enjoying their own smaller parties started to show up. Word spread quickly. By 11 p.m., we counted 42 people in our room and latecomers spilled into the room across the hall. By 11:30 p.m., security had knocked on our door, twice, and we needed a new plan. Since we’d been practicing and meeting during our time in Dallas, a conference room in the business wing was set up with audio/video equipment. We loaded our few remaining beers into a duffel bag, called all of the other small parties and headed to the team meeting room. Plugged in and booted up, a teammate acted as deejay with his computer and music collection. Neon lights and digital graphics streamed from a projector towards one end of the room, illuminating the area cleared for dancing. For a few hours we were normal college students again, enjoying our youth and blowing off steam. It was a genuinely good time – the last one for quite a while.
    
Blood Despair Love & FootballFour days later we were in Ruston, dropped on foreign soil. Our home for the season, Caruthers Hall, had been scheduled for demolition until the hurricane hit. The first four floors were then allocated for evacuees and the top four for us, evacuees in our own right. The building had been stripped of replacement parts. Things like doorknobs and thermostat controls had been removed and stored for use in dorms where students were actually supposed to be living. Alternating floors had either hot or cold water and I was lucky to be on floor seven: hot. We all had our own rooms, an apparent luxury that turned out to be a curse. The misery of the situation – from the effects of the hurricane to the displacement and upcoming season – was not something to be dealt with alone. I realized this late but not too late.

We did without many things in Ruston. Our cars, our school, our friends and our sense of normalcy were just a few of the casualties. Despite lacking so much, we had a surplus of one thing: time. Classes didn’t offer much distraction. No matter how hard the professors tried or how accommodating the school was, I could skip classes, rarely study and still get straight As. That only fueled my resentment of the circumstances. I walked on to the football team, so I was paying all the costs of my schooling: full Tulane tuition without a Tulane education. Even now, I’m surprised I stayed with the team. I was a backup kicker. I didn’t even travel to most away games. If the team were a ladder, I was quite honestly the bottom rung. Still, none of this entered my mind as I considered my options. These were my teammates. I had been through two seasons and two springs with these guys. They had knocked me down, picked me up, run, lifted, sung, eaten and puked right along side of me. That was more important to me than personal comfort and challenging classes. We had been through the trenches together and I guess it didn’t feel right to bail on the cusp of the deepest trench, yet. Our preseason high, full of returning lettermen and realistic bowl aspirations, had fallen to the reality of a season rife with difficulties.
  
During the first 10 days we were in Ruston, I began to notice a change in my habits. I was sleeping more, eating less and leaving my room only when necessary. As a psychology major, I realized that these were early signs of depression and I scheduled an appointment with a campus counselor. He was an interesting fellow. His shiny face lingered at the extremes: either an all-out smile or a furrowed brow and pursed lips. He claimed to be from Wichita and a graduate of Kansas State but his accent sounded more like northern Alabama to me. I would say something, some little tidbit about my day or my week or what was going on with me and he would make a pensive face and repeat my words. He was astonished that I went from “BIRD City to Tuh-LANE,” and reminded me several times each session. It seemed to work though and after my six weeks of Monday appointments I felt much better. At the beginning, he asked me where I would place myself on a scale from 1-10, “With one bein’, just really, really down in the dumps, OK and 10 bein’ not even depressed a little bit.” I started myself at an 8.2.

“So what’s been goin’ on? How was your weekend?” he asked on the Monday of the third week of counseling. It was his stock opening question and one that was usually met with little enthusiasm.

“I met a girl.”

“I see. You met a girl. That’s great! Tell me a little about this girl who you met.”
“Well, she’s tall, blonde, pretty, seems smart and I’m one of the coaches for her flag football team.” At this, he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. His expression sat firmly at the smile end of the spectrum, saying, ‘See, I told you things would pick up. I told you to get back on the horse, you did and now you’re makin’ it.’ Eureka, he had cracked the case! That’s all I needed: a girl to distract me from my woes. Why didn’t I think of that? Maybe it was because I knew distractions wouldn’t make the woes go away. Maybe it was that being single was the absolute least of my worries at that point. True, chasing a girl was a better option than lying motionless in my dorm room but there were still bigger dragons to slay.

Hillary was a freshman who had lived in Ruston all her life. We met at the Sigma Kappa pledge class flag football practice, an occasion I’d attempted to avoid. Barrett grew up about an hour from Ruston and he was a good friend with one of the older girls in the sorority. She asked him to coach the pledges, and he asked Beckman and me to help. I declined but because I was sitting “bitch” in the tiny Toyota pick-up that day, I didn’t have a chance to jump out at the stop sign nearest Caruthers.

All the girls were cute but Hillary was somewhat aloof. While the other pledges flocked around us, asking the perfunctory get-to-know-you questions, she seemed uninterested. In accordance with cosmic law, this made me more interested. Weeks later she told me that my shoes – a pair of white Nikes with red swooshes that I had picked from the donation box in Dallas – first caught her eye and I said her legs did the same for me. Soon after meeting her I realized she had more than long legs and a pretty face. I was perfectly vulnerable – smitten. Somehow she knew I was a sucker for the chase and rebuffed my first two attempts at a date. The third time was the charm, and we had lunch on a Thursday.

lag football practice was Tuesday from 6 p.m. to whenever, and Barrett, Beckman and I had made a habit of hitting Sonic for a snack afterwards. The mood was choice as I drove along the darkening streets, jamming to the Stereophonics. It was cool enough to roll down the windows and lose the A/C, yet still warm enough to wear shorts – and the girls seemed to be getting the hang of the football thing after only two weeks. We ordered and received our food, then sat and talked for a while. The quiet while we ate – maybe 20 seconds with only the chewing of onion rings and mozzarella sticks, slurping of sodas and a milkshake – was broken by Beckman.
“We oughta go on a road-trip or somethin’,” he said from the passenger seat. It was not uncommon for Chris to get exciting ideas. “Somewhere like Minnesota or Washington.”

Barrett chimed in from the backseat, “Hell, we oughta just go to Dallas.” I’m not even sure he was serious the first time he said it, but that was all Beckman needed.
“Shitchyeah! Let’s go to Dallas!” He looked at me for approval, probably expecting the opposite.

“Uhhh, no,” I said with a dismissive grin, “I have to write a paper.” That was my tried and true excuse for nearly everything I didn’t want to do. There was always work to be done, papers looming. Anyway, this was merely a hare-brained idea.
“Fine,” Beckman fired back. His tone was oddly confident for a verbal spar with me. “Bring your laptop and you can write your paper in the backseat while I drive. We’ll get there before midnight, go straight to the strip club, spend a few hours there, drive back and you can turn your paper in on time.”

Honestly, I was a bit shocked that he had formed such an argument. I thought for a second, looked back at Barrett, then at Beckman and pleaded feebly that it wasn’t a good idea. My five-page paper was due at 8 a.m. It was a Tuesday. Dallas was almost four hours away. I listed every reason I could why we shouldn’t go, but it was no use. At 8:01 p.m., we pulled out of the Caruthers Hall parking lot. Except for me not getting into the strip club, things went exactly as planned. I sat in the backseat writing my paper – a structuralist reading of King Lear – wearing earplugs to muffle the country music being sung by my cohorts. I drove on the return trip and just as we were going through Grambling – just as the sun rose through the mist and above the pine trees – the song “Road Trippin’” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers came on the stereo.

he nurses made us disinfect our hands twice before we could enter Chris’s room on Monday. It had been 24 hours since the accident and after two surgeries the doctors were satisfied that they could remove the gauze from around his liver and seal the wound. When Barrett, Bubba and I walked in, Chris’s mom was talking to one of the nurses.

“His pressure’s been kinda low but his temp has leveled off.” Pam was a nurse and therefore watchful and knowledgeable of every number and beep on the monitors.
“Hey fellas,” her salutation was much calmer than the one a day earlier, “Come on in. He’s still pretty groggy from all of the pain medicines but he’s doin’ alright.” She explained how they were worried about an infection developing in Chris’s liver. The bullet had likely taken some bits of clothing along as it plunged into his abdomen and he was running a slight fever as a result. We were allowed 15 minutes per hour for visitation, so conversation wasn’t really our focus. We just stood there and looked at our friend. I cringed at the tubes in his nose and side, the scars on his belly, the IV’s and monitors protruding from half a dozen spots on his body. When the time came, I squeezed his clammy hand and walked out, thinking anew on the frailty of life.

Ruston was a nice enough place to take refuge but it wasn’t New Orleans. Coming from a city where the weekend starts on Tuesday night – where the bars never close and the music never stops – Ruston was as much fun as a mime on the radio. Hills and pine trees contrasted the old oaks and flood plain of New Orleans and the air was almost too fresh. I missed the damp, organic air of the Crescent City and its obstacle course of jagged sidewalks. I missed the French Quarter and the sweet stench of Bourbon Street. Maybe I never gave Ruston a chance but I did what I could. Going to Wal-Mart became a substitute social event that often included some innocent mischief. We would put random items in shopping carts, finding humor in the combinations. What would a Wal-Mart employee think about a cart containing a bike pump and helmet, condoms, potting soil, gold spray paint and a Buns of Steel workout DVD? I don’t know but we were easily amused and starving for laughter. We did anything possible to find some diversion. Beckman played the guitar for hours on end, often skipping class to do it. Other guys watched TV or played video games, I suppose the same sort of stuff any college student would do. I went for long drives, sometimes getting lost on two-lane, unmarked roads to the north of Ruston, ending up in places like Hico or Hilly. I needed to get out.

Our first date went better than I expected. In a fit of wisdom, I’d decided to get the awkward eating scene out of the way. You know, something involving pasta, salad, eating with our hands or general messiness. I picked Hillary up from her job in the dean’s office and we headed for Dowling’s Smokehouse. If barbecued ribs couldn’t break the ice, then there would be no hope for us.

“So how did you end up at Tulane?” she asked after we had placed our orders (hers, by the way, was a grilled chicken sandwich, completely destroying my messy ribs intentions).

“I guess I wanted to get away from home, you know, have an adventure.” I had delivered that answer hundreds of times since freshman year and it still rang true. “What made you choose Tech?”

“Well, I was kind of a nerd in high school and I did pretty good on my ACT,” she said softly, with barely any northern Louisiana accent, “so I’m basically getting paid to go to school. I’m thinking med school or dental school after I graduate, so I figured I’d save money on undergrad.”

The small talk during lunch was tepid at best, so I was surprised when she suggested that we get ice cream at the Tech Farm dairy. I thought I’d blown it: the messy lunch plan failed, my idea to dazzle her with my brain was thrown off track by her sparkling intellect and I feared I had shared too many of my crazy Tulane stories to keep an innocent freshman on the line.

She ordered black cherry and I opted for chocolate fudge. The late September day was warm and sunny, chasing the ice cream down the cone and onto our fingers while we strolled from the shade of one tree to the next.

“So what have you heard about your campus?” she asked. “Do they have any idea when it will re-open or anything?”

“I haven’t heard much, really. We’re supposed to be able to get our cars in a couple of weeks, so I’ll know more then.”

“Gosh, that has to suck. Losing all of your clothes and stuff.”

“Yeah,” I replied with a slight shrug, “but I can’t do anything about it now. My stuff might be OK and it might not, but it’s in New Orleans and I’m here. I’ll have to make the best of it.” At that moment – in that place, under that tree, with that girl – I felt like I was doing just that.
    
Football ceased to matter. That sounds bad, and it was, but there were more important things to deal with. Some teammates lost all their belongings in the storm, some lost their cars, some lost relatives. It became clear that football is just a game. Nonetheless, we were battered with all of the coach-speak clichés.
“Use football as an outlet for your anger.”

“Turn your frustration into motivation.”

“Make something good out of this bad situation.”

I wonder if the coaches really believed anything coming from their own mouths. No doubt it was a difficult situation for them as well. They had lost homes, vehicles and belongings just like the rest of us. They were separated from their wives and children, most of whom stayed with relatives in other cities. It made no sense to show false optimism or blow smoke where it didn’t belong and it didn’t fool any of us. We were all hurting but it seemed that no one wanted to accept it or talk about it. As players, our focus shifted from winning games to playing games, and from a winning season to surviving the season. We just wanted it to end and our record reflected that. Our locker room was nothing more than an empty meeting room with chairs and our equipment, a less than sanitary arrangement. We walked a mile from the dorm to the locker room and another half-mile from the locker room to the practice field. Still, no one quit during the season and only three players chose to transfer in the spring. 

Two days had passed since Beckman had been shot and the mood around his hospital bed began to relax. Though there was still minor bleeding from his liver and the wounds were quite fresh and painful, it was clear that he would survive. Chris was being weaned off of the stronger pain medicines, so each hour his thoughts became more and more lucid. He told us much the same story as his brother Daniel had. They finished hunting, decided to target shoot with the .416 and set some discs against a mound of dirt. The one thing Chris added was the one thing we all wanted to know: just what did it feel like to be shot. 

“It was like someone put a knife in a fire and got the blade red-hot,” he said from his bed in ICU, tubes and monitors still attached. “Then they took it and Wham! Shoved it right in my gut.” Like his father, Chris loved to tell stories but he found no enjoyment in recalling this event. “I looked down and my shirt was red, then I fell down on the ground and started yellin’ ‘Oh God’. Then Daniel put me in the truck and tore out.”

Daniel picks up the story at this point, telling how he had one hand on the wheel, one hand applying pressure to the wound, a cell-phone between his left ear and shoulder and a speedometer hitting 90 and 100 miles per hour on the winding two-lane highway. At one point, the brothers passed the ambulance going the opposite direction and stopped to wait for the emergency personnel to turn around and catch up.

We also heard from the nurses who first received Chris in the emergency room. They recalled how alert and mostly calm he was when he arrived at the hospital. The exception to his calmness, and the event which lead to his sedation, was actually quite funny. As the nurses were talking to Chris, informing him of every shot and IV and procedure, he kept repeating “OK,” letting them know he was aware of what was going on. When it came time to insert a catheter, the nurse told him what was happening, and Chris said, “OK, OK, cathe … catheter!?! NO! No catheter!” At this point, the doctor ordered him put under general anesthesia and he woke up two days later.

I didn’t have a lot of experience with relationships – my longest lasted about three months – but something was good and different with Hillary. At Tulane, relationships usually follow a simple pattern. Step one: get drunk. We’re all more likely to make bad decisions and become intimate when we’ve been drinking. Step two: hook up. That’s the goal of every college relationship anyway. Right? Step three: call the next day. This serves to establish whether or not you want to hang out with the other person when he or she is sober. If you make it past step three and you’re still interested, it might already be considered an Official Tulane Relationship. In Ruston, at LA Tech, with Hillary, things progressed at another pace.

I had to do all the right things; it was a more traditional courtship. It started with the repeated attempts at a first date – a sure sign that I had more than just a fleeting interest in a pretty girl. Then I fell into a cycle of sweet gestures and little things. I woke up early to meet her on her way to class. I remembered (and still do) her favorite color, and flower, and movie and flavor of slushie at Sonic. I wrote her little notes. We must’ve played 20 games of gin rummy and watched five or six movies before I even thought about moving in for the first kiss. I was transformed into an actual romantic; she was the only good thing going for me.

he most agonizing detail of playing 11 games in 11 different stadiums was the travel. Being stuck in Ruston every weekend seemed like a cruel punishment while my teammates could see fresh scenery but after traveling for three of our games, I realized making trip after trip after trip was just as cruel. During previous seasons, we flew to every away game except Southern Miss, only a two-hour drive from New Orleans. That wasn’t the case during the Katrina season. By a conservative estimate, the team spent just under five full days – about 115 hours – traveling by bus. There were no in-flight movies, no snacks or drinks and rarely any conversation. Get on the bus. Get off the bus. Don’t ask stupid questions. At night, usually after a loss, the scene was especially depressing. Faces were illuminated by iPod screens or cell phones, eyes staring blankly out the window. One was lucky if the hum and creak of a charter bus put him to sleep.

Blood Despair Love & FootballJust as everything else began to get really depressing, things with Hillary got really good. After a long day of classes and practice, all I wanted to do was climb the two flights of stairs at University Commons, knock four times at room 304 and hope she was the one to answer the door. I usually showed up around 5:30 p.m., usually feeling like I had been covered in wax by the troubles of the day. Learning nothing new in school and kicking a ball 50 or 60 times left me muddled and weary. When I stepped inside, wrapped my arms around her, kissed her soft lips and leaned her against the back of the couch, everything else melted away. There seriously was a calming rush that came over me when I was with her. She was my drug and I was fast becoming a junkie.

The last flag football game of the season was a re-match: Sigma Kappa Actives vs. Sigma Kappa Pledges. The Actives had dealt us our only loss and we were eager to show them how much we had improved. With 17 seconds left in the game, the Pledges were losing 6-8. The ball on the 22-yard line, heading into the end zone, we had time for one more play. It just so happened that the team’s offensive coach (me) was dating the tallest receiver (Hillary). I still remember the call, “Double split, slot left, Hillary.” Our quarterback dropped back, rolled right and put everything she had into the throw. This extra effort meant the ball sailed quite high, giving the defender a chance to make a play. She jumped and tipped the ball up slightly, causing it to fly a few yards further, directly into Hillary’s arms. She stumbled backwards across the goal line, making the score 12-8 and inciting an all out dog pile from her teammates. Barrett, Beckman and I were caught up in the excitement just the same. We danced around like idiots for a few minutes, having a genuinely good time. It was the most exciting football I witnessed all fall. 

By Fri., Nov. 18, Beckman had been moved out of ICU and into a recovery room. Gone were the fears of an infection or continued bleeding from the liver and the doctor’s main focus was getting Chris’s regular bodily functions back in order. His first bowel movement was an occasion celebrated with brownies instead of the usual fare of Jell-O and Chris was beginning to navigate the 10-foot walk to the toilet on his own. We resumed the banter of life, telling jokes and stories, being careful not to make Beckman laugh too hard. One of my favorites, a classic example of how rumors can spread with remarkable speed, stemmed from a description of the .416 Rigby as an “elephant gun.” While faxing my application to study abroad, I overheard a student-worker discussing the accident in one of the LA Tech athletic department offices.

“Did y’all hear about the Tulane player who got shot?” she said, breaking the news four days after it had occurred. “I guess him and his brother were hunting elephant somewhere north of town and his brother shot him.”

“Elephant?” her co-workers exclaimed, rightfully skeptical. “I didn’t think we had elephant around here.”

“Me neither but Jackie heard their coach talking about it yesterday when she was walkin’ past their door.”         

Blood Despair Love & FootballIt was hard to put on a happy face day after day and it certainly didn’t help that the season was going down the drain. Though we started the season 2-1 on the strength of wins over SMU and Div. I-AA Southeastern Louisiana, things turned sour from there on. We lost our last eight games, only a couple of which were even close. The mental and physical strain of a season on the road cannot be overstated. Even the New Orleans Saints, elite athletes making six figures or more, were unable to win games under nomadic conditions. Their 3-13 season paralleled our 2-9 experience in many ways. We ended up in Ruston; they moved operations to San Antonio. We slept on air mattresses at a country club the night before the Southeastern game; they lifted weights in a parking lot. We both traveled hours to “home” games. Nothing was familiar. Nothing was comfortable. Every week brought new frustrations. The little things that were usually seen as automatic never went our way and all season long it seemed we were destined to be unlucky. In addition to Katrina, storms nagged us well into our schedule. Playing SMU in Dallas, we battled the approach of Hurricane Rita as the winds swirled through Ford Stadium. Though she had moved inland and dissipated considerably, Rita still had the strength to rock our bus on the four-and-a-half hour ride back to Ruston. Then, for the game against the University of Central Florida, Hurricane Wilma forced kickoff to be moved from 7 p.m. Saturday to 2 p.m., Friday, expediting our travel and shortening our preparation time. Neither of these other storms disrupted our lives the way Katrina did but the irony of an entire season avoiding hurricanes was a bit cruel.

The team dynamic is an odd thing and our season in Ruston only served to make it more complicated. On the one hand, we were all individuals. Each of us had our own room, our own schedules and our own personal problems to deal with. There were plenty of opportunities for team-building activities to offer some sort of diversion from our woes. Our coaches or administrators could have planned a fun excursion or a challenging activity to encourage interaction away from the football field. They could have offered some guidance. But they didn’t. Cliques persisted and intensified. Fingers began to be pointed after mistakes on the field and blame was passed from one individual to the next. All avoided responsibility as survival mode reached its peak. 

On the other hand, we were a team. We were the wheels on those buses we hated so much. If we had fallen apart – if the wheels had fallen off – the result could have been even worse. Despite all the negative effects felt within the team, I can’t deny that I feel some sort of bond to the other 86 players from that season. It seems the mere principle of a mutual experience can override all the bickering and ill feelings that ailed us in Ruston. Though a particular teammate may not be my friend – though we may have sparred over petty differences that expanded under the pressure – I can identify with him. We stepped carefully in the same staph-infected locker room. We spent three months as strangers at another school. We felt the fading sting of each loss. Long after all vigor and emotion had been spent on more important things, we stayed the course. We struggled, sometimes inwardly, sometimes openly, when the smallest inconvenience was magnified tenfold. We endured it together and most of us came back.

After eight weeks of lunch and dinner, movies and a moonlit first kiss in the park, Hillary and I attended our first date party. The Sigma Kappa fall formal was planned in a Kentucky Derby theme and outfits were styled accordingly.