Archive for Thursday, September 15, 2005

Louisiana Tech players shaken by Katrina

September 15, 2005

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Louisiana Tech's football season wasn't supposed to start this way - with evacuees cramping up their space, family members nowhere to be found and childhood homes in ruins, some under deep, contaminated floodwaters.

But Mother Nature rarely strikes at convenient times.

Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped New Orleans off the map last month, and though Tech is 300-some miles away in Ruston, La., near the Louisiana-Arkansas border, the devastating aftermath of one of the most powerful storms in United States history hit too close to home for many Bulldogs.

As Tech prepares for its Saturday battle with Kansas University, some things are getting back to normal around campus, while others are just starting to get complex again.

Seven players on the Bulldogs roster are from New Orleans, and several others come from surrounding areas hit hard - if not destroyed - by Katrina. The storm was bad enough, but the wake of it, with friends and family unable to be reached and possessions completely lost, was overwhelming to many on the team.

To play football again, as Tech did Saturday in a season-opening loss to Florida, allowed those players to be normal again. And, as Tech coach Jack Bicknell said, it was desperately needed.

"It was really great. It really was," Bicknell said. "The week before our game week was a very difficult week. People not sure if their loved ones were OK : at least 15, 16 of our guys had their house wiped out or weren't sure if their house was wiped out."

The answers slowly came, but the results weren't all heartwarming. Defensive linemen Oren Lewis, a native of Bay St. Louis, Miss., lost family members in the storm, including an uncle and sister-in-law. Several other players couldn't get in touch with immediate family for days before finally succeeding.

After everyone was accounted for, the attention turned to helping take care of evacuees, who relocated to Ruston by the thousands.

"That kind of brings it home to you, too," Bicknell said. "You have people in this town you want to take care of. There's a big mental strain there, for sure."

The team did plenty to assist the displaced, signing autographs and helping set up shelters for victims of the storm.

"I was exhausted at the end of the week," Bicknell said. "Mainly, dragging box springs up eight floors."

Now, Louisiana Tech is dealing with a new situation. Tulane, located in the heart of New Orleans, moved its football operations from its temporary home at SMU in Dallas to Louisiana Tech's campus, meaning the Green Wave and Bulldogs will be splitting use of facilities for the season.

Tulane's football team relocated Monday into Ruston. Green Wave players enrolled in classes Tuesday, and practice will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. The Bulldogs will hit the field after that.

"There's not going to be any problems other than the condition of the field," Bicknell said. "I'm hoping the field can hang in there. We don't have the greatest field in the world, and the grass has a tendency to disappear after awhile.

"But I think it's going to be fine, and we're looking forward to having them. It will be a good situation for both of us."

Added quarterback Donald Allen: "It's not cramping anybody's style. We rarely ever see each other. A few of us were just talking the other day, wondering 'Are they even here?'"

As much as the Bulldogs downplay it, welcoming Tulane is quite a sacrifice Louisiana Tech is assuming. Tulane coach Chris Scelfo feels some guilt toward SMU, which lost its opener to Baylor on Sept. 3 soon after accepting Tulane players.

"We disrupted their whole routine and their lives, and it cost them the game," Scelfo said. "We're 0-1 right now, because I guarantee you that first-half execution was because we were in town."

There are more important things in life, though, something Bicknell and Scelfo both agree on. Tech looked sluggish offensively in a 41-3 loss to No. 10 Florida, but Bicknell said the week of preparation wasn't too atypical. And once the adjustment of Tulane's presence on campus is settled, focusing on Kansas will be even more normal.

It's just what many of the Louisiana Tech players need - something that's just normal, after being touched by a tragedy so extraordinary.

"Once we found out (about family), then we could start focusing on Florida," Bicknell said. "At least for me, it was great to get out there and feel good about things again."

The Associated Press contributed information for this report.

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