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A place to play

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 15, 2005

They arrived quietly by bus Monday at their new home in the tiny northern Louisiana town of Ruston, a world away from the familiar life they lived until little more than two weeks ago in New Orleans.

On Tuesday morning, they attended their first classes on a college campus most had never laid eyes on, let alone tried to find their way around without getting lost.

And several hours later, the 88 members of the Tulane University football team and its coaching staff conducted their first practice at the school that has opened its arms and adopted them for the immediate future, Louisiana Tech.

They are preparing this week for an event that only recently seemed preposterous: their first contest of the season Saturday - a "home" game moved to Independence Stadium in Shreveport, some 70 miles west of Ruston, against Mississippi State.

Football is daily therapy, helping them forget the horrors that befell their city, the possessions that were washed away in the floodwaters and the cloud of uncertainty that follows them now. They know their situation pales in comparison to the plight of so many others. So they try to count their blessings.

"We were very lucky to be able to get out of there," Tulane coach Chris Scelfo said to a handful of reporters on a conference call after practice Tuesday. "We were one of the most fortunate groups in the city. And it's just been absolutely heartwarming the way people have reached out to us."

So goes the surreal, unexpected odyssey of the Green Wave, forced to face challenges far greater than any gridiron foe could pose.

It is one of 13 sports teams at the school that will be relocated this fall to four universities in Texas and Louisiana, with classes at Tulane suspended for the semester. The ambitious plan implemented by Tulane president Dr. Scott Cowan and athletic director Rick Dickson is meant to preserve continuity and send a message. Each team will wear road uniforms with a special patch embroidered with the school name and images of the New Orleans skyline and the Superdome.

"We want to carry the torch of the school and the city and to give hope," Dickson said. "And we have a new scorecard for these teams. It's about staying in the game against all odds and adversity."

The football team certainly has. It evacuated on Aug.28, a day before Hurricane Katrina caused its massive devastation. Players and staff left behind cars, clothes and keepsakes, wearing practice gear as they rode buses that inched along roads to Jackson, Miss., in nine hours rather than three.

In Jackson, the coaches and players did their best to contact loved ones by cell phone to assure them they were safe. But they had no idea of the scope of the destruction in New Orleans until they saw TV coverage on a stop in Shreveport two days later en route to Texas, a numbing experience for all of them.

Their journey was now leading to Dallas, where SMU offered refuge. The Mustangs made their training field and facilities available, while a Doubletree hotel let the Green Wave convert one ballroom into a locker room, another into coaches' offices. Donations poured in - from toiletries to massage tables, Gatorade from the University of Oklahoma, T-shirts and shorts from the Indianapolis Colts.

The NCAA made a special exception to its ban on athletes accepting gifts, clearing the way for a Tulane booster in Dallas to purchase the players clothes and underwear so they could attend a Cowboys exhibition game at the invitation of owner Jerry Jones.

The team also was invited by SMU to attend its game against Baylor, which also would have violated the NCAA's scouting rule in normal times. Walking through a tailgate area on the way to the game, one of the Green Wave players - senior running back Jovon Jackson, a graduate of Gibbs High in St. Petersburg - was approached by an SMU student.

"She asked me if I wanted to donate to the Hurricane Relief Fund," said Jackson by phone Tuesday. "I said, "We are the Hurricane Relief Fund.' And she was like, "I'm so sorry. Is everything okay?"'

Jackson is typical of the Tulane players. He has no idea what may have happened to his car, a Hyundai Elantra, but figures it's gone, along with his new TV and family photos - including a rare shot of a grandfather he barely remembers.

"We thought we'd only be gone three or four days, so I took a few pairs of basketball shorts, two T-shirts and some slippers," he said. "Everything else was left behind. But I'm not worried about the material belongings. The main thing is we're okay."

Now, they have been taken in by Louisiana Tech, 330 miles north of New Orleans. They practice for a season-opener without the benefit of game film, which was washed away, and with the mishmash of practice gear and road uniforms they took.

"One of my kids said, "Coach, we're like the replacements,"' Scelfo said. "Well, I guess so. But I have not had one kid complain. Obviously, they have questions because of the lack of routine and what's coming tomorrow. But you know what this team is? They're appreciative of what they've been able to have. And that's food, water and a place to sleep."

Scelfo's players gained an appreciation of that in their stay in Jackson. "We slept on a gym floor with no air-conditioning for two days with no electricity," he said. "So they just have a great mind-set for this - and an understanding that there are people who are a lot more devastated than we are. And that's what I'm as proud of as anything."

Scelfo, 41, has been forced into a role as counselor as much as coach. But coping with heartache and uncertainty is something he knows about. At 18, in Scelfo's freshman year at Northeastern Louisiana, his father, a heralded high school coach in the state, died of a heart attack. Six months later, his mother died of a heart attack as well.

"So you learn to survive," he said. "Which we did when we got out of New Orleans. And then you learn to persevere, which we're in the process of doing now. God works in mysterious ways. I was the age that all these players are. And I can relate to their feelings and the lack of understanding. ... You don't know where tomorrow's going to be."

Scelfo has turned that around into a team motto.

"It's "Yesterday was the hardest day,"' he said. "And that's what we're trying to get across - appreciate what we have because we have so much more than so many other people we lived side by side with for so long."

Scelfo recalls thinking his team had ample character, the way it battled back from a 1-4 start in 2004 to win four of its last six games. Now, he's sure of it. "We've got coaches and players who have lost everything. I mean, we have two coaches, they'll need a GPS machine to find their houses, and I haven't heard them ask for one thing."

As for his own house, part of the roof was torn away. So this week, Scelfo's wife, Nancy, and his 13-year-old daughter, Sarah, returned to New Orleans to patch the roof with a tarp. Meanwhile, he allowed his 11-year-old son, Joseph, to skip class at his new school in Ruston to serve water to the players at practice. The team will use Tech's old weight room and stay in a dorm that was to have been torn down, while two banquet rooms in the basketball arena have become a locker room and coaches' offices.

Where will the coaches live? "The people of Ruston have opened their homes to us," he said. "Their apartments, maybe a room in their house. We're all over the place."

Given the circumstance, Scelfo has made a point of de-emphasizing the outcome on the field. In a meeting with his staff, he wrote on a chalkboard the term student-athlete. "I erased athlete," he said. "Right now, I want them to be students. And the extracurricular activity of football is just that."

Not that practicing and playing isn't important.

"The kids and the coaches really enjoyed today's practice," he said. "And it was good for them to get out there and good for myself. But we're not interested in winning and losing. That's not our goal."

For Tulane, the goal has changed from a white line by the end zone to this:

"It's to give hope," Scelfo said. "If we can persevere, maybe someone in our Tulane community or the city of New Orleans can relate to us. 'Cause we're just normal people like everyone else. And if we can do it, hopefully they'll see that they can do it, too."

--Information from Times wires was used in this story.

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