On Friday, August 26, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, then predicted to make landfall on the Florida Panhandle, shifted track in the Gulf of Mexico and headed toward the Louisiana/Mississippi Gulf Coast.
As city and state preparations began, I was at work, covering a pair of high school jamborees featuring Bogalusa and Franklinton high schools in Covington, La., for the Bogalusa (La.) Daily News. The Saints played their third preseason game earlier that night, and on the drive back to my apartment, the WWL 870 postgame show detailed the team's plans to fly out early on Saturday and ride out the storm in Oakland, Calif., the site of their upcoming preseason game with the Raiders.
I made a phone call to my mom to check on some family plans for the weekend. We agreed that I should plan to come home on Saturday to ride out the storm. The next morning, I woke up and went to the newsroom to file my sports section for the Sunday edition. As we'd slept, the storm had strengthened. Within a few hours, my once leisurely plans to drive home had become urgent. I worked quickly, packed as much as I could out of my apartment, and hit the road, just as the interstates began to contra-flow north. By the next morning, predictions of a Category 5 disaster were in the wind, and we headed north to family in Gonzales.
On Monday, August 29, Katrina made landfall near Buras, La. as a Category 3 hurricane. Her storm surge would breach portions of the city's protective levee system and flood approximately 75 percent of the New Orleans Metropolitan Area, including the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview, as well as neighboring St. Bernard Parish. Nearly 2,000 people died -- some 1,500 of those in Southeast Louisiana. At an estimated $108 billion in damages, it was, and remains to this day, the costliest disaster in American history.
Approximately 80 miles northwest of the city, on Interstate 10, Baton Rouge and LSU's campus became an epicenter of the relief efforts. Federal Emergency Management Authority officials requisitioned the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and the Maddox Field House to serve as not only as makeshift hospitals, but also as morgues. Campus life ground to a halt as students, faculty, staff and officials worked, to not only help those victims now on campus, but also to deal with the disaster that was still ongoing in New Orleans.
In addition to all of that, LSU was set to open the first season of a new football coach the following weekend.
Les Miles had been hired away from Oklahoma State to replace Nick Saban, who had departed for the Miami Dolphins. Already, Miles's first training camp had proven somewhat eventful as star running back Alley Broussard suffered a season-ending knee injury. Now, overnight, he had players whose families were unreachable and missing and others who were housing their families in small college apartments. His practices were taking place blocks from refrigerator trucks stacked with dead bodies, and were often interrupted by the deafening sound of rescue helicopter flyovers.
"When I came into work on that Tuesday morning (Aug. 30), my first phone call of the day was from (then LSU Police Department Chief) Ricky Adams," said Lois Stuckey, LSU football's long-time administrative coordinator. "He had to talk to coach right away and tell him about the PMAC, and that they might need to take over the indoor (practice) facility."
The 2005 Tigers had approximately 37 players from New Orleans or other areas affected by the storm. They were scheduled to open the season with North Texas on Saturday, Sept. 3.
"Everything kind of blew up at once after that," Stuckey said. "I had the Wibels (family of junior offensive lineman Garrett) call me, and their house had been split in two by a tree near Lake Ponchatrain. They had nowhere else to go, because Garrett and his roommates already had other families staying with them, so I just told them to come to my house."
Greg Stringfellow, LSU's head equipment manager, had just moved into the equipment room in the new LSU Football Operations complex, which had just finished construction that offseason. It wouldn't take long for his facility to be put to work.
"We were the laundry facility for the PMAC," he said. "We had just gotten these machines, and we kind of put them through a trial by fire, sterilizing bed linens and anything they needed."
Over the next few weeks, members of LSU's other athletics teams -- the softball, basketball, track and soccer teams -- volunteered in shifts to keep the laundry effort going 24/7. Strength & Conditioning Coach Tommy Moffit, along with fellow staff members, assisted at the critical needs shelter, while the athletic training staff offered crucial supplies.
Nearly all of campus joined in the relief effort. Bill Martin, a student worker in LSU's SID office at the time and now head of sports information for Mississippi State, chronicled his work in the shelters in the following email, which went viral among the local media before "viral" was a word we used to describe these things:
"Little did I know what I would be doing following Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, but as I type right now, there won't be a more gratifying or more surreal experience than what I went through tonight.
We went up to the office today and held a press conference regarding the postponement of the [North Texas] game and it was the right decision. As the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and Field House are being used as shelters, we decided as an office to do everything we could to help the situation.
At first, we were just supposed to make copies of this disaster relief form for all of the people. The copiers will never print a document more important than that.
It's weird. Nearly 12 hours ago we were running off copies of game notes for a football game that is now meaningless. We printed the copies and carried them over to the Field House at 6:30 p.m. I wouldn't leave the area for another eight hours.
On the way back to the PMAC in a cart, it looked like the scene in the movie Outbreak. FEMA officials, U.S. Marshalls, National Guard, and of course the survivors.
Black Hawks were carrying in victims who were stranded on roofs. Buses rolled in from New Orleans with other survivors. As (LSU Sports Information Director) Michael (Bonnette) and I rode back to the PMAC, a lady fell out of her wheelchair and we scrambled to help her up.
We met Coach [Les] Miles and Coach [Tommy] Moffitt in the PMAC to see all the survivors and it was the view of a hospital. Stretchers rolled in constantly, and for the first time in my life, I saw someone die right in front of me.
A man rolled in from New Orleans and was badly injured on his head. Five minutes later he was dead. And that was the scene all night.
What did we do? We started hauling in supplies, and thousands of boxes of supplies. The CDC from Atlanta arrived directing us what to do.
One of the U.S. Marshals was on hand so the supplies could not become loot. I asked him what his primary job was. He serves on the committee of counter terrorism, but once he saw of the disaster, he donated his forces to come help. He said the death toll could be nearing 10,000. It was sickening to hear that.
After unloading supplies, I started putting together baby cribs and then IV poles. Several of our football players and (LSU Basketball players) Big Baby (Glen Davis) and Tasmin Mitchell helped us.
At the same time, families and people strolled in. Mothers were giving birth in the locker rooms. The auxiliary gym "Dungeon" was being used as a morgue. I couldn't take myself down there to see it.
I worked from 8 p.m., until 2:45 a.m. Before I left, three more buses rolled in and they were almost out of room. People were standing outside. The smells, the sights were hard to take.
A man lying down on a cot asked me to come see him.
He said, "I just need someone to talk to, to tell my story because I have nobody and nothing left."
He turned out to be a retired military veteran. His story was what everybody was saying. He thought he survived the worst, woke up this morning and the levees broke. Within minutes water rushed into his house.
He climbed to the attic, smashed his way through the roof and sat there for hours. He was completely sunburned and exhausted. Nearly 12 hours later a chopper rescued him and here he was.
We finished the night hauling boxes of body bags and more were on the way. As we left, a man was strolled in on a stretcher and scarily enough he suffered gunshots. The paramedic said he was shot several times because a looter or a convict needed his boat and he wouldn't give it to him.
Another man with him said it was 'an uncivilized society no better than Iraq down there right now.' A few minutes later, he was unconscious and later pronounced dead. I then left as they were strolling a 3-year old kid in on a stretcher. I couldn't take it anymore.
That was the scene at the PMAC and it gives me a new perspective on things. For those of you who I haven't been able to get in touch with because of phone service, I pray you are safe. Send me an email to let me know. God bless."
"Of course all the hotels are full," said Stuckey. "So anybody that had a bed, a couch or just room on their floor had people staying with them. So we went to our vendors and we started rounding up food to pass out at night. Players could come and get enough for their families and whoever was staying with them. We had to get NCAA clearance for all of that."
The university didn't take long in that first week to make the decision to postpone the season opener with North Texas. But even the thought of the week two game with Arizona State seemed daunting, given the state of campus.
"That Monday (Sept. 5), I came into work and Les, Skip (Bertman) and Chancellor (Sean) O'Keefe were all in my office on a conference call with the SEC and the folks from Arizona," said Stringfellow. "And so all of a sudden, I'm sitting here with the president of the university, the AD and the coach and we're making the decision on what we're going to do with this game. Are we playing it, moving it or what not. And the team was right down the hall in the meeting room and they're waiting to hear as well."
Most expected big things from Les Miles' first LSU squad. The team he inherited featured the fruits of his predecessor: back-to-back top-five recruiting classes in 2003 and 2004. The offense featured a veteran line that included Andrew Whitworth, Will Arnold and Rudy Niswanger, and skill-position talents like Joseph Addai, Dwayne Bowe, Skyler Green and Early Doucet, all of whom would later play in the NFL. The defense was led by stud tackles Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten, with All-American safety LaRon Landry in the secondary. And of course, there was immense potential in quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who had most recently led a furious rally in the fourth quarter of the team's bowl game versus Iowa.
The new coach was viewed through a healthy veneer of skepticism from local media and fans, who knew nothing of Miles' tenure in Stillwater. But Miles had made several smart moves that offseason. He wisely elected to retain Jimbo Fisher, Nick Saban's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, to maintain continuity on such a veteran team. In addition to that, Miles added a number of well-regarded coaches, including defensive coordinator Bo Pelini (who went on to become Nebraska's head coach for seven seasons), wide receivers coach Todd Monken (now head coach at Southern Mississippi) and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, an LSU alumnus. But with nearly a third of his roster directly affected by Katrina, Miles was facing unprecedented circumstances for any head coach, never mind for the new guy following one of the most successful runs in school history.
"Those kids didn't want to be here -- they didn't want to practice," said Senior Associate Athletic Trainer Shelly Mullenix. "All they wanted to do was go home, and they couldn't. You had to rationalize the irrational to them."
Training staffers work with athletes in unguarded moments, and Mullenix has often served as something of a den mother for the football team.
"I've always been somebody they come to when they want to complain," she said. "And a lot of them were really struggling. And I was trying to be supportive from the team standpoint, but I had friends that were missing too. I'm not going to lie -- I thought it was bullshit. It just felt wrong, you know? Somebody had to say it. I mean, what do you say to a kid who comes in and says ‘they can't find my uncle, why am I here'?"
Miles learned to lean on that support staff to help with a juggling act that suddenly featured far more balls than any head coach was used to dealing with.
"Coach spent a lot of time in Greg's office," said Mullenix. "And he'd come to me and to Jack (Marucci) and ask how guys were doing. And I'd tell him ‘hey, this kid is struggling,' or ‘so-and-so still has family missing, you might want to go talk to him,' because the players need to know that they're being heard, and that the coach cares.
"Eventually, coach just asked me how I was doing," added Mullenix. "And I was struggling too. Two of my best friends lived in Arabi, and I could see on Google Earth that their house was under water. I didn't know if they were alive or dead."
LSU's administration and athletic department ultimately decided to travel, and turn what should have been a home game versus the Sun Devils into a road game in Tempe, Arizona. For Stringfellow, a season-opening road game usually includes about six weeks of preparation and packing to get LSU's equipment truck on the road.
"Going across the country, we had to have the truck ready to leave on Wednesday," he said. "So all that packing had to be done on Tuesday."
Bringing LSU football on the road requires more than just packing. Potential team hotels are scouted months in advance to make sure they suit program needs.
"We go and check out the hotels, the meeting rooms," said Stuckey. "We bring our own servers, so (video coordinator) Doug (Aucoin) has to go and run the wires and all that. Typically, somebody goes and does that a week in advance and now we only have a few days. But we had a seasoned staff, and the folks in Arizona were just so helpful in getting things done."
For the training staff, there was the problem of recouping equipment being used in the relief effort, which meant trying to justify taking vital materials out of an area being used as an emergency medical site.
"We had to replenish a lot of our supplies, particularly IV fluids because we were going to a hot place," said Mullenix.
"And then, we're trying to gather all of our people together, which also meant pulling doctors from the community during this, which felt great," she added, ironically.
"And here is Les, who is still learning about all of these procedures, and all of us, on the fly," said Stringfellow. "He doesn't know us. But he let us do our jobs. He kept an even keel, and that helped make it easier for us. Here it is, his first game, and everything was just so discombobulated, but he kept everything going."
Stuckey, Stringfellow and Mullenix have stood by LSU and Miles in the 10 years since, but when they look back on that time, a time when they were still forming their first impressions of a new boss, words like "stoic" and "fixed point" are used to describe Miles.
"He didn't know anything about hurricanes," said Stuckey. "He barely knew anything about Louisiana, and here he is in the middle of all this, and he just kept us going. And it got hard. You saw those helicopters flying in every day, and you didn't know what was on them -- if the people were living or dead. Sometimes you just had to cry."
"For him to handle everything and handle everybody's feeling and what everybody was going through, it made a great impression on me," said Stringfellow. "It's why I still enjoy working with him to this day."
For football coaches, typically the tightest of Type-A control-freaks, giving up control is one of the hardest things to do. And it was the first thing Miles was asked to do that season.
"It's one of the greatest things about working for him," said Stringfellow. "That he trusts us all to do our jobs and do them well. And here we are, 10 years later, and you look back to that game, and to that season and that made a lot of difference really."
Players were working to make the best of the situation. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams led supply runs to gather materials to donate, and the seniors worked in concert with Miles to adopt the theme of playing "for Louisiana" as the team's chief goal for the season. Those that weren't housing family or friends spent most of their free time after practice volunteering at the shelters.
But for some, the efforts still felt hollow. Player's family members were still missing in the storm's aftermath, while others were accounted for, but still located in the disaster zone. Walk-on defensive lineman Donald Hains would have family missing for weeks afterwards.
Mullenix found some inspiration to share when her missing friends contacted her from a state shelter at the Baton Rouge River Center.
"I got that phone call and I just lost it," said Mullenix, who still fights back tears when retelling the story, all these years later. "So I leave to pick them up and bring them to my house and make them something to eat. I mean these people have nothing to their name. Lost everything. And I had to go back to work. I was almost embarrassed to tell them that."
The idea of "playing for Louisiana" would become personal.
"And my friend looks right at me and says ‘you gotta go back. You guys have to play this weekend'," she said. "There are people right now stuck on a roof, or in a shelter, and maybe all they have is a radio. They want to hear LSU football."
When Mullenix returned to her office, she ran into Miles and was able to relay her friend's story. She asked for an opportunity to speak at the end of that day's practice.
"So it's practice, and there are helicopters flying over, and there are refrigerator trucks right there across the street. Players are cramping up like crazy because they haven't stopped doing anything to rest. It's stupid hot. And when it was over, and the team is all on one knee around him, Les asks if anybody has anything to say, and I raise my hand."
Choking back tears, Mullenix relayed the story of her lost and found friends to the assembled team.
"And I told them that it was bullshit that they were out here," she said.
Any players not looking her in the eye quickly turned their heads up.
"It's wrong. There's nothing good about it. Some of you are missing family and that's awful. But it's okay. It's okay to feel that way, but it's also okay to play. I think some of them just needed to hear somebody acknowledge that. That they were right to not want to be there."
LSU staff members still give credit to Arizona State staff and other organizations for making the trip unlike any other road game.
"They treated us like a home team," said Stringfellow. "The people at the stadium, the people at the hotel -- it almost felt like a bowl game in terms of people being so nice and doing so much for you."
Players walked off the team game onto a literal red carpet on the tarmac, with a hospitality tent set up with food and drinks.
"Everything just felt better," said Mullenix. "The food was better than what a lot of us were eating here, and even the air conditioner felt cooler."
"Everybody was just exhausted," Stringfellow added. "I mean some of us still didn't have power, people had their parents living with them, living in this building, basically. So we get out there and it just reminds you that the world did not end, the world is still moving, so we need to make sure that that's how we play. So I think it helped us all focus."
In addition to the team, the LSU Alumni Association's Traveling Tigers group had hastily put together a trip for fans.
"We flew in the morning of the game, and then we flew out at like 3 a.m. that night," said Derek Ponamsky, now a radio personality on Baton Rouge's ESPN radio affiliate, who made the trip in 2005 with his wife. "So we were out of Baton Rouge for just, like, 26 hours total, but it was so nice."
Ponamsky was a river boat operator living in New Orleans in 2005, and evacuated to Houston with his wife and daughter, plus about 20 family members. His mother and most of his family lived in the Chalmette area and lost everything.
"The water line on the house I grew up in was about 19 feet up," he said. "But according to people there, that's only where it settled. So the surge was higher. There was a point where we all just looked around and said ‘hey, we're all alive. That's something'."
As for Ponamsky himself, his own home in New Orleans' warehouse district was near the Morial Convention Center, where attempts to provide refuge for those who tried to ride the storm out in the city devolved into chaos.
"We could watch it all unfolding on CNN, and our building was looted," he said. "So we knew we weren't going back. Luckily, my wife and I were already planning to move to Baton Rouge before the storm."
Ponamsky was able to rent a pair of apartments for his family, including his mother, brother, aunt and uncle, and a sister and her family.
"By the time that week rolled around, cabin fever was really setting in," he said. "I was ready to go anywhere and do anything, so I just booked (the trip) for my wife and I. We had to go buy clothes for the trip, you know? It's not like you could just go and pick your favorite LSU shirt out of your closet."
The typical LSU fan on a football road trip would treat it as a non-stop party. Not Ponamsky. "We just got in that hotel room and went to sleep," he said. "It was the first time my wife and I had a bed to ourselves without our daughter in the room, or anybody else for that matter. We just slept for like four or five hours before the game. No tailgating, no pre-gaming, none of that. It was the most normal we had felt in like a month."
Sometimes what makes you feel normal is the last thing you'd expect. In Ponamsky's case, it was a little fan smack talk.
"People in Arizona were really nice, and they really wanted to try and talk to you about Katrina and what was going on," he said. "And believe me, I appreciated that, but we just kind of wanted to get away and feel normal, you know? When we got to our seats in the stadium, there was this huge -- and I mean literally, huge -- Sun Devils fan next to us going on and on about how LSU was overrated.
"It was just refreshing to talk about football."
My memory of that Saturday was trying to make my way back to my apartment in Bogalusa. A tree had fallen across the doorframe, but, luckily, the building itself remained undamaged. It wasn't exactly inhabitable, but I still needed to climb in, clean out my fridge and freezer (hurray for Vick's VapoRub!) and grab the last of my valuables -- things I just didn't want sitting in an empty apartment. I listened, by radio, to as much college football as I could that day -- unranked TCU upset No. 7 Oklahoma and Adrian Peterson -- and raced home to get in front of a TV for the LSU game.
Fellow LSU fan Alan Stevens, a New Orleans native, had evacuated to Jackson, Miss., and took similar efforts.
"My wife's parents watched our infant son so we could go to a local bar to watch the game," he said. "It was the first time we'd been alone in weeks. The bar wasn't very crowded, and none of the TVs were even on ESPN. I remember being emotionally exhausted, as well as generally exhausted, so I don't think I was as up and down like I would be during any other game. I just kind of remember ‘being there' but it wasn't exactly real, since our home game was in the middle of the southwestern desert in someone else's stadium and there I was watching it in some bar in Mississippi. This was MY team playing a game I should have been at in Baton Rouge."
Meanwhile, ESPN set up projection screens in Tiger Stadium itself, so that LSU students could come together and watch.
"I don't remember how we found out about it, but the word got out," said M. Quinlan Duhon, director of operations for the LSU Softball program, and a sophomore on the team in 2005. "I had promised myself I would never miss a game in that stadium while I was in school, so I went. I knew it would be more fun there than in an apartment, you know?"
The 2005 Sun Devils were ranked 15th in the preseason AP poll, so most were expecting a pretty even matchup and a tight game. Arizona State, coached by Dirk Koetter, featured an explosive passing attack led by quarterback Sam Keller, tight end Zach Miller and receiver Derek Hagan. They hung 63 on Temple the week before. It was something of a strength-on-strength matchup with LSU's defense, but nobody had any idea what to expect, given the chaos the Tigers were living with.
Footage of the game is now lost to YouTube's copyright rules and sealed away in the SEC Network vault, but, in hindsight, LSU fans got the Les Miles Greatest Hits Album in his very first game. There were the requisite frustrating moments -- LSU committed 11 penalties for 100 yards as the offense struggled at times to get going and the vaunted defense allowed 560 yards, including 461 in the air. But there were also three successful fourth-down conversions and a pair of touchdowns via special teams.
Oh, and a fake punt on LSU's very first possession.
From the 10-yard line, no less, as punter Chris Jackson fired a 12-yard completion to gunner Ronnie Prude, uncovered as ASU sold out for the block.
"You gotta remember that we were coming off one of the most buttoned-down coaches there has ever been in Nick Saban," said Ponamsky. "I knew Les Miles had a reputation as a guy that would take some chances. But to fake a punt, practically in our own endzone? I remember thinking well, this is gonna be fun."
Miles would later admit he didn't actually call the fake, but gave Jackson, a former high school quarterback, the freedom to make the call if a man was left open on the outside.
LSU's new coach also caught some looks for his fashion choice: a low-profile, earpiece-style headset that looked more at home on a pop star than a football coach.
"The Britney Spears Mic -- that was something that we worked on all preseason, because Coach wanted to try something different -- something that would stand out," Stringfellow said.
"He just had trouble hearing with it," Stringfellow continued. "We were messing with it constantly. We'd tried it at practice, but you really can't simulate that noise unless he just stands in front of a speaker the whole time. It definitely added a little comedy to the situation."
Repeatedly throughout the broadcast, ESPN broke to the watch party set up in Tiger Stadium.
"They had even sent Erin Andrews there," said Duhon. "And for those moments, when they panned to us it almost felt like a home game. Everybody just wanted to enjoy something. I look back on it, and it's probably the craziest watch party I've ever been to."
Keller caught fire in the second and third quarters, passing the Sun Devils out to a 17-7 lead. But just a few minutes into the fourth quarter, Wroten sliced through the Sun Devil protection to block a 47-yard field goal attempt. The ball floated perfectly into the hands of backup defensive back Mario Stevenson, who ran it back 55 yards for a touchdown.
LSU had life.
Five plays later, Jacob Hester -- yes, the same running back that years later would become associated with the seminal game of the Les Miles Era -- blocked an Arizona State punt that his roommate, New Orleans-native Craig Stelz, returned 29 yards for another touchdown. LSU had the lead.
"It was one of the first times we had ever seen that spread punting formation instead of the usual pro-style one that everybody did back then," Hester recounts. "We had worked on it all week with (LSU special teams) Coach (Bradley Dale) Peveto, but they didn't use it every time, so I had no idea if we'd even see it. But as soon as they lined up, I thought I could get to it. But I had no idea I'd get in fast enough to tackle the punter before he could even kick it."
"We always hear a lot about luck when it comes to Les Miles," said Ponamsky. "But isn't luck the residue of design? You play aggressive special teams, you make plays on special teams. That's been the M.O. of LSU during Les Miles' entire tenure here."
Suddenly, a drab game had become interesting. Keller drove Arizona State for a go-ahead touchdown on ASU's next possession. The Tigers responded with a 7-play, 80-yard touchdown drive of their own, highlighted by a 41-yard end-around to Green. And then the Sun Devils responded with a 13-play drive to give themselves a 31-28 lead with 4:07 left on the game clock.
The Tigers drove into Arizona State territory, but three straight incompletions by Russell left LSU with a fourth and 10 at the ASU 39-yard line. LSU took a timeout with 1:23 left on the clock.
I remember what happened next vividly. Trailing by just three and needing a field goal, I kept thinking "just get another first. Keep moving. You only need a field goal. Whatever you do, don't risk an incompletion by getting greedy."
Russell rolled to his right, then pointed down field and came back to his left. With a flick of his wrist, the ball floated perfectly towards the corner of the endzone, where Doucet was able to run to the ball and get his hands on it. Touchdown. Tigers led.
Looking back, Doucet was bobbling the ball, and I'm not sure the catch would've held up under the current instant replay rules. But at the time, the relief was unbelievable.
The Sun Devils would have one last shot, and Keller would drive them to the LSU 28 before failing to convert on fourth down and sealing the first of many improbable, emotional victories of the Les Miles Era. The first of 24 fourth-quarter comebacks that LSU has had in the Les Miles Era. Maybe it was the Milesiest one of them all.
"Enjoy it folks! Ain't seen nothin' yet!"
"For the first time in weeks I had something to smile about, something to give me hope," said Stevens. "My city was gone, but my team won. And that wasn't much, but it was something."
"I wanted to stay there another three days," said Ponamsky. "Of course we couldn't. We got home, and I remember on the way back -- we were on the plane and nobody wanted to come home."