EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In the fall of 2012, as he stood in front of his teammates at Penn State and declared the football team would stick together in the wake of crushing NCAA sanctions, Michael Mauti won praise all over the country for standing by a program in the face of adversity.
It wasn't his first time.
The Minnesota Vikings linebacker was starting his sophomore year at Mandeville High School in August 2005, as a promising player on a team that wasn't expected to be very good. He'd played in the school's Jamboree game in Chalmette, Louisiana, on the southeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain on Aug. 26 of that year. His teammates were buzzing over the possibility that a hurricane might cancel school the next Monday.
"We were all celebrating," Mauti said. "And we came to find out that stadium we played in was under 15 feet of water."
Mauti's childhood home wasn't ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in the same way as other houses in his neighborhood -- or the home of Vikings offensive lineman Isame Faciane, which took on 7 1/2 feet of water following the storm. But 10 years later, Mauti is still affected by the events of the storm, the way neighbors banded together and the way football helped bring New Orleans back from the brink.
"Most of us wanted to go play, because it got our minds off of working and cleaning," Mauti said. "Some guys, I'd go to hang out with them and we'd be hanging out in FEMA trailers. It was an unprecedented time."
Even though Mauti's house was far enough from Lake Pontchartrain to avoid serious flooding risk, his father Rich (a former receiver for the New Orleans Saints) made the decision to move his family 15 miles north to a family friend's farm. As the hurricane raged in the early hours of Aug. 29, Mauti sat transfixed at a window in the farmhouse, watching the wind snap trees like rubber bands, until an oak tree smashed into the corner of the house. By the time the storm stopped, it took Mauti's family two or three days of clearing downed trees just to create enough space to drive off the farm and back toward Mandeville.
All they'd had on the farm was a handheld radio to relay reports of the damage. Once they finally returned, "it was like a war zone," Mauti said.
"That's one thing I'll never forget -- with the choppers flying over and refueling, all the National Guard trucks," he said. "It was like a nuclear bomb went off."
The storm had spared Mauti's house of its worst chaos -- the home merely sustained some wind and water damage -- but the linebacker remembered neighbors' homes being sawed in half. They'd wake up at sunrise, in a house with no power, and clear trees in the sweltering heat until sundown. Then, they'd sit in the dark with guns at the ready, on edge because of rumors that looters had hijacked buses to get across the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain.
When school finally started again, Mandeville played five games, with a hodgepodge of kids who stayed and kids who transferred from schools that suffered worse damage. "They kind of wrote the rules as they went," Mauti said. "So many guys didn't have houses."
But football added a welcome diversion from the brutality of the storm and frustration over mismanagement of the recovery effort. And a year later, as the Saints returned to the Louisiana Superdome, Mauti was in the stands on a Monday night, as one of the fans screaming to the world that the Crescent City was back after Steve Gleason blocked Michael Koenen's punt.
"I got out of practice for that Monday night game, and that was the loudest I've ever heard any stadium," he said. "I get goose bumps just thinking about it. That was the most moving football moment I've ever witnessed -- and I've been a part of a lot. People were crying before the game. That was one moment I'll never forget. For a couple hours, people forgot about the fact they didn't have houses to go back to. They just wanted to get their minds off of it. And that's what the Saints brought them that year. Besides them winning the Super Bowl, that was the best moment I think I'll ever witness."