Hurricane Katrina took Saints' Cyril Lemon from New Orleans, led to a better life

METAIRIE, La. -- Hurricane Katrina took away Cyril Lemon's home and separated him from some of his family and close friends. But it gave him a chance at a better life.

That's why Lemon is back in New Orleans 10 years later, chasing an improbable dream as an undrafted rookie guard with the New Orleans Saints.

"I look at it as a blessing. I wouldn't be the man I am today. I wouldn't be where I am today without Katrina, without the Lord's guiding me, my church, my mom, my family to the places I've been in life," said Lemon, who was 12 years old when he evacuated New Orleans with his mom and about 200 people from their church group, Smoking for Jesus Ministry.

They didn't intend to leave for good, said Cyril's mom, June Lemon. But after the levees broke, most of them didn't have homes to go back to. So they eventually wound up in the tiny Texas town of Marble Falls -- where Lemon's sister eventually joined them and where many of them still live in a close-knit group today.

It took a while to get to Marble Falls, which is about an hour northwest of Austin. The group spent months traveling to several cities in Texas, searching for a place where they could all settle together. They tried Lumberton, just an hour outside of Louisiana, but Hurricane Rita forced them to evacuate again. They eventually found Marble Falls, which had a new apartment complex with enough vacancies for the roughly 60 families.

For most of them, Marble Falls was a different world. A small, rural town, mostly white, different in almost every way from where the Lemons had lived in New Orleans' 7th and 9th Wards.

"I was missing friends, missing family, it was a different atmosphere. But I think, all in all, it was good for me, because I got to see both sides of the fence," Lemon said. "New Orleans is predominantly African-American. I wasn't used to being around Caucasians. And then I moved to Texas to a place where I'm the minority. And I have to cope with that and I have to venture out. So in that aspect, I think it was very good for me as a person."

Marble Falls had something else that Lemon's old neighborhood didn't -- football.

Lemon was always too big to play park ball in New Orleans, so he had only dabbled in a flag football league for a few weeks before Katrina. Once he got to Texas, he joined a team and quickly began to thrive.

"The first time I played was on the seventh grade C team, the last game of the season. We didn't practice; 'Just throw 'em in there.' We lost by a lot," Lemon said with a laugh. "The next year I was on an A team. And from that time on, I was starting."

June said the friends Cyril met by diving into football also helped him quickly make the adjustment. As an added bonus, he wasn't dealing with the allergies that had been a problem back in New Orleans.

Cyril and June both said they valued the education he got in junior high and high school in Texas. And though they both say their life was good in New Orleans East, surrounded by family and friends, June was glad that Cyril went through his adolescence away from some of the crime that he could have been exposed to.

"It's a different type of life here," said June, who said she still has some mixed emotions about Lemon being a young, black man in New Orleans today.

But she said she has no such reservations about him joining the Saints -- the team that her family has always passionately rooted for.

"Haaa," June said. "That was full circle. I never saw that coming."

Lemon said he chose the Saints over three other teams after going undrafted out of North Texas, in part because it gave him the chance to come home. It gave him a chance to reconnect with family, including his father, who remained in New Orleans the whole time.

Lemon and his dad didn't live together before he evacuated. They stayed in touch over the years, but they didn't see each other often -- going a full four years between Lemon's high school and college graduations. Now they talk almost every day.

Lemon also gets to see his great grandmother on his mother's side more, along with aunts and uncles and cousins. Just last Saturday after Lemon's first game in the Superdome (he didn't play because of injury), he reconnected with an old friend who used to live across the street and now works as a Superdome security guard.

"I think it's crazy, I leave New Orleans in 2005, I live my adolescent years in Texas, I grow in Texas, I go to school in Texas, and come back to New Orleans," Lemon said. "It's kind of crazy. My family's here. I had a relationship with my family, but it's kind of hard since I lived 10 hours away. Now I get to see them and connect with them."

Lemon (6-foot-3, 315 pounds) is probably a long shot to make the Saints' roster. Perhaps the practice squad is a possibility. But he'll be prepared for whatever happens next since he's a firm believer that things happen for a reason.

"Cyril is a very humble young man, and he's grateful," June said. "He don't take the opportunities that have been given him in life for granted. He works hard, he realizes that you have to capitalize on them."

But she said they're both "very appreciative of everything that's happened."

"You would have never thought a tragedy would turn into such a great story, a blessing," June said.