After a summer of heartbreak, LSU again playing for Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Russell Gage didn't wait for permission to leave. The LSU wide receiver only knew that his family was in danger when historic flooding hit his hometown, and he desperately scrambled to do whatever he could to get them to safety.

Gage grabbed roommate Devin Voorhies and took off without informing his coaches he was leaving LSU's preseason camp -- Gage would later describe that as a "boneheaded decision," since he had no clue about the extent of the flooding in the area -- and raced home to help. When he and Voorhies arrived, they discovered a rapidly rising water level and no way to drive out.

"A rescue boat came and got me and my family," said Gage, whose family home in nearby Baker, Louisiana, took on four feet of water in the flood. "I parked my car around five or six miles away. The rescue boat brought us half the way, and we walked to my car, and I was able to drive my family to a hotel."

The 1,000-year flood that settled over south Louisiana just over a week ago dumped a staggering 6.9 trillion gallons of rain, damaging as many as 110,000 homes in the area. Among those affected were several members of the LSU football team, including Gage, freshman tight end Caleb Roddy, defensive lineman Christian LaCouture and fullback Bry'Kiethon Mouton.

As flood waters have subsided, the players' families are forced to deal with the same realities as tens of thousands of fellow flood victims:

Total or partial property loss inside their homes. Flooded cars that won't start. Wet drywall and insulation that must be cut out to prevent mold from settling in the home's foundation. The need to locate shelter until their homes are repaired -- if they can be repaired.

"It's kind of devastating," Gage said. "It's a lot of damage already done, but it's still a relief. My family's the only thing that really matters. Everything else is replaceable."

Gage was a only 9 years old when Hurricane Katrina devastated his home state in 2005, but he clearly remembers the images that came across his TV screen 11 years ago. He never imagined he would see flood waters creeping up to rooftops and cars totally submerged in his hometown, though. This was unprecedented in Baton Rouge, which sits 80 miles northwest of the New Orleans area that is more vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes or tropical storms.

"I never would have thought something like that could happen down here." Gage said. "It seemed like it was so far-fetched, like you're watching the waters and everything and people standing on their roofs [in Katrina footage] and it's like, 'OK, that's bad, but that'll never happen down here.' And here we are and the waters were rising. It brought flashbacks of that."

It also brought a reminder of what -- and who -- LSU's football team plays for each Saturday in the fall.

An oversize sign, posted just inside the main entrance to LSU's team meeting room, spells out the Tigers' top priorities. Sitting atop the list is Louisiana. Then, according to the sign, LSU players perform for their team -- and, finally, for themselves.

Louisiana has occupied the top spot on the list since Katrina wreaked unprecedented havoc on the state just before the start of Les Miles' first season at LSU. That 2005 Tigers team won the SEC West title, providing a pleasant distraction as the football-crazy region struggled to recover from the storm's crippling damage. Although he was new to Louisiana at the time, Miles got a crash course in the healing power of LSU football.

"There's a lot of teams that people support in Louisiana, but one common team that everybody supports is LSU and LSU football, and I think Les realized that pretty quickly once he got onto campus," said Jacob Hester, a running back on LSU's 2005 team who went on to play five seasons in the NFL. "He knew that it might not solve an issue, but it can actually help ease some minds and get some minds off of what's going on around us."

Eleven years later, Baton Rouge could use some more Miles magic.

It had already been a painful summer in the Baton Rouge community even before the floods. Racial tensions peaked in July, when local police officers shot and killed an African-American man, Alton Sterling, outside a convenience store, prompting heated protests. Two weeks later, a gunman shot and killed three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers and wounded several more in response to the Sterling killing.

A month later, the flood's devastation has placed the burden on Miles' team to once again provide an emotional pick-me-up for its community -- as if entering the fall with a top-five national ranking wasn't enough pressure.

"I think it becomes magnified when you have the perimeter as an issue," Miles said. "This flooding, it looks like Katrina flooding. And certainly the issues on the perimeter prior to this with the loss of life, our community has gone through some tough times, and it certainly is a great way for a community to come together.

"I don't know that it's fair for me to put that on my team. I think just becoming a great team and developing is something first that they have to take on -- and then whether or not they want to take on the responsibility that other teams have here, for who we play for."

Louisianans are a prideful bunch, and LSU's roster is loaded with home-state players who already believed the state's rightful place was atop the priority list in the team meeting room.

Even among those who remember Katrina's wrath, they were only children when the storm overwhelmed the New Orleans area. Now they're young adults who better understand the lives affected by Baton Rouge's terrible summer.

"When a tragedy like this happens, especially in the Baton Rouge vicinity, it's one of the things where if we have a great season, win every game, LSU football could do a tremendous thing for this city and state," said Tigers wide receiver Malachi Dupre, a New Orleans native whose family was displaced by Katrina a decade ago. "We really go out there and help as much as we can in public; but at the end of the day, I feel like the biggest [gift] we can give them is playing well, and that will lift their spirits."

Miles drives home his point about Louisiana pride to each LSU team during preseason practice. He had given that annual speech to the 2016 team shortly before the flood waters arrived.

A few days later, that sermon had entirely new meaning for many LSU players.

"At the end of the day, I can't go out there and vacuum up all the water," said Roddy, whose family home in nearby Denham Springs took on three feet of water in the flood.

"My responsibility right now is to play for the Tigers and play for Louisiana and do what my parents, what my grandma, always dreamed of me doing: Get my education and kill it on the field."