HOUSTON -- Toneil Carter never imagined he would be the face of a phenomenon.
Carter thought he would always be the scared 6-year-old who had his life forever changed when Hurricane Katrina came ashore and left a wound on New Orleans that still has scabs as we approach the 10th anniversary of the storm. Carter says he vividly remembers sleeping on the rooftop of a neighbor's house because of flooding, dead rats in his home after the storm passed and people with guns looting stores to find food for their family. And he'll never forget the boat ride with his family that eventually led to their escape from New Orleans.
"It was a really scary experience for a little kid like me," Carter said. "It was chaos."
Carter is one of the estimated 250,000 Louisiana evacuees who ended up in Houston after Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. Like many Katrina kids, Carter had a difficult time putting memories of the storm's aftermath behind him and adjusting to life in Houston. He got into fights all the time, struggled in elementary and middle school, and says he always felt like an outsider.
But then he found football -- Houston high school football to be more exact.
Through a combination of the guidance of Langham Creek High coach Todd Thompson, the prodding of Lobos' assistant coach Charles Broussard and the talent that seems an abundant, common thread in players from Louisiana, Carter has put his past behind him and developed into one of the nation's top high school football players. After rushing for more than 1,300 yards as a sophomore, he's the second-best running back recruit in the junior class, the third-ranked player in Texas and the No. 13 prospect overall.
But more importantly, Carter has become the poster child for a recruiting renaissance happening in Houston.
In an area where high school football is almost a religion, the greater Houston metro area was producing on average roughly 60 major college signings per season in the early 2000s. That average has swelled to more than 74 over the past decade, and astute local high school coaches and college recruiters point to the influx of people from Louisiana, like Carter, as one of the reasons for the increase.
"There's no doubt Houston is a better recruiting territory because of Katrina," said University of Houston offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, who has recruited in parts of the city for more than a decade as an assistant for the Cougars, Texas, Alabama and Rice.
"It's not like it was barren before, but there's been an influx. I recruited the Southeast part of Houston, the Eastern part of Houston and pushing out toward Port Arthur and Beaumont, and almost every high school has had a prospect with some sort of ties with New Orleans or Louisiana. The whole I-10 corridor has been loaded with players that moved out because of Katrina, with many ending up in Houston."
Austin Thomas, LSU's director of player personnel, agrees with Applewhite's assessment.
"I do think it has caused a spike in Houston, with a large population moving there post-Katrina," Thomas said. "While it has always been an extremely fertile area with great athletes, Katrina and the displacement of population really advanced that notion in Houston. One of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country became even more fertile."
Yet, it's taken longer than expected for this recruiting revolution in Houston to take place. It's natural to assume the biggest impact would have been felt in the immediate aftermath of Katrina in the 2006 and 2007 recruiting classes, but most observers say the rise of recruits with Louisiana ties has spiked the most in the past five years.
"We didn't get one varsity football player out of the original evacuation," said University of Houston assistant Corby Meekins, who joined the college coaching ranks in January after 15 years as coach at Westfield High School in Houston and one year as the president of the Greater Houston Football Coaches Association. "But over the last five years, it really hit me how many young kids came through the system that evacuated here when they were 5, 6, 7 or 8 and are now playing varsity football in Houston.
"As you get to know them as freshmen, it's like 'Oh, I'm from Louisiana.' Then you realize that they've been here now since they were little kids. It makes sense. If you're an older kid that's past middle school, you probably did everything you could to get back home and be with your friends. But when you're in middle school or elementary-aged, you went where your family went."
As those Katrina kids made their way through the Houston-area school systems, many found their footing through football, especially when they got to high school and were surrounded by a support system they would not have gotten in New Orleans.
"Louisiana has some great facilities and great high schools, no doubt about it, but nothing compares to what you get with Texas high school football, especially here in Houston," Thompson said. "We have an athletic period. We have 15 football coaches. We've got six practice fields. We have a nice weight room. This city is just so dedicated to their athletic programs, and Friday nights are incredible. We're pretty fortunate. We spend so much time with our kids, more than colleges do. It's given these kids more options to improve themselves."
Tim Teykl, the head coach of B.F. Terry since 1992 and a member of the board of directors for the Texas 7-on-7 Association, the Texas High School Coaches Association and the past president of the GHFCA, believes a lot of credit should also go to high school coaches in Houston. The GHFCA is the largest of its type in the country, and the group has spent a lot of resources over the past decade working with their coaches on ways they can help the Louisiana evacuees become successful in their programs.
"Every human on this earth wants to be appreciated, but you can really sense it with kids in these families that came from Katrina. It got fed because of that nurturing of the greater Houston area and now they're taking this natural talent and turning it into a tremendous opportunity." B.F. Terry head coach Tim Tekyl
"I don't think any other city would have been able to absorb that many people in their high schools and allow them to thrive," Teykl said. "And I think that is the key word -- thrive. It's just exponential. That root has gotten in the ground and they have thrived in this environment. That fertilizer has kicked in, they have continued to grow and grow in this environment, and now we're seeing many have become big-time football recruits."
It also doesn't hurt that Louisiana is one of the nation's top recruiting hotbeds, as the state annually produces higher amounts of Division I prospects than states with higher population bases. Even in spite of the exodus caused by Katrina, what's remarkable is that New Orleans really hasn't dropped off from a recruiting standpoint -- the 2014 and 2016 classes are two of the best ever in the state in large part because of the talent there. Coaches believe players originally from Louisiana still have in their DNA the ability to develop into "water moccasins," or difference-makers, even if they've been living in Texas for most of their life.
"When you bring them here to Houston, it's like that old crusted up sponge that's on the windowsill of your grandma's sink when you go visit her at the old farmhouse," Teykl said. "It's not seen water in a long, long time. But when that sponge gets accidentally knocked into the sink, and the sink is full of water, that old sponge gets dripping full. Every human on this earth wants to be appreciated, but you can really sense it with kids in these families that came from Katrina. It got fed because of that nurturing of the greater Houston area and now they're taking this natural talent and turning it into a tremendous opportunity."
Over the past decade, so many Katrina kids have become a part of Houston's fabric that local coaches and recruiters agree it's tough to truly put a finger on how many recruits are officially part of this trend. One recruiter estimated the number to be "multiple hundreds," but we'll likely never truly know because so many now identify themselves as being from Houston, not New Orleans.
Carter personifies this perfectly. When asked if he's from Houston or New Orleans, he paused for quite some time to ponder the query.
"I can't really say," said Carter, who would have attended Edna Karr High School had he remained in the West Bank. "I'm from New Orleans, but I feel like I was built here in Houston. I don't know. That's a really good question."
There's no questioning Carter's talent, though. Thompson said Carter has been offered scholarships by "almost everybody in the country," and he gushes about his star running back's speed, vision, toughness, hands, strong work ethic and grades.
"He's an amazing talent," Thompson said. "He's a star on our special teams, which kind of tells you what type of player he is. He's the first guy down on every kickoff. He'll score a touchdown on offense and be the first one down on kickoff. The sky is the limit on him. He's a kid I could see playing on Sunday in the backfield. He's got that kind of ability.
"You would never know he was part of the hurricane, unless you ask him that question. Like so many other kids that have come from that situation, he's done a great job of putting it behind him."
Carter chuckles and gives a why-me shoulder shrug when asked if he epitomizes the recent growth of top-flight recruits in Houston post-Katrina. He said he has done everything he can to put his Katrina past behind him and is solely focused on achieving his goal of attending college.
"I want to be the first person in my family to go to college and get a degree," he said. "My family has been telling me to 'Go chase it.' And that's what I've been focused on. I think going to college, playing football and getting a degree is the reward for all of us after everything we had to go through with Katrina to get to this point."