There aren't many two-win teams that a school chooses to honor. But the Tulane football team that played a decade ago kept the Green Wave alive in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans five days before the 2005 season began.
The entire Green Wave athletic department evacuated to Jackson (Mississippi) State, and when Katrina moved east and followed the athletes to Jackson, they bivouacked in Dallas. That's where I spent nearly a week with coaches and players set adrift from their families, their belongings and all that had been their daily existence.
Eventually, the Tulane football team settled at Louisiana Tech in a dorm that had been emptied and was scheduled to be demolished. Tulane did the best it could to play football. The Green Wave finished 2-9 but the spirit they nurtured resulted in a program reborn. Tulane now plays on campus in Yurman Stadium, which opened a year ago. This November, all 308 athletes who competed for Tulane that season will be inducted into the Tulane Athletics Hall of Fame.
I caught up with four players who confided in me a decade ago. Linebacker Antonio Mason is a commercial banker in Seattle. Linebacker Anthony Cannon, who played four seasons in the NFL and CFL, is coaching in Toronto. Offensive lineman Matt Traina is an investment banker in New York. Quarterback Lester Ricard is a high school coach in Boutte, Louisiana. Head coach Chris Scelfo, released with the entire Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff after last season, is spending this fall on the Alabama Gulf Coast where he can watch his son Joe, the junior center for South Alabama.
Here is their story, in their words:
Ricard: I thought we could have won every game that season, and I think probably everyone you talked to said the exact same thing.
Mason: Anybody you ask on that team, we thought we had the team to win the Conference USA championship. I'm not kidding you.
Cannon: We would have won the conference hands down. No question. We were that good on defense.
Scelfo: Going through the spring and the summer, this was our most complete team. To say we would have won the conference is a little bit luck and guesswork and all. Without a shadow of a doubt, we had the most mature, physical, best football team that we had the whole time I was there. That includes the 2002 year when we won the Hawaii Bowl.
Mason: The thing I remember is what could have been that season. That got wiped all away just like New Orleans did, pretty much.
Mason: Two days before Katrina hits, Coach Scelfo comes in and says, 'Get a couple of pairs of clothes, maybe two nights' worth of clothes. We've got to evacuate. There's a hurricane on the way, but nothing heavy because we'll be back.'
Cannon: New Orleans had hurricanes every year. People evacuate all the time. There was a tropical storm that came earlier that year. I remember I was at summer workouts. It was an ordered evacuation. Me and a couple of my teammates had to evacuate, and we left. We went to Houston. (On the way), it's an hour's drive to Baton Rouge, and it took us about four hours. There was no hurricane. There was no nothing. New Orleans was fine. Everyone was a little upset. We got word that Hurricane Katrina was coming, it was like, 'Ahhh, here we go again.' It was the boys-who-cried-wolf story. A lot of people stayed in the city for Katrina. What could happen?
The entire athletic department bivouacked on a 10-hour bus ride to Jackson (Miss.) State to wait out the storm.
Cannon: We slept there on the gym floor as an athletic department. Slept there for two or three nights. No water; the electricity went out after the first day and a half. We called ourselves trying to miss the path of the hurricane. Lucky us -- the hurricane turned a little bit before hitting New Orleans and it went up through Jackson. We evacuate and ended up being right in the eye of it later on.
Mason: We end up going to Dallas and staying in a hotel there. That was temporary. Everything was in flux. I remember people getting to the breaking point.
Traina: We didn't even know if we were going to have a season, right? So there were a few weeks there of limbo when we didn't actually know if we were going to play or not. And then you're dealing with all the facility things: Are we going to play at home? Are we going to play away? Where are we going to practice?
Mason: Day 1 of the season, we're trying to figure out schedules. We're trying to figure out where we're going to stay. We're trying to get clothes. We weren't really focused on football.
Traina: Like any other team, half of the kids on our team are super young, so normally you could have that kind of framework and that stability that the older guys on the team can provide to be able to help the younger guys adjust from high school to college. All of a sudden, the juniors and the seniors are trying to adjust and trying to figure out how to make the adjustment.
Cannon: Us being displaced singlehandedly tore us apart. Football is a mental game. You got to be in tune mentally. Every play, every game, every snap, you've got to be focused. To sit here and tell a kid that's not even 21 years old yet to focus on a game when your family and loved ones, you can't even talk to, you don't know where they are.
The Drain of the Season
Mississippi State won the opener, delayed two weeks, 21-14, converting a fumbled punt for the winning touchdown late in the game.
Scelfo: We had a chance to win. Then we went over to SMU and defeated them pretty handily (31-10). Then we went down to New Orleans for the first time. My wife had bought a bunch of air mattresses. We slept in the clubhouse at English Turn (Golf & Country Club), went to Baton Rouge to play Southeastern (Louisiana) and barely beat them (28-21). After that, I had a feeling that it was going to be (tough).
Traina: We were taking buses to the games, and then getting on the bus and driving back on the same day, or sleeping on air mattresses at a golf club down the road from where we were playing. Again, you don't complain because you're grateful for a dry place to sleep and you know that there are a lot of people a lot worse off. But you also know that it affects the way you play.
Scelfo: We didn't have a real weight room. We didn't have a real training table. The guys weren't able to get the rest they needed to recover. The recovery wasn't there. And so, as grueling as the season is under normal situations, it was more so there.
Mason: The mentality was give 110 percent. At the time, our 110 percent was 50-60 percent of what other teams had.
Cannon: Oh, man. Every week. We would just get run down. We'd give you two-and-a-half, three quarters of pure hell. And then eventually, (we would) break down. That's the truth of it.
Scelfo: The competitiveness came out in all of us. But it was like going to a gunfight with a knife.
Life at Louisiana Tech
Cannon: It was a condemned dorm. Actually, the dorm was going to be torn down prior to Katrina. When it happened, they decided to keep it up. They knew people would probably need housing.
Traina: The sororities and fraternities on the campus outfitted it with beds and blankets and pillows and made it livable again.
Ricard: Louisiana Tech is a great place. I love Louisiana Tech. But we get to the Caruthers Dorm. Scelfo says, 'Hey, you're going to have your own room. It's going to have two twin-sized beds. You're going to have everything you want.' And when someone turns on the water and it's brown? Hey, wait a minute. This isn't actually what we signed up for.
Cannon: It was very bad. You first get there, I ran my water in my sink. The water's brown for like two minutes. There were wasps. Wasps and roaches all over the place. It was filthy, disgusting.
Traina: The living situation was difficult. You're trying to get sleep, get rest. It's hard to rest your legs after practice when the elevator is broken 50 percent of the time and you're having to climb stairs to get to your room.
Ricard: If you didn't get stuck in the elevator, you weren't in that dorm. It was weird. It was scary. I remember sitting in the elevator one day praying, 'Lord. Is this it? I'm dying because I was in this dorm?' Finally after I don't know what it was, 30 minutes, someone going to check on you. Gosh, you couldn't put any offensive linemen on there. It was a scare show.
Traina: We were on the top floors and the bottom floors with New Orleans evacuees and family members of enrollees in school.
Cannon: I don't want to call them refugees, but evacuees in the city, people that had left the Ninth Ward and the lower part of the city.
Traina: It turned into like a subsidized housing building in New Orleans. Anything that would happen in those buildings happened in our dorm. ... It was a very [pause] different dorm experience.
Ricard: We came back from practice one day, and so many of the players had some of their belongings stolen from them.
Cannon: As a student, the Ninth Ward, people from the projects, that's just not what you do in New Orleans. We were thrown into this whole demographic, whole other world, and a lot of people are in culture shock, immediately. But what I found, man, this is the craziest part, it was a blessing in disguise. Eventually, over time, we warmed up to each other to a point where we were almost like their inspiration to continue to stay, I guess, and keep fighting.
Mason: The kids of the families we stayed with? We were their idols. 'Oh my god! They're football players.' The little kids we saw running around the laundromat downstairs. Stuff like that got us through the day. They'd walk out to practice with us.
Cannon: Every time we were coming home from practice, the people would be so happy to see us. A lot of them would cook for us. 'Hey, y'all want to come around and eat? We don't have much but you guys come eat!' These people didn't have anything. They're trying to take care of us, right? To me, man, that was one of the most gratifying things I could take from that whole living situation. Don't judge a book by its cover. Give people a chance to show you who they are. You never know.
Fast Food, Slow Players
Mason: We didn't have adequate food. (Louisiana Tech) had a great cafeteria, but guys were eating nachos, hamburgers, pizza.
Traina: I was trying to eat 7,000-8,000 calories a day just to maintain my weight. To do that on Sloppy Joes and hot dogs is hard to do....I couldn't eat Subway for five years after I graduated because I had four foot-longs a day, five days a week, for three months.
Ricard: As much as I love Waffle House, and I'm telling you, I love Waffle House, it's probably not the healthiest thing you can eat every day. That's what we were doing. I was going to get a pecan waffle every day. I was getting a (full) breakfast, please give me the bacon and the ham and the sausage to go along with that. And then I would get a hash brown with cheese on top of that. That's probably not the healthiest way an athlete should eat and take care of himself.
Traina: We were grateful to have the food. There were people who didn't have anything to eat, so it was hard for us to complain.
Mason: (Senior linebacker) Brandon Spincer was from New Orleans. He had some connections who were able to get us back into the city while there were still armed guards not letting people in. I remember being terrified! There were a group of probably six or seven seniors. We had left in the middle of the night and got there early morning. I remember the haze of the morning. We got to the city limits. I remember Brandon getting out, going to talk to one of the dudes. We literally saw the guards in military gear, guns out. We told them who we were, Tulane Football, we've come to get our cars and we'll get right back out of the city. We had an escort to go to our apartments and get our stuff and we drove out. That was a surreal experience.
Cannon: That was the first time I saw the city. That's when reality hit. Like, wow. This is pretty crazy. Just sad. The city was like a ghost town. No one was there. The way you see the city, one way your whole life, and all of a sudden, what's the name of that movie with Will Smith? ("I Am Legend.") He comes outside and it's empty and deserted. That's how it looked, man.
Scelfo: I turned my head every time they went down to New Orleans. I knew they were sneaking down there a lot. But they had to. I made the schedule where I knew they were doing it, but I didn't want them to know I knew they were doing it. I knew what they had to do. I didn't want them to know I knew what they had to do.
Mason: He was the heart of our defense. He played Will. I played the Sam. AC (Cannon) played the Mike. Brandon was a beast. He had the prototypical body. He was fast. He hit hard.
Cannon: Everybody called him Black. That's what his nickname was. B. Spince was very, very dark-skinned, man. We called him Black. He didn't mind. He knew it. He would call himself that, sometimes. B. Spince was dark. It was just a funny nickname we gave him.
Mason: I remember him literally taking a bunch of freshmen, because we all came in together, under his wing. He was like, New Orleans is my city. It's on me to get you guys acquainted. He would take us to all the food places. Not just get fast food, but like home-cooked meals. ... He would take us places where he grew up. I don't even remember the names of those places. I mean, I didn't grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, but some of those places, I wouldn't even feel comfortable going into without Brandon. But you talk about some of the best food and some of the best people that you would ever meet in your life? Aw, man.
Scelfo: He was a special person. Brandon knew everybody. Brandon knew the city. He knew everybody in high places, low places, and in between.
Cannon: There's a picture of me, Spincer, Mase and our coach, Garret Chachere. We took it in Ruston on the football field before the season ended. It was just us. Took the picture. Three seniors. Three linebackers. We competed all four years against each other. There were times I started over Mase. There were times where I came in as a rookie, a freshman, I took Brandon Spincer's spot. They were both older than me. I was 17 years old, a true freshman. There was never bad blood. It was always friendly competition. I really believe that iron sharpens iron. Those two guys, man, made me the player I am today. I respect those two guys more than anything in the world.
Cannon: I knew Brandon's dreams. I knew he wanted to play pro football his whole entire life. Me and him were like best friends. I knew his family, knew all his brothers, knew his mom, knew everyone. They would invite me over all the time. He was from New Orleans. Went to St. Aug's. He knew the city, so when it came to going out, just hanging, I felt safe with B. Spince. The city loved B. Spince. It was his city. Period.
In Nov. 2006, Spincer was shot dead as he sat in his automobile. He had been dating a woman for a couple of weeks. Her ex-boyfriend, Steve Adams, was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Mason: He always had a smile on his face. He was always a clean-cut dude. He always had his daughter around him. This may be bad to say but, out of all the people who could have lost their life, why did it have to be him?
Cannon: You want to talk about devastated. That hurt me worse than Katrina.
Scelfo: He was a rock. Brandon was going to be a coach with me that January. He was going to be very successful in coaching. ... When I had to go identify his body, it was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do. To know what he meant to our football team, our university, our society -- that was very, very tough.
Mason: At that age, that's the type of stuff that you deal with at our age. You have a girlfriend, and you don't know if she has a boyfriend, he's jealous, or what's going on. All you know is you have a love interest and you want to have a good time. It was one of those fluke things that could happen to any one of us.
Cannon: I went and got a tattoo the next day on my forearm. A big tattoo, Jesus on the cross, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and going through the middle of the tattoo it says, 'Rest in Peace Black.'
Should Tulane Have Played?
Mason: We could have easily thrown in the towel, and said, 'Hey, this is unlike anything that has ever happened in college football to a team. Tulane can't play this season. We're going to find a place to stay, we're going to find a school to take us in, but it's just too traumatic an experience for a team to play a full football season and all the demands that go along with training, class, family life.' But dudes got it together. We were at, 'Do you guys want to do this? Hell, yeah. This is what we are. We're football players. ... We spent all this summer getting ready for a championship season. We're going to do that.'
Ricard: It wasn't the coaches' fault. They weren't in their comfort zone. Neither were we. A lot of guys felt, 'How much do these coaches really care what's going on?' Maybe it was fictional and maybe it was fact. It was tough. Because, for instance, I'll ask you a question. Scelfo probably said if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't have played that season. Am I right or wrong?
Scelfo: At the time, I thought it was a good idea (to play). In retrospect, I wish we wouldn't have. I wish that season would have just been a season of letting those guys (recover), and I think the NCAA would have done whatever we asked them to.
Ricard: So many other guys knew that. That makes us feel like crap. You know what I mean? We knew that. We knew that he felt that way. There's no such thing, no matter what the circumstances, that you don't play that season. ... To say we shouldn't have done it? That goes against all my moral values. That goes against the dignity and integrity of who I am as a person.
Scelfo: There were so many individual battles that guys were trying to fight amongst themselves. All of the New Orleans kids had their own issues. Everybody's issues were different. So at the end of the five months, everybody had had to take care of themselves. When you have a team, it's one goal. I mean, everybody from the National Football League to peewee football, it's one goal. Our team that fall, everybody's goals were different from the beginning to the end. At the beginning, we had to find family members. We had to find the damage done to our stuff. What did we lose? How do we replace it? How do I get this? What's going to happen now? So everyone was going in their own directions, and rightfully so.
Ricard: As a competitor, I want to compete. I don't care if I'm getting my brains beat in. ... I know we struggled. But the fact that people talked about us. You came and wrote about us. The fact that we were on ESPN. That means I had to represent Tulane University. That meant the world to me, because that said Tulane is not dying. We're still alive. We're going to go show them, we might be down today but we're going to come back better than ever. That's my mentality. That was so many of my other teammates' mentality. When you hear we shouldn't have played that season, that kind of gets you where we were.
The Year After
Detroit selected Cannon in the seventh round. Ricard returned to Tulane to prepare for his senior season. The Green Wave didn't have weight-training facilities on campus until summer.
Cannon: My agent told me all the time. You went in the seventh round and no one knew where you were the whole season. I talked to scouts and GMs all season. No one knew where you were.
Ricard: (Tailback) Matt Forte and I would go three or four days a week to an abs class (on campus), just to tighten back up. We would go all the time. It was like a 30-minute class. It was brutal. We fought like heck to try and get our bodies back in shape. Matt and I would bring our whole team in there, the abs class. You're talking about a class of young white girls and 30 to 40 football players in there doing abs. And we can't even keep up with them.
I'm not bitter. I think God has a path for everyone, and this is the path that God has chosen for my life. And I don't mean that in a bad way. Here I am. But I remember the scouts at the (2007) East-West Shrine Game telling me, 'We're not going to watch your junior season. We're only going to judge you by your senior season, your sophomore and senior season.' There's no way an NFL scout is not going to look at your video. There's no way.
What Katrina Taught Them
Scelfo: There is compassion in the world. There is kindness in the world. There is sympathy in the world. People do have it.
Mason: I saw the, for lack of a better phrase, the heart in people that wanted to help us. We went to a gym in Ruston, and they had a whole bunch of clothes. People gave us toiletries and all kinds of stuff. They also had clothes. I remember going through the clothes piles, and I saw a suit. And I still have that same suit. It was big at that time, and I've gained a little weight. It fits perfectly now.
Ricard: I don't look at it as a tragedy. Those guys are some of my best friends to this day, so if there's nothing else I took from it, it's the brotherhood that was created because of the storm, the tragedy and the kind of situation we were put in.
Cannon: To go through something like that, to see how everyone continued to live life and take the good with the bad and rebound from everything that happened, a lot of people learned what it meant to really be resilient.
Scelfo: When I was with the Falcons, I always made the statement, when things were really bad or we had a bad game or a bad practice, everybody's raising hell, I used to joke to a couple of the other coaches, 'You know, the levees haven't broke.' The first few times I said that, they looked at me like I was crazy. I just went on about my day. When they asked me to explain what I meant, they understood a little bit. From my perspective, that made me a better coach and teacher. Kind of slowed things down. You still have that drive and determination and competitiveness. But the levees didn't break. I've seen the levees break. I know what that can do.
Cannon: I think a lot of guys on the team, the NFL may not have been their end goal, but right now, where they are in life, they're better because of what we went through. I know that. No way you're not.
Ricard: I definitely want to say this: If I could do it all over again, I'd do it all over again. I really would. In my heart. Who wants to have their dream plan taken away from him? ... Once you fall in love with guys and love playing with them and love going to practice with them, it becomes the point of your whole lifestyle. Those guys were my love, man, my heart and my heartbeat at that moment.
Mason: I think a lot of my personality today, a good part of it, came from that experience. Instead of making excuses for a lot of things, I automatically switch to, 'How can I get a solution for this? What can I do to come out on the other side?' Instead of just dwelling on it. That's not going to get you anywhere. I may not get the outcome I originally wanted. Like in that season, the outcome wasn't what any of us wanted, but hell, we made it through.