Home and away

HOME IS THE MEMORY of a one-story brick house on Bannerwood Drive. There's always a big family dinner in the oven, a freshly cut green lawn and a game outside. It is never fancy. After her mama died, Wanda Lacy raised nine children here, some her own siblings and some her own kids, and Lord knows where they ever found room to breathe. But it was their home. Neighbors looked out for one another. If a kid fell out of line, Miss Louise, an elderly woman down the street, was fast on the phone with a parent. If someone had a problem, neighbors hit their knees and prayed.

Gretna, La., is just across the river from New Orleans, but people felt safe here. Kids played football until the sun slunk over the Crescent City Connection and it was time for supper. Wanda's youngest son, Eddie, was one of the best on the playground. Sometimes, when he ran with the football, people would stop and videotape him.

Now, when you're in eighth grade, you don't think much about change. Eddie Lacy went to bed each night staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars on his bedroom ceiling, thinking about very little but getting back outside to play. Eddie loved to hang out with everybody on the block. He'd run and spin; they'd fall over trying to tackle him.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit, families fled and a neighborhood changed, and after three weeks Eddie did not understand why he couldn't go home. He badgered Wanda and Eddie Sr. until they went back there. The trees and birds were gone. The house, which had taken in four feet of water, reeked of raw sewage. Mold ran up the walls, the foundation shifted and Eddie's coveted light-blue Allen Iverson shoes were drenched in muck. Looters took just about everything else -- the DVD player, Eddie Sr.'s stereo, the kids' piggy banks. Eddie walked in, looked around the house and walked out.

"Mom," he said, "I'm going to go down the street and play."

LET'S SAY KATRINA never slams the Gulf Coast on the last days of August in 2005. Let's say Eddie Lacy never has to pile into the back of a Crown Victoria with his sister, Brittany, and a week's worth of clothes, that they don't bounce to four homes before finally settling into a trailer in Geismar, La. Would he be the starting running back at Alabama? Would he be playing college football at all?

The thing about autumn in Tuscaloosa is that nothing ever seems to change. Defenses are chiseled, perfected and trained to humiliate opposing offenses; running backs are tough and prolific. Mark Ingram won a Heisman in 2009; Trent Richardson, according to just about everyone in the Cotton State, should've had one in 2011. Because of all this talent at running back and Lacy's hailing from Louisiana, it made no practical sense that he chose to attend Alabama, especially when Lacy says he did it out of loyalty.

This October, just before LSU week, Lacy arrived at the Mal Moore Athletic Facility on Alabama's campus in a T-shirt that says Helen Cox. It's the name of his old high school, the one he went to before Katrina. LSU is always a strange week for Lacy. Texts will be sent to his family from all over, with more than a few from the 504 area code, saying something like, "You'd better bring Kleenex, because you'll wanna cry after Alabama loses Saturday."

Heading into this year's game, the Bama-LSU series is 2-2 since Lacy came to Tuscaloosa. He's a junior now with a more prominent role, and though the six-foot, 220-pounder is not putting up totals like Ingram's or Richardson's, he has teamed with freshman T.J. Yeldon in one of the country's most formidable one-two punches.

Lacy has downplayed the rivalry for weeks and claims he didn't grow up dreaming of going to LSU. But as the game finally begins, his hard running makes it clear that beating the Tigers means everything to him. In the second quarter, Lacy, all leg drive and leverage, barrels seven yards up the middle and spins into the end zone (executing the signature move that inspired his nickname, Circle Button). He slams the ball to the purple turf and points up to his family somewhere in a splotch of crimson in Section 404. By halftime, he has piled up 71 yards, twisting and churning out chunks at a time, as the Tide carry a 14-3 lead into the locker room.

IT WAS SUPPOSED to be a mini vacation. They'd get in the car and keep driving, to the western edge of the state, then to Beaumont, Texas, where they'd stay in a hotel for a couple of days until the ominous clouds passed. Nobody thought they'd be gone long. His mother had wrapped the family's important papers in a plastic bag and told Eddie and Brittany that they could take one thing besides their clothes. Eddie took his PlayStation.

By the time they reached Beaumont, it became increasingly clear that they would not be home in a couple of days. With their savings running dry after a week, they moved in with one of Wanda's sisters in Baton Rouge -- five families in a three-bedroom house. A few months later, they saw a housing program on the Internet about families willing to share homes. They signed up and were dispatched to Geismar, half an hour south of Baton Rouge, to live with Allen and Allison Walker, complete strangers.

"This is a white family," Wanda said. "We were all kind of wondering, How are they going to perceive us? They didn't know if we were black, white, purple or green. And it didn't matter.

"They welcomed us with open arms and told us to have free rein."

Eddie cringed at the idea of imposing on strangers and hated that after making the varsity football team at Helen Cox, he was relegated to the freshman squad at Dutchtown High in Geismar. After much pleading, his parents allowed him to go to Gretna and live with his former coach. But when Eddie's grades floundered, his parents brought him right back.

The Lacy family found a trailer home and saved enough money to move in. Wanda asked Eddie whether he wanted anything for the new place. Eddie just wanted to go home. He was inconsolable. The talkative jokester who ruled the playground in Gretna, who brought a roomful of friends to the house, was now quiet and lonely. He shut down and wouldn't talk about it. Even though he made varsity, he seemed sullen on the football team. Eddie would score a touchdown, then retreat to the sideline and take a knee by himself.

"It affected me, because I really didn't want to be there at first," he says. "After I realized my mom wasn't going to let me go back, it was like, 'All right. You're here for three years. You might as well do something with it.'"

Lacy insists he isn't lying when he says that he never dreamed of going to LSU, that he didn't grow up watching the Tigers. He claims he didn't watch college football at all because he couldn't stand being cooped up for three hours in front of a TV. Lacy says the Tigers recruited him initially, backed off when it looked as if he wouldn't qualify academically, then called roughly a week before signing day. By then, he was hooked on Nick Saban. Lacy had been miles away from even qualifying for college as a senior, and only two teams stuck with him -- Bama and Tennessee. He never forgot that. He took correspondence classes during lunch hour. He went to summer school after his senior year until one day he got a call that he'd earned an A in math. Lacy was so happy, he called his mother. He was going to Alabama, but more important, he was getting out.

LSU IS REASSERTING itself, taking a 17-14 lead early in the fourth quarter. Lacy limps off the field with an ankle injury, and by the closing minutes, he wants to go in. He starts to run out onto the field but is called back. Yeldon is the one who catches a short pass from quarterback AJ McCarron and races 28 yards for the winning touchdown with 51 seconds to play. But it doesn't matter to Lacy. They've beaten LSU, and he's ecstatic. Lacy is different now. His family knew back in 2010, when he debuted for the Tide with a pair of touchdowns against San Jose State, getting swarmed by teammates after each score. He'd found a place that was his own. Now he's on track to graduate this spring, in four years, with a degree in consumer sciences. And after years of feeling displaced, misplaced, by Katrina, Lacy finally feels he's where he's supposed to be.

He still occasionally goes back home on the way to his parents' place. Somebody else lives at the house on Bannerwood Drive, but Lacy still drives by. When he's asked where he's from, he still says Gretna, but he knows he belongs back in Tuscaloosa.

"I never got over it until I came here," Lacy says. "I think I felt more comfortable here because I went from where I didn't want to be to where I wanted to go. It was my choice."

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