Auburn's Horton finds shelter from the storm

AUBURN, Ala. -- Hattie Wimberley drowned in her own house. The flood waters chased her into the attic of her New Orleans home and kept rising until the sheetrock ceiling melted into mush and dropped her into the unforgiving darkness. She was the first of Alonzo Horton's relatives to die.

Four days later, only minutes before midnight, Horton's cell phone began to ring again. Those same hellish waters of Hurricane Katrina had surged into the gymnasium of New Orleans' Marion Abramson High School, which was being used as an assembly point for evacuees, and created another watery tomb. This time it was Horton's younger brothers, Jerry and Delorean, who lost their lives.

"My old high school," says Horton, sitting on a love seat in the office of Auburn team chaplain Chette Williams. "The water thing was so bad, they said once they opened the door, water came rushing in. It was probably 11:58 when I found out. The funny thing about that is after I found that out, at 12:01 my phone alarm went off to let me know it was game day and that was also my little brother's birthday."

Jerry would have turned 8. Delorean was 6. Depending on the rumors, second-hand accounts, and Internet reports -- and Horton has heard them all -- very few people emerged from the Abramson shelter alive.

"September 3rd," says the freshman defensive end in a voice cauterized by nearly two weeks of anguish and tears. "That's a day I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."

Horton's mother is safe, but his father is unaccounted for. Horton's tiny home on 4635 Dale Street in the city's Ninth Ward, not more than a 10-minute trip to the Superdome and French Quarter, no longer exists. Katrina took everything: family, home, belongings. It even tried to take away Horton's will.

"When my brothers were dead and I got that call that they drowned ... somewhere still in the back of my mind and my heart I felt they're somewhere safe," he says. "I pray about that every night. But when I got that call my whole motivation to do anything was gone. It was hard for me to function. I was just ready to burst."

And yet, Horton says he'll remember Sept. 3, not only because of what he lost, but because of what he gained.

It was on that Saturday, two hours before Auburn was to play Georgia Tech in the season opener, that Horton stood crying by himself as his teammates and coaches assembled for the game-day ritual known as "Tiger Walk." From Sewell Hall to Jordan-Hare Stadium they walk, through streets lined with as many as 20,000 Auburn fans.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville was one of the first to notice Horton standing near the team bus.

"Tears are coming down his cheeks," says Tuberville. "What can you say? You don't have a clue what he's going through."

That's not exactly true. When Hurricane Andrew ravaged south Florida in August 1992, Tuberville was an assistant coach on Dennis Erickson's Miami staff. The Category 4 Andrew (Katrina hit land as a Category 4 storm, too) made landfall at about 2 a.m. -- Tuberville remembers; he set his alarm clock so he could witness his first hurricane. Instead, he and his wife Suzanne spent the next five hours crouched on the floor as triple-digit winds arrived.

"I never heard a sound like that," says Tuberville, whose home somehow survived. Meanwhile, Erickson's furniture was later found in a swimming pool.

So Tuberville approached Horton and said nothing. Instead, he hugged him. Teammates, many of whom had looked out for Horton ever since that first phone call came from New Orleans, did the same. Nobody said a peep.

"I looked in their eyes and I knew how much they cared about me," says Horton. "I can't have my little brothers with me, but I've got a whole team of big brothers with me."

As Horton made his way to the stadium he was showered with love by perfect strangers.

"Alonzo, we're here for you!" shouted a Tigers fan.

"Come here," offered another fan, "and give me a hug."

The tears kept welling in Horton's eyes. "But it wasn't so much tears of pain and hurt, but it was happiness," says Horton. "Every step I took I started to feel better and better. I felt like I was walking to the light. Heaven was at that Tiger Walk and at that football field."

An evacuee relocation shelter is located in the Auburn area and already Horton has made nearly a half-dozen trips there. At Horton's urging, a tour of the campus and facilities was organized for evacuees. A visit to the school's equestrian center was arranged and horse rides were given to the displaced adults and children. He is trying to give them what Auburn fans, teammates and coaches have given him: smiles, hugs and hope.

Horton doesn't bother asking why Katrina happened, not when so many others have suffered worse. He even refuses to call it a disaster, instead choosing to look at it as an opportunity to return the kindnesses offered him.

"Right now, I've never been more proud of an 18-year-old kid in my life," says Williams, the team chaplain. "Just to see his strength and faith. He has a foundation that's carrying him through. There's only so much we can do. When the lights are out and he's in his room at night by himself, he's there alone."

Perhaps not for long. The Auburn athletic department has contacted the NCAA about what the school can do to assist Horton and his family. About 30 family and extended family members have been moved from New Orleans to the Atlanta area, and there is an effort underway to relocate them to Auburn. And a day ago, Horton returned to the practice field for the first time since Katrina showed its indifference to life and all things man-made.

Horton will never be the same. How could he be? But there remains one constant.

Tiger Walk begins at exactly 9:30 a.m. Saturday.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.