Katrina made player's plight considerably worse

Talman Gardner grew up in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward both rooting for the Saints and idolizing Jerry Rice, sometimes tough to do back in the days of the old NFC West.

Talman Gardner Gardner

For Gardner, Day 2 of the 2003 NFL Draft was a long one, but a call from then Saints coach Jim Haslett telling Gardner he was about to be drafted by his hometown team made the wait worthwhile. Gardner's mother, Denise Mackey, had spent draft weekend in Tallahassee, Fla., with her son, a former star receiver at Florida State, but was on the road back to New Orleans -- about halfway home, Gardner recalls -- when Haslett called during the 17th pick of the seventh round, the 231st overall. It was the call a kid dreams about.

More than two years later, on Sept. 1, Gardner and his family, along with the entire Gulf Coast region, were living a nationally televised nightmare when Gardner got another memorable call from Haslett, only this time it was the kind a professional athlete dreads. The Saints, who one year ago today evacuated New Orleans in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina, had just played (and lost) their final preseason game, against the Oakland Raiders, when Haslett summoned Gardner into the visiting head coach's office at Network Associates Coliseum.

Gardner had missed two games with a high left ankle sprain. With the Saints' depth at wide receiver, he was on the bubble. It burst that night in Oakland. The Saints were deciding on their final roster cuts, and Haslett informed Gardner that he was being released.

The decision was part of everyday life in the NFL. But life for Gardner and another New Orleanian, return man Michael Lewis, changed after Katrina, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Watching the city drown on television from the refuge of San Jose, Calif., literally hit home for them, even more than for other Saints players. Gardner's Metairie home was flooded. His mother's home, the one he grew up in, destroyed. Several nearby family members' homes, gone. Some neighbors, villagers who helped raise him, dead. The Ninth Ward was one of the areas that suffered the worst of the flooding as a result of the levees breaking.

When the Saints cut him, Gardner had nowhere to go.

"It was surreal," Gardner recalls. "I've got a look on my face like, Are you serious? I'm like, 'What am I going to do? Where am I going to go?'"

For Gardner, the 2,000-mile flight to San Antonio -- which would serve as the Saints' temporary home for the 2005 season because of Katrina's damage to the Superdome and the Federal Emergency Management Agency's use of the team's facility -- felt even longer. During the trip, teammates encouraged him to keep his head up, that the team cutting him while he was injured after the camp he was having was b.s. (Really, it was just "b," as in business. The Saints had Joe Horn, Donte' Stallworth, '04 second-rounder Devery Henderson, Az-Zahir Hakim, and Lewis at receiver and needed to keep a linebacker because of an injury at that position.)

Gardner recalls feeling angry and afraid on the flight "home" with the Saints. Mindful of his situation, the team had offered to fly Gardner wherever he needed to go. But like many Katrina evacuees, Gardner wasn't sure exactly where that was.

Meanwhile, Gardner's wife of not yet two months, Debra; his mother; and his sister, brother-in-law and their two children had evacuated to Houston. During that plane ride, Gardner thought of the fact that now, more than ever, his family would need him, but what could he provide? His future was like him at that moment -- up in the air. For that matter, so were those of the Saints and the entire region.

Gardner's dream of playing for his hometown team lasted 21 games and two seasons, featured four catches for 52 yards and ended at the worst possible time.

"I felt like I'd been let down by my city, by my city's organization," Gardner recalls. "They knew me being from New Orleans, my folks being New Orleans people, they were going to need me to pick them up. I wanted to represent the city by playing football. I wanted to be part of the Saints lifting the people going through the situation. I wanted to be able to say I played for the Saints. It hurt me that I couldn't do that."

The Saints had Gardner room with them at the Marriott Riverwalk, their treat. His wife joined him there, but the others crashed with family in Houston, 10 people in a three-bedroom, typical circumstances at the time for those displaced. Gardner and his wife lived with the Saints and their families at the Marriott for more than a week.

Horn, Stallworth and Montrae Holland, Gardner's best friends on the team, told him: Anything you and your people need, we got you. The players had Gardner join them for dinner. That helped take his mind off things, but at night, he would lie awake with reality.

Said Gardner: "At night, I'm up thinking, What am I going to do? I felt like the world came crashing down on me at one time. I lost my city, lost my job, I'm hurt, so what can I do? I think I lost 10 pounds during that whole ordeal."

At the time, Gardner didn't know whether he'd lost his father, Talman Sr., as well. In the aftermath of the storm, New Orleans-based cellular phones were out of service and, in a lot of cases, loved ones were unaware of each other's whereabouts. Gardner got in touch with his father toward the end of his stay at the Marriott. Turned out he'd been forced to ride out the storm in the city.

Gardner left the team hotel and reunited with his family in Houston. First, they stayed with other relatives, then with former Florida State teammate Roland Seymour and his family, then they crammed together in an apartment. All the while, Gardner was supporting what was now a family of eight on reserves from a seventh-round pick's salary and an injury settlement.

"It sucked me dry, but I had to do it," Gardner says. "I had money, but nothing was coming in. Everything was going out."

While the Saints became America's Team -- upsetting the Carolina Panthers in the season opener, then playing their scheduled home opener at Giants Stadium -- Gardner, although still not healthy, traveled the country hoping to impress in a workout. In the three weeks after his release by the Saints, he tried out for the Buccaneers, Packers and 49ers, but the nagging ankle injury had him running with a noticeable limp. The emotional stress he was under didn't help, either.

Gardner says it upset him watching the Saints struggle through a 3-13 season, one that included losing streaks of five and six games, and a season-long road schedule that had them playing "home games" in three stadiums (three in San Antonio's Alamodome, four at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and the one at Giants Stadium).

"It was hard watching because I felt like if I was healthy, I could have contributed," he says. Gardner spoke with Stallworth and Holland about twice a week, and they would tell him how difficult the distractions were on the Saints.

Gardner worked out and rehabbed on his own in Houston until the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats came calling in January.

"Talman is a player I have watched since he played collegiately at Florida State and then during his years with the Saints," Tiger-Cats director of player personnel Craig Smith said at the time of the signing. "With his size and speed, Talman has the chance to step in and be a contributor for us right away."

Gardner went through training camp and the preseason with the Tiger-Cats, but when they wanted to place him on the CFL's version of the practice squad, Gardner asked for his release. "That just didn't sit well with me," he says.

A healthy Gardner, 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, now waits and hopes another team will call and offer a shot to a physical wide receiver who can contribute on kick coverage and returns.

"I'm not done," says Gardner, 26. "I'm not playing anywhere, but I know I can compete with the guys that are there. The league definitely hasn't seen the last of me."

Gardner's mother and his sister and her family all have moved back to New Orleans. Gardner plans to take his mother to the Saints' much-anticipated home opener Sept. 25 in celebration of her 50th birthday that weekend. The Monday night game against rival Atlanta will be the Saints' first in the Superdome in more than a year.

"It's going to be eerie, walking in there knowing what happened," Gardner says. "They can put in new seats and put up new walls, but underneath is still pain and suffering."

These days, Gardner is living in Miami with his wife and starting a career in real estate and marketing. His wife is from Miami; they moved there on their first anniversary, July 9. On one hand, he wears a wedding band; on the other, his precious 1999 national championship ring, which wasn't lost in the storm, thankfully.

New Orleans and its Saints are rebuilding, and so, too, is the native son and former standout at historic McDonogh 35 High who this time a year ago experienced Katrina from a unique perspective. Gardner, like New Orleans, is getting back on his feet.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.