More than Just a Game

I’m a huge sports fan, not just for the action on the field or court, but for the human interest stories that lie beneath. Here’s another inspiring story about a team pulling together to triumph over tragedy. It’s long but worth the read.

A Testament To Faith
By Wright Thompson
Special to ESPN.com

Sitting in an idling bus parked behind John Curtis Christian School, the assistant coach flipped through the worn Bible until he found Psalm 127. The book has gotten a lot of use this year, what with so many unexplainable things to explain. This passage in particular seemed especially poignant, so he handed the Bible to one of the Curtis brothers and pointed to the page.

“I was reading this and thought of your daddy,” the coach said.

J.T. and Leon Curtis’ father, who founded the school that bears his name, passed away just three months before Katrina. His presence dominates the football powerhouse, where nine of the family members are coaches. At all team functions, they keep an empty chair reserved for him, in case his spirit gets tired.

Leon took the book and read the scripture, just five small verses. He nodded at the story of a city needing the Lord’s protection, and about sons being a man’s greatest legacy. The words hit home. J.T. and Leon, the team’s head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, believed their father was looking down on them, helping a little, but mostly smiling at the work of his children. In a chaotic time, they made the John Curtis football team a beacon for the city of New Orleans, a sign that things can be as they once were.

So the buses pulled out from the school on Nov. 8, leaving River Ridge, La., bound for Shreveport, La., and the team’s last game. The police escort’s sirens wailed. The lights flashed. Another state title awaited, No. 20, though this season has been nothing like the others.

1Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.

John T. Curtis Sr. built the school 43 years ago. He did it all, from securing a loan for the lumber to planting the crepe myrtle tree by the elementary building. That tree came to symbolize their journey — a small dream that grew deep roots.

When he died in late May, everyone wondered if his dream could live after him. His oldest son, J.T., who had coached the football team to all 19 state titles, was a lot like his dad. Sure, he would never let the old man buy those gaudy red pants, the ones with stars down the side. But on the big stuff, they saw eye to eye.

Now J.T. held the school’s future in his hands, during the greatest challenge in its history. In August, Hurricane Katrina chased most everyone out of New Orleans. His team vanished with them. Some players lost their homes. All of them lost anything resembling a normal life.

The mighty John Curtis Patriots were no more.

Word was, it would take six months for the town to even dry out. Sitting in four rented apartments in Baton Rouge, J.T. Curtis and his family wondered what to do. They didn’t know if the school even survived the storm, but through it all, the same question kept popping up: What would Daddy do?

There wasn’t any doubt, really. They’d seen him in action. The day after a fire broke out in the school back in 1977, the family and the insurance adjusters toured the still smoldering building. It was pitch black, smelling of smoke and still wet from the firemen’s hose. The insurance man told them it would take three to six months just to clean. While he was talking, they heard the scraping sound of a shovel.

Picking Up The Pieces
In the wake of a storm of biblical magnitude, a determined coach and his football team focused on their mission and brought a sense normalcy to a ravaged community. “It was the old man,” J.T. said, smiling. “He wasn’t waiting on the insurance company. He was cleaning that place up then, that morning.”

They couldn’t let the school close. That would be like losing their father all over again. So J.T. went back to New Orleans to see if there was anything left to save. As he neared the school on Jefferson Highway, he prayed. “Lord,” he said, “whatever’s there, I’m gonna accept it.”
He found the high school building untouched. He laughed and cried at the same time. When he got to the elementary school building, though, the news was worse: a giant tree had fallen on it. A closer inspection brought the Curtis boys to their knees. The tree was barely held off the roof by the crepe myrtle their dad had planted all those years ago. They felt sure that he was watching over them.

“It was the first time I realized, ‘We can do this,'” J.T. said.

2In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat- for he grants sleep to those he loves.

They sent out text messages. They put up practice information on the Web site. Told everyone the team would play in 2005, no matter what. They weren’t sure who was reading, but crossed their fingers and prayed.

Slowly, players made contact. Their star, Joe McKnight, who’d actually played a game for Evangel Christian in Shreveport, came home. Moving in with J.T., McKnight said, was the first time in his life it felt like he had a sanctuary.

On Monday, Sept. 19, just 21 days after Katrina hit, J.T. and the coaches arrived at the field early. They’d met with a psychologist to find out what the kids needed. A taste of the familiar, they were told. So they set out to give them just that and began to clear out branches, mow unruly grass, sort through equipment.

“We had no idea if anybody was coming,” he said, “but it looked good. It was green and plush, and it was all marked off. We were ready.”

The only thing left to do was wait.

J.T.’s heart leapt as the cars arrived in groups, coming down Jefferson Highway like a post-apocalyptic Field of Dreams. They came from Florida and Texas, from Arkansas and Alabama, Mississippi and around the state. Four starters couldn’t make it back, but there were more than enough new faces to fill out the roster.

The first high school football practice in New Orleans after Katrina started strangely. It was silent. There was still no power in the city. Everyone just looked at each other, J.T. said. Coaches saw fear and uncertainty in the players’ faces, heard them share life-and-death stories and wonder aloud what might happen next.

“By Wednesday of that week,” J.T. said, “the kids were starting to be themselves. Laughing. Joking. It was the one thing in their lives that was exactly like it had been.”

Other schools followed their lead as New Orleans struggled to its feet. For the first time since the storm, the town looked toward the future.

“They said, ‘If John Curtis can, we can,'” J.T. said. “I think we got the community going.”
Curtis’ first game was a defiant fist. Normalcy is what people in New Orleans love most. Small things are what’s important. Red beans and rice on Monday. Beignets at Cafe du Monde. A drink at Molly’s. Attendance at the school Christmas program spiked tremendously this year. People longed for something to hold on to. For many, John Curtis football was just what they needed.

“In the midst of the storm, the school and J.T. have been a shining light,” said Robby Green, the former LSU safety whose son, Robby, is a sophomore at Curtis.

John Curtis lost its first game to East St. John, another Katrina-rattled school, but the coaches watched something happening. With each possession, like a man relearning how to walk, the Patriots were becoming their old selves.

“It felt like every play we were getting back to normal,” secondary coach Tommy Fabacher said. “It kept going and going.”

The wins came soon enough. Through the regular season, into the playoffs, they were a machine like they’d always been. Every now and again, J.T. and his family would look at the crepe myrtle tree and smile. They knew the old man was proud. When New Orleans faced its toughest hour, John Curtis Christian School was the first to get on its feet.

“I think it’s exactly what he’d want to be in the community,” J.T. said. “A guy who stepped forward.”

3Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.

That incredible ride brought them here, to the end. One game to go.

The players filed into a film room at Northwestern State, in upstate Natchitoches. They’d stopped for a meeting and for a quick practice, before going to Shreveport to spend the night. After a highlight video, assistant coach Johnny Curtis, J.T.’s oldest son, stood to speak.

“I get goose bumps watching you play,” Johnny told them. “It’s been fun watching you this year. All you’ve done comes down to 48 minutes, and it’s over. It’s your time to shine. It’s show time.”

The coaches were so proud of their team. And even if they wouldn’t say it, they were proud of themselves. With hard work in a difficult time, they helped change a group of teenagers.

There were many examples of the players coming of age.

There was Steven Kertz, whose own high school, Brother Martin in New Orleans, has yet to reopen for his senior year. Kertz’s new teammates probably don’t realize how important this season has been to him. Why he’ll be the only one on his bus to buy a souvenir hat from the title game. His family of four lives in a cramped motor home, parked in the driveway of their damaged home. One night, he crept into his house, just so he could stretch out. Sometimes, he said, his teachers catch him dozing in class, but most don’t fuss. They understand.

Or take Robby Green, who sat in the middle of the Northwestern State meeting room listening to Johnny’s speech. His mother, Janel Green, was transferred to Dallas by her company right after the storm. His father found work in Baton Rouge. Robby wanted to be with his mother and younger brother, but he also wanted to play football. He didn’t know what to do.

“It’s heartbreaking to see children have to make adult decisions,” Johnny said.

Robby chose to stay in the area, living with friends, waiting for the day when the family can be whole again. Last month, his mother made it to a road game, the only time she’d seen him play this season. Making an exception, the coaches let him stay an extra day to be with her. They knew he didn’t want to go back so soon.

“It’s so hard to keep letting him go,” Janel Green said.

The experience has changed him, just as it’s changed his teammates. It’s made them stronger.
They’ve all grown up, but not apart. The 2005 Curtis football team, like the 1975 team that won the school’s first state title, is tight. Close enough that the coaches see the players as their own kids. Friday morning, as he ended the final pregame meeting in a large banquet hall at a Shreveport-area hotel, J.T. asked for their attention.

He told them he was going to read from the Bible, Psalm 127.

“It’s very meaningful about where we are today,” he told them. “I hope it will be as meaningful to you as it was to us.”

He read it once, then a second time, pausing on the part that said a man is blessed who has a quiver of children. He was talking about his relationship with his father, and about the coaches’ relationship with this team. His voice got soft. He told them that they were loved, that they’d done amazing things this year. The players leaned in.

“You are our children,” he told them.

4Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth.

On the last day of the season, as it had been since the beginning, old man Curtis’ presence was everywhere. Just hours before kickoff, the players walked into the locker room to find a surprise. The assistant coaches had ordered those red pants with the stars on the side, the ones John Curtis Sr. always wanted the players to wear. They didn’t tell J.T., letting him be surprised with everyone else.

Finishing the pregame speech, he looked out at the room.

“Listen to me,” he began.

The room was quiet, the only sound a dull echo from fans outside.

“Thirty-four years ago … “

He couldn’t finish the sentence. Tears welled in his eyes.

“My daddy wanted those pants 34 years ago … “

J.T. was crying now. His team was silent.

“I never got them for him, but I was wrong,” he said. “They look pretty good. I want you to wear them with pride because I know he’s gonna be smiling from ear to ear as he looks down today. Make him proud.

“MAKE HIM PROUD!”

The team came together and ran out the double doors, up the tunnel, and onto the field. Just for a moment, just before kickoff, J.T. looked down at the empty chair on the sideline. They’d done it: made it back to state, kept the school running, all of it. They proved that John T. Curtis Sr.’s dream was stronger than even the most powerful of hurricanes.

5Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.

The game gave the kids and coaches what it gave them all year: a few hours respite. There was no talk of the storm, or of demolished homes.

To the surprise of practically no one in the state of Louisiana, Curtis steamrolled St. Charles, going away with a 31-6 victory. As usual, McKnight scored almost every time he touched the ball, three touchdowns in all, plus another that was called back. But the real story was long after the Class 2A title game had been decided. With a minute or so left on the clock, and the third string in, J.T. was still going nuts on the sideline, calling timeouts, screaming at players, coaching. None of them wanted this season to end.

In a fitting last act, the 2005 John Curtis Patriots finished the school’s 20th state title with a goal-line stand. Green ran to the crowd. Senior Scotty Encalade climbed into the bleachers to take a photo with his mother. Everyone hugged J.T. And in the locker room, an assistant saw senior Alvin Scott with a sign he’d taken from the stadium.

“You gonna put that in your room?” he asked.

“I’m gonna give it to my mom,” Scott said, proudly.

After the celebration, the players once again went their separate ways. Green stayed with his family. For a little while longer, they were complete again. McKnight stayed behind for a night, too, as did J.T., who had a television show to do.

The good-byes finished, the buses pulled out of the Independence Bowl parking lot. Sitting near the front was Kertz. They weren’t even out of the city limits before he began considering difficult questions. Would he stay at Curtis? Would he return to a reopened Brother Martin, where his old friends were? No wonder he’d get sick and vomit a few hours later.

“I don’t know,” he said when a teammate asked. “I’m torn between going back and staying.”

Assistant coach Lance Rickner comforted him.

“You gotta do what you’ve gotta do,” he said, “but we’d love to have you.”

The coaches had been worrying about this night. What was next for these kids? J.T. and his family would be keeping close watch.

“Monday’s gonna be interesting,” Johnny Curtis had said before the game. “Like a new day in a new book. A new chapter’s gonna open. What are they gonna think when they don’t have to go to football practice and some of these kids gotta go home to trailers at 3:30? These kids gotta go tear out sheetrock at 3:30. I think there’s gonna be another healing time, trying to figure out what we’re going to do with our lives.”

The trip home was sad, a sense of nostalgia hung in the air. Senior Kevin Wild told his usual jokes, but it was for the last time. Senior Matt Snyder cracked that he’d pick the movie for the next ride. Scotty Encalade sat in the front seat, capturing picture after picture with his camera phone, preserving each moment.

“It’s still hard to believe it’s over,” the senior running back said, mostly to himself. “I don’t think it’s hit me that there’s no more. I thought I wasn’t gonna miss it. I miss it already.”

Out the big windows in front of him, the dark highway stretched through the farmland, past the Cajun towns of Breaux Bridge and Carencro, down into the swamps, the devastation greater with each passing mile. The bus became quieter the closer they got to their wounded city. An uncertain future awaited them there, one a football season could no longer protect them from.

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