Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 4, 2007

Football in the Time of Katrina

The chronicler of a New Orleans high-school champion tells Gelf how the John Curtis Patriots helped heal their fans, their families, and themselves.

Carl Bialik

In a week when Kenny Dorsey is supposed to suit up for his high school's powerhouse football team, instead he's tuning in to CNN and logging on to Google Earth to check where, exactly, that Katrina-diverted 200-foot cargo barge has settled down after the levees flooded. He finds, to his horror, that the barge has come to rest on top of what was once his home.

Neal Thompson/Photo by Katie Damien
"It's really bothered me in the two years since the storm to hear nasty comments about the people who stayed behind. Many of them simply had no choice."

Neal Thompson/Photo by Katie Damien

The stunning, sudden transition Dorsey and his John Curtis High teammates must make from football players to storm survivors, and their return trip to football glory, is the subject of veteran journalist Neal Thompson's new book, Hurricane Season: A Coach, His Team, and Their Triumph in the Time of Katrina. Thanks to the astonishing focus of coach J.T. Curtis, son of the New Orleans school's founder, the Patriots of John Curtis manage to overwhelm opponents even as the storm and its aftermath overwhelms the players and their families.

Thompson hadn't heard of the school until after its magical 2005 championship season was over; he read about the Patriots on, in this story by Wright Thompson (no relation). Neal Thompson began to re-create the story more than six months after Katrina touched land, weaving together interviews and written accounts from players, classmates, coaches, and relatives. Even people who assiduously read the Katrina news coverage in 2005 may learn harrowing new details in the substantial middle section of the book, when Thompson describes how Katrina affected John Curtis and the rest of the Gulf.

In the following interview with Gelf, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Thompson spoke about football's healing powers, the inspiration of Friday Night Lights, and why the best coaches may not be able to use voicemail or building keys. (You can hear Thompson, who is also the author of Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR, and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, September 5, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Much was made of the potentially healing effects of sports, post-Katrina; and the inevitable backlash questioned whether something so trivial could have an impact. What's your take on the role of prep football in helping people recover emotionally from the storm?

Neal Thompson: I was exposed to that type of backlash during a recent radio interview, when a caller asked why these kids were playing football instead of rebuilding levees or joining construction or cleanup crews. After a polite pause, and taking a breath to swallow an expletive, I explained my stance on this issue: The people all across the Gulf Coast, when they returned to their ruined homes two or three or more weeks after the storm, all wanted the same thing: a return to normal. Not only were their home lives in disarray, but there was no mall to hang out at, no McDonalds to eat at, no movie theaters to attend.
Friday night football games, therefore, served as the rare example of normalcy and took on a far greater significance and importance during an otherwise very troubled time. Those games became more than just a distraction. They became, as I describe it in the book, like a weekly group therapy session, where parents met and talked with other parents about their situation. After a week of tearing out sheetrock and carpeting, and arguing with insurance agents and FEMA officials, a raucous football game is exactly what these folks needed. It became the highlight of the week and, as one parent put it, it's what got me through. On top of that, for some of the players, the 2005 season was their last chance to prove themselves to college recruiters, and they were, of course, desperate to reclaim their football season, as well.

GM: When did you start covering this story? Was there any awkwardness with Wright Thompson—had he wanted to turn his article into a book?

NT: This story sort of fell in my lap, a happy miracle of sorts. It went like this: Wright Thompson's amazing story of December 2005 caught the eye of a Hollywood screenwriter, who contacted the Curtis family and expressed an interest in writing a screenplay based on their story. The family hired a literary/film agent in New York to help them negotiate the Hollywood deal, and that agent told the family he felt their story would make a good book, too. He offered to find a few potential writers, and then contacted my agent (who used to represent Buzz Bissinger). My agent called me immediately and said, "Get in your car and drive to New Orleans—today!" I did, and I met with the Curtises and we really hit it off. They chose me from among the half-dozen other interested writers, and we started working together immediately. That was March 2006. The book was done 10 months later. I never spoke to Wright Thompson, so I don't know if he ever gave thought to doing a book. [Editor's note: Wright Thompson told Gelf he didn't plan to write a book about Curtis, and otherwise declined to comment about Hurricane Season.] But I do thank him in the acknowledgments of the book, because I do feel I owe a lot to him for writing such a beautiful story and for jump-starting the process that led me to the Curtises.

GM: What's going on with the film project? Are you and your book involved, or is that totally separate?

NT: The film project is separate. Although, fortunately, they will be calling it Hurricane Season and have announced that it will be "based on" the book, which is great. I've only heard through the grapevine, but apparently they're still working on the script and may have a first draft soon.

GM: How did you get this kind of access from the team and players?

NT: When the Curtises and I met, we agreed to work on this project as full partners, so they agreed, right from the start, to full access to coaches, players, students, and their families. And they were really amazing in providing me all the research materials and interviews I needed—such as DVDs of games and playbooks—and in giving me full access at the school and at all practices and games.
I rode buses to games, and they even gave me a blue coaches' shirt to allow me to stand on the sidelines during games (including their 2006 championship game at the Superdome). I ate with the family, I slept at one of their homes, and sat in on classes. Among my favorite examples of their cooperation is this: At one point I wanted to get a sense of what other students (i.e., non-football players) experienced during and after the storm. I couldn't interview everyone, so I asked the Curtises if they could ask students to write a "Katrina essay." The English teachers turned it into a class assignment, and many of the students attacked the essay with gusto—I think they were grateful for the chance to tell their story. Those essays were absolutely heartbreaking, and it pained me not to be able to include more students' stories in the book. Those essays could be a book in themselves.

"J.T. is, quite often, out of touch with the rest of the world."
GM: To make sure I understand the back-story correctly: Did you get exclusive access, among all writers? Did that involve any sort of payment or share of revenue for the school? Did they have any sort of right of review of the manuscript, or were there any requests they made about what should and shouldn't be in the book?

NT: Yes, I got exclusive access, and yes, it involved a sharing of the proceeds from the book, though I'd rather not get into the specifics. It's similar, I'd imagine, to what Buzz Bissinger did with Tony LaRussa on Three Nights in August—full access in exchange for a share of profits. The family did get the chance to review the manuscript, but they made very few suggested changes. Mainly, they wanted me to be a little more descriptive about their faith, and how important it is to them, even if they don't show it outwardly or aggressively with their students/players.

GM: You write in a you-are-there style. Were you reconstructing many scenes from people's recollections? Was it challenging to be thorough and colorful and get the details right?

NT: It was definitely a challenge to get that part of the story right—to be accurate but also have the descriptions of the storm be dramatic and comprehensive, but also personal and intimate. My editor and I decided early on to write the story in the present tense, to give readers a sense of the blow-by-blow of the storm—a technique my editor, Emily Loose, calls the ticking clock. I spent a lot of time interviewing people, again and again and again, about their memories of those first few days before and after the storm. Then I relied on published reports of the storm, to capture what was happening more broadly. I tried to weave those two together, the micro and the macro, and alternated between close-ups on the personal stories of the Curtises and their students and the wider shots of what was across New Orleans and elsewhere.
Some of the most satisfying feedback I've received about the book is from people who said they got a whole new perspective on just how Katrina affected people's lives, since I focus in a more personal way on the storm's effect on these families. Just as satisfying has been hearing from victims who said, "That's exactly what it was like."

"That's the great challenge and thrill of nonfiction writing: the ability to re-create dramatic events like Katrina based solely on research."
GM: You go into extensive detail about Katrina, including some harrowing anecdotes and images that didn't directly affect the Patriots. How did you decide how much to include? Was it tough compiling all that information?

NT: I came on the scene more than six months after the storm, so it took some after-the-fact detective work to interview the right people and find the right resource materials to recreate the storm. In fact, in early drafts of the book, I had included much less detail about the storm itself. But my editor kept reading little tidbits and saying, "I didn't know that," and "I didn't know that." And I realized that not everyone knew all the specifics of what happened during and immediately after the storm. That's one of the reasons I asked all the students to write their Katrina essays. But that's the great challenge and, for me, the thrill of nonfiction writing: the ability to re-create dramatic events like Katrina based solely on research. In fact, two peerless examples of the best kind of non-fiction writing are The Perfect Storm and Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, both of them re-created through dogged research and some great writing.

GM: You write that competitors accuse the Patriots of recruiting violations and of using steroids. Did you see a thoroughly clean program? How can anyone know for sure?

NT: I can't claim to know with 100-percent certainty that there wasn't any funny business going on. As we know from professional sports, it's possible for athletes to hide their performance-enhancing tactics. But I never saw any signs of that myself. What I did see was a team and a group of coaches seriously committed to hard work and, especially, the fundamentals. I describe some of Coach J.T.'s unique training routines in the book, such as "running the levee" and summer three-a-day practices. My feeling is that those kinds of workouts, and the meticulously planned practice sessions, are more responsible for the team's success than steroids or other shenanigans.
As for the recruiting allegations, I saw no signs of that, either. In fact, I think they've developed the perfect, and perfectly legal, recruitment regimen; that is, they have a great team and players go out of their way to attend the school. The recruits come to them. Also, since they have a no-cut policy, players who are unsure of making a team at another school sometimes come to Curtis knowing that they'll at least have a chance to prove themselves.
Now, I know I'm biased, but I really believe that the Curtis program is not only on the up-and-up, but that other schools could learn a few things from their balanced and fair approach to athletics. And I think the various allegations that have followed the team over the years result from competitors' inability to believe the Patriots can be so good with such a simple offense, at such a small school, with such shabby facilities, and, on top of that, a no-cut policy and a democratic policy that puts many second- and third-stringers into games. It's the kind of program I feel should be emulated, not criticized.

GM: J.T. is, in your telling, willfully oblivious of a dangerous storm, the news, technology, modern communications… Is this charming, or frightening, or both? Is such single-mindedness necessary to build such an unlikely powerhouse?

NT: It's a fair question, and I've heard other comments about J.T. jeopardizing his players' lives by not taking the storm more seriously. But the truth, as I explain in the early pages of the book, is that most New Orleanians have developed what I call a jaded disregard for hurricane warnings, due to the fact that so many have approached New Orleans in the past, only to peter out or veer off. The region had evacuated for storms four or five times in the years before Katrina.
So J.T. was acting like a lot of residents were: waiting until it seemed serious enough to take action. Until that point, J.T. was intent on keeping his players focused on preparing for their season opener, which was scheduled for the Friday after Katrina. It wasn't until Saturday afternoon that forecasters began removing all doubt about whether Katrina would hit New Orleans. And that's when the Curtises, and most residents, began packing up and evacuating. One big problem was that the mayor of New Orleans didn't order a mandatory evacuation until Sunday. And the reason so many people stayed behind to face the storm was because, by Sunday, it was too late to get out, especially for those who didn't have cars, or were too old or sick or poor or alone.
It's really bothered me in the two years since the storm to hear nasty comments about the people who stayed behind. Many of them simply had no choice. The public-transportation system collapsed, and those without cars couldn't escape by bus. The mayor didn't act soon enough. The police didn't offer any assistance. That's why so many people ended up at the Superdome and Convention Center.

GM: I meant that question about J.T. a bit more broadly, not just in terms of his actions during the storm, but in general: Is his single-mindedness and separation from many aspects of the world around him problematic, in terms of his role as leader of young men and also in administering the school? Or is this just how successful football coaches are?

NT: I think I see what you mean. And J.T. is, quite often, out of touch with the rest of the world. I describe in the book how he's clueless when it comes to financial matters and salaries. He doesn't do email or voicemail. He's always losing sets of keys, and the other family members won't even let him have a set of keys to his own school, because he's lost too many over the years. I do think, however, that that is absolutely a reflection of his single-mindedness as a coach and mentor, and it's probably similar to how good CEOs and politicians operate. Fortunately for J.T., he's got an incredibly diligent sidekick—his wife, Lydia, who tends to all the day-to-day stuff, which allows J.T. to be so single-minded and focused solely on the players.

GM: How have your subjects reacted to the book?

NT: So far, I've only heard good things, from the Curtises and the teachers and the players and their parents. And I think a lot of them feel that the book tells an important piece of the Katrina story, their story. Other books have effectively explored what went wrong with the levees, what went wrong politically and among various government agencies, what went wrong in the police department and with FEMA. My book tries to show, in real-time, what really happened to everyday people, not only during the storm, but during the horrible weeks and months after that. Honestly, the only complaint I got so far is that J.T. wishes I hadn't mentioned his "aging athlete's paunch."

GM: What do you expect from Joe McKnight this season for USC?

NT: As a Notre Dame fan (my Dad went there), it's going to be tough for me to root for USC this year, but I'll be doing just that. I recently read that USC has a backlog of running backs this year, including some players who were among the best high school athletes in the country. But I've also read that Joe is getting some good playing time during practice, and has impressed his coaches. I'm sure we'll see him with the ball this fall, maybe on punt or kick returns. In the book, I describe his troubled childhood, and I really wish him all the best of luck with his college career. He certainly deserves it. [Editor's note: McKnight had 26 yards on six carries in USC's first game of the season.]

GM: I sensed some ambiguity about the coaches' motives for getting Joe back on the squad [after he had transferred to Evangel Christian Academy]. Would they have taken those steps for a walk-on third-stringer who had been with the team as long and was equally beloved? Would they have won the championship without him?

NT: Hmm. Good question. I think Joe's relationship with the coaches and his players was more complicated than I had the time to explain in the book. The coaches all love Joe, and they all definitely wanted him back on the team. I think many of them were just as concerned about Joe's well-being as they were in having such a great player on their team. They all knew he was one of the best they'd ever seen, and they all wanted to have the chance to coach him and watch him play for two more years. But I do know they would have taken similar steps for a lesser player, because there are other coaches who did take in (for example) a third-string freshman who seemed to have been abandoned by his family.
As for the championship, it's hard to say if they would have won without him. Many of the games would certainly have been closer. But I found it interesting to watch the team through 2006. J.T. used Joe a bit less, and a number of other players rose up and really shined (such as running back David Seeman, who was the MVP of the 2006 championship game).

"I really believe that the Curtis program is not only on the up-and-up, but that other schools could learn a few things from their balanced and fair approach to athletics."
GM: Is Class 2A too easy for John Curtis [which was forced down from 4A because of its small enrollment]? Might this hurt the team's recruiting ability down the road?

NT: I do think 2A is too easy for them, but the state doesn't seem willing to change its rules and let them play up again (which is what J.T. would prefer). But I think kids will continue to come to Curtis for a number of reasons. I think athletes are drawn to the school.

GM: Were Michael Lewis (The Blind Side) and Bissinger (Friday Night Lights) big influences? Did you try to distinguish your style and story from theirs? What do you think of their books?

NT: Actually, Friday Night Lights was a turning point for me. I was a newspaper reporter when I read it, and was getting more and more frustrated with the restrictions of the job, the inability to dig deeper and to write more creatively. So, in addition to being one of my favorite books, Buzz's book showed me that it was possible to tell a nonfiction story—really, just a really long newspaper or magazine article, when you get right down to it—and have it read like a novel. Ever since, I've sought out (and read, almost exclusively) so-called "narrative non-fiction" books that tell a true story, but tell it so well you'd swear you were reading a novel. And I've tried to write my own books in the same fashion, though I think my writing style differs from Bissinger's and Lewis's—I'm just not that good.
Not yet, anyway. Blind Side was certainly one of those rare books, too, that at times made you say to yourself, "I can't believe this is a true story." Lewis is an incredible researcher and writer, as is Eric Larson, as was David Halberstam, another nonfiction pioneer and a hero of mine, who died all too soon.

GM: How much had you known about New Orleans and high-school football before working on the book? Did your opinion of either change much as a result?

NT: Though I'd played some football as a kid and as a freshman in high school, I hadn't been exposed to the sport in years. Nor did I know much about New Orleans, which I'd visited only once before. And because my perceptions of high-school football have been shaped by pop-culture portrayals like Friday Night Lights and Two-a-Days, I was pleasantly surprised (and, honestly, relieved) to find an atypical coach like J.T., who really does seem to care more about the kids and their well-being and their future than simply winning the next game. During my year of research I also saw the bad behavior of a few opposing coaches, and realized that J.T. and his assistants are true mentors to their kids. Maybe that's the case in more schools than I realize, but the shrill Bobby Knight model seems to be too dominant in all levels of sport.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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