Making waves: How Tulane student-athletes came together when Hurricane Katrina hit
By BRIAN FITZSIMMONS
First, the wind came. It always starts like that.
Before a then-massive Category 3 storm was charging directly toward the Gulf Coast, before it continued to swell into a Category 5 catastrophe, everything seemed fine. The highest point of anxiety at Tulane University actually was generated by the girls soccer and volleyball teams, whose jitters for their respective season-openers drenched their Friday night.
By the next afternoon, though, August 27, 2005, the threat was real and students who were anticipating arriving for their campus orientation were told to leave, while Green Wave athletic administrators scrambled to transport student-athletes to the university's evacuation home at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.
SEE MORE: Special coverage on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
That was the second time the institution's exit plan had been put into effect, with the first being in September 2004 during Hurricane Ivan. Nevertheless, following a 10-hour ride that should've taken four due to traffic on a Sunday, the football team still practiced in the late-evening hours to prepare for their September 4 game the next weekend against Southern Miss.
After spending their first night in Jackson on air mattresses, the Tulane football and soccer teams awoke to that wind.
Hurricane Katrina, they called her, was approaching.
The chants reverberated off the gymnasium walls. The football players were yelling 'BEAT SOUTHERN MISS!' while practicing, still unaware of what was about to happen. It was Monday afternoon, hours from devastation, and beating the Golden Eagles was still the main focus.
Perspective can level you quickly, like a quarterback getting sacked from behind with no indication.
See, the wonderful part about this story, in hindsight, though, was that the 'Katrina football team' was full of fighters.
The program was just two years removed from a university review that had discussed dropping its athletic programs out of Division I. They weren't ranked, not even close, but it didn't matter. They were competing. They were all warriors.
In the following days, they learned what real grit was. No first downs. No spray-painted lines.
Just life. And trudging forward.
A day later, still stuck in the gym with no power and the city still shut down, word of the heartbreaking havoc and widespread disaster along the Gulf Coast made its way around the group. Tulane athletic director Rick Dickson found a way to cancel the opener against Southern Miss, and that was the least of his concerns. Still, he had 124 panicked student-athletes with no food or power.
Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on August 29 and leveled the campus and its surrounding areas. The 40,000 square foot basement of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library was flooded with more than eight feet of water, according to the school. Buildings were ruined and covered in muck. Furniture and shelving were submerged. Streets were flooded with people being rescued by rooftop. Buildings were destroyed. Lives were shaken.
SEE MORE: Hurricane technology evolution
According to the Tulane website's account, the outpouring of support truly began as Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky then -- in conjunction with the athletic directors at SMU and UAB -- issued an invitation to the stranded Green Wave football and soccer teams to go to Dallas. Soon enough, another bus trip -- a long eight hours, to be exact -- was set up and during the drive, the players were exposed to some of the wreckage.
"They were talking about a guy on top of his roof," quarterback Lester Ricard said, according to the school's site. "His wife in his right hand and his three babies in the other hand, and his wife is slipping. The current from the water was pulling her. And she said 'Just let me go and make sure my babies are safe.'
"I broke down in tears on that bus ride."
The tears eventually transitioned into strength. It always happens like that.
The student-athletes arrived in Dallas on Wednesday in the early-morning hours without any clue if their homes were OK, their school was in one piece, if their loved ones were safe -- completely unsure of their future.
Still, being grateful became a common bond. Grateful for each other. Grateful for a roof over their heads. Grateful for the chance to maybe, just maybe, become a sign of strength to those who needed it.
"It's kind of like we're unfortunately fortunate," Tulane's defensive end Michael Purcell told the school's site.
By week's end, the national media put a magnified lens on the Tulane athletic programs. They were especially strong because, well, they had no choice.
Eventually, fall-semester classes were called off. The damage was cataclysmic and it would take months for the region to return to a semblance of normalcy.
However, the Green Wave teams would continue to compete, and university president Scott Cowen said it well: The teams would carry on to "carry the torch, be the face and represent the name."
Suddenly the wind and rain weren't the strongest elements to hit the area.
"Every time Tulane athletics goes out there, it will remind people to say, 'this team and all the students are not at the university. They are, in a way, homeless," Cowen said. "They will be a constant reminder. And one of the things I want to make sure is that people in the United States don't forget the devastation that occurred to New Orleans and how people have been impacted by it now and for the rest of their lives."
The football team went on to play 11 games in 11 stadiums in 11 weeks, posting a 2-9 record. No matter. They won 31-10 at SMU on September 24 and 28-21 at SE Louisiana the following week. Their biggest win, though, was carrying on.
"I told the team this isn't about winning or losing," Green Wave football coach Chris Scelfo, who became an assistant for the Atlanta Falcons from 2006-2014, had told the school's site. "At the end of the year, our message has to be that we persevered. If we go 11-0, if we go 0-11, they're not going to know our record. They're going to know we persevered. For the millions of people affected in our environment -- the ones who survived -- it's going to give them some hope."
Tulane rebounded. The community has rebuilt over the years. In 2005, for their efforts, the Green Wave earned recognition across the nation, and at the close of that dramatic season, received the Courage Award from the Football Writer's Association of America, and the Disney Spirit Award from Disney's Wide World of Sports, as well as the Keith Jackson Award for Bravery.
On September 3 this year, they open at home -- home, sweet home -- against Duke. Maybe some wind will blow and maybe the school's fight song will mean a little more:
Green Wave Green Wave,
Hats off to thee.
We're out to
Fight, fight, fight
For our victory.
Shout to the skies
Our Green Wave war cries.
The bravest we'll defy.
Hold that line for
Olive and blue.
We will cheer for you.
So fight, fight, old Tulane
Fight on to victory.
Follow us on Twitter: @AOLSports
MORE ON AOL.COM:
Illustrating 10 years of recovery
Looking back at media coverage of Hurricane Katrina