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Making waves: How Tulane student-athletes came together when Hurricane Katrina hit

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Katrina 10 year: Effect on Tulane, Tulane athletics, and Tulane Katrina Class
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Making waves: How Tulane student-athletes came together when Hurricane Katrina hit
New Orleans, UNITED STATES: Workers from different states remove debris at Tulane University 10 September, 2005, in the Garden District of New Orleans, 12 days after Hurricane Katrina hit and devastated the city. Top military officials on Saturday urged New Orleans residents still holed up in the watery city to leave but said no order to forcibly evacuate reluctant residents has yet been issued. AFP PHOTO/OMAR TORRES (Photo credit should read OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)
SHREVEPORT, LA - SEPTEMBER 17: The Tulane Green Wave football team arrives for a home game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 17, 2005 at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Tulane Green Wave from New Orleans, Louisiana had to change venues due to the state of their city as a result of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
SHREVEPORT, LA - SEPTEMBER 17: Fans of the Tulane Green Wave look on during play against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 17, 2005 at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Bulldogs defeated the Green Wave 21-14. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
SHREVEPORT, LA - SEPTEMBER 17: Wide receiver Kenneth Guidroz #84 of the Tulane Green Wave makes a pass reception against Kevin Dockery #4 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 17, 2005 at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Bulldogs defeated the Green Wave 21-14. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
SHREVEPORT, LA - SEPTEMBER 17: Fans of the Tulane Green Wave cheer during play against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 17, 2005 at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Bulldogs defeated the Green Wave 21-14. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
SHREVEPORT, LA - SEPTEMBER 17: The Tulane Green Wave looks on from the sidelines during a loss against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 17, 2005 at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Bulldogs defeated the Green Wave 21-14. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
SHREVEPORT, LA - SEPTEMBER 17: Quarterback Lester Ricard #8 of the Tulane Green Wave runs against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 17, 2005 at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Bulldogs defeated the Green Wave 21-14. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 9: The Tulane University men's and women's tennis skedule hangs on a fence December 9, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tulane has planned cuts of about 230 faculty members and eight division one NCAA sports programs, including the tennis teams to help deal with the financial aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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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.

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