"There's always a point in the season when you're faced with a challenge and you see what you're capable of. And you grow up."
-- J.T. Curtis, head coach, John Curtis Christian School Patriots
On Saturday, August 27, 2005, the John Curtis Patriots met for a grueling practice in the late summer New Orleans sun, the air a visible fog of humidity. They had pulled off a 19-0 shutout in their pre-season game the night before, but it was a game full of dumb mistakes. Head coach J.T. Curtis was determined to drill those mistakes out of them before their highly anticipated next game, which sportswriters had dubbed "the Battle of the Bayou" against a big team coming in all the way from Utah. As fate played out, that afternoon was the last time the Patriots would see one another for weeks; some teammates they'd never see again. Hurricane Katrina was about to tear their lives apart.
The Patriots are a most unlikely football dynasty. There is a small, nondescript, family-run school, the buildings constructed by hand by the school's founding patriarch, John Curtis Sr. In this era of high school football as big business with 20,000 seat stadiums, John Curtis has no stadium of its own. The team plays an old-school offense, and Coach Curtis insists on a no-cut policy, giving every kid who wants to play a chance. As of 2005, they'd won nineteen state championships in Curtis's thirty-five years of coaching, making him the second most winning high school coach ever. Curtis has honed to a fine art the skill of teaching players how to transcend their natural talents. No screamer, he strives to teach kids about playing with purpose, the power of respect, dignity, poise, patience, trust in teamwork, and the payoff of perseverance, showing them how to be winners not only on the gridiron, but in life, and making boys into men. Hurricane Katrina would put those lessons to the test of a lifetime.
Hurricane Season is the story of a great coach, his team, his family, and their school -- and a remarkable fight back from shocking tragedy. It is a story of football and faith, and of the transformative power of a team that rises above adversity, and above its own abilities, to come together again and prove what they're made of. It is the gripping story of how, as one player put it, "football became my place of peace."
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July 31, 2007
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Excerpt from Hurricane Season by Neal Thompson
Friday night, August 26
In the corner of the blue carpeted, concrete-walled room, a giant floor fan whines, pushing around sweat-odored air. The locker room stinks, but at least it's air-conditioned. Sort of. It's better than being outside in the late-day, late-August New Orleans sun. So, the Patriots of John Curtis Christian School, more than a hundred of them, hang out in this dank room with missing ceiling tiles and funky smells. It barely contains them all.
The floor is littered with broken shoulder pads, socks, spools of athletic tape, Adidas sneakers, and the bright red or blue rubber Croc moccasins the players wear in the showers. A quote hand-painted on a scrap of plywood that's duct-taped to the wall reads, WINNERS concentrate on WINNING, LOSERS concentrate on GETTING BY.
They're trading gossip, razzing each other about girls, or arguing about what to expect from tonight's opponent, all fired up for a new season and the start of a new school year on Monday. A multiracial, multicultural gumbo of kids from all over the city and the suburbs, they're sons of the wealthy and the just scraping by, they're scrawny ninth-grade third stringers and oversized, muscle-bound starting seniors, and they're all united in determination to bring the mighty John Curtis Patriots to yet another state championship this year. A few boys sit alone on stools, headphones blocking out the roar. Others are curled up in a corner trying to nap, while a few enact pregame rituals, getting their heads ready to play.
Offensive guard Andrew Nierman, a bruising six-foot-one, 300-pounder, ties the shoes of his good friend, 325-pound defensive tackle Jonathan "Tank" English. Tank earned his nickname in fourth grade, when he and Andrew dressed as army guys for Halloween. A snarky janitor told Jonathan, nearing two hundred pounds even then, that he looked like an army tank. In grammar school, he developed a bad habit of never tying his laces tight enough, so Andrew always tightens them for him before games.
Tank and Andrew are both the ambitous, determined sons of hard-working single moms. Tank's father died of a heart attack two years ago, after a decade of battling heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney problems. He was only forty-nine. Tank and his mom, Althea, who runs a day-care center, live in mostly African-American section of Kenner, a suburb just west of River Ridge, and Tank has attended Curtis since the third grade. Andrew, who has contended with growing up biracial in a still strongly segregated New Orleans, commutes from thirty miles away, where he and his mother live alone. He has no relationship with this father, who left years ago.
Andrew and Tank, both juniors, anchor the Patriots' front line -- Andrew on offense, Tank on defense. They're both savvy, physical players who run faster than 300-pounders should, and the coaches are relying on each of them to play leadership roles this year. Off the field, their demeanor is more preacher -- Tank -- and teacher -- Andrew -- than bone-breaking tacklers. Tank is a warm, happy-go-lucky man-boy with a deep laugh and a melodious voice as smooth and sweet as jelly. He leads his teammates in prayer before games and is a great motivator on the field. Andrew is thoughtful, studious, and serious, with dark, intense eyes; a beefy bookworm in shoulder pads. He's one of the smartest kids in the school and dreams of attending a top academic college, maybe even Harvard.
Linebacker Mike Walker and quarterback Kyle Collura practice their pregame handshake, a hand dance of high-fives, low-fives, and a fist-to-fist punch. They plan to do it after every touchdown this year. Mike and Kyle are also juniors, getting their first shot at full-time varsity this year.