The Hammond boys' soccer players celebrated their 3-2 victory over Glenelg last week by running through a tunnel of students who had rushed the field. One by one, they emerged to a standing ovation, but the final player, Jimmy Headley, enjoyed the moment for completely different reasons.
"I'm happy that for the first time in a month, it's like my life is normal," he said. "It's at least as normal as it could be."
Headley, of Bay St. Louis, Miss., is one of thousands of students from the Gulf Coast who were forced to move to another state after losing their homes to Hurricane Katrina.
His family's one-story home was gutted to its wall studs by three-foot-high water; the two-story house with a swimming pool they had planned to move to next year also collapsed. The school he attended won't open for at least six weeks, and now he is living 1,115 miles from his parents, who are staying in a trailer in their front yard.
"I was going through all the stuff we had to throw away, and it was stuff like his baby pictures and things you can never replace -- it wasn't just furniture and beds," said Karen Headley, Jimmy's mom, in a phone interview. "Our youngest son is living with my sister in Oregon and Jimmy's in Maryland, and it's hard because I miss them both so much. I call them every day, but I don't know when I'm going to see them again."
Headley came to live with his uncle, Jim Ketchum, and his aunt, Joan, on Sept. 10 and three days later enrolled at Hammond, where Jim's oldest son, Matt, is a junior. He met soccer coach Rick Bantz his first day, and after completing required paperwork, joined the team at practice Sept. 16. Headley started against Glenelg on Sept. 20.
"When I went down and got him, I saw what had happened to their neighborhood, and I'd never seen anything like that before," said Jim Ketchum, whose family vacationed every summer at the Headleys' home. "But considering what he's been through, I think he's handled it well and so has the school system by letting him come right in and be part of a team."
Headley has more to adjust to than switching from the red-white-and-black uniform of St. Stanislaus College to the maroon and white of Hammond.
His old school is an all-boys Catholic school with about 300 students. At Hammond, he's one of 1,343 students. Back home, he could drive to school or ride with his mother; now he's riding a school bus for the first time.
"I've never seen so many kids before," said Headley, who helped lead St. Stanislaus to the finals of the Mississippi 4A tournament last fall. "Back in Mississippi, I knew everyone because it was such a small town; but here, there's no way I'll ever get to know everyone."
He's trying, though. Headley has made as smooth a transition as can be expected of someone who arrived in Columbia with just a duffel bag of clothes. He was welcomed with gift cards from the Kethchums' neighbors.
Headley impressed Bantz in practice with his footwork and the way he moved without the ball. Against Glenelg, Headley helped control the midfield by delivering outlet passes to teammates. Glenelg was often forced to kick the ball out of bounds to slow Hammond's attack. Hammond took advantage by scoring two goals off long throws as midfielder Mostafa Ebrahimnejad headed in a throw-in from Dave Griffith, and Griffith scored when his long throw-in deflected off a defender's foot into the goal.
"The work ethic and attitude he has showed since he got here has been outstanding," Bantz said. "We're happy that he's a part of our team even though he had to come here under terrible circumstances."
Headley has also been accepted by his teammates, who got to know him off the field at a recent pasta dinner at Griffith's home.
"I think if some kid who had been at our school just showed up at practice after our first game, there would have been some problems, but to have a nice guy like Jimmy, who has lost his home, come out, it's different," said junior midfielder Vince Taweel. "I've gotten to know him pretty well, and I'd say he's a friend. He's a good player and a good guy, and we're glad he's with us now."
Headley isn't sure how long he'll stay. He expects to spend at least the fall semester at Hammond.
"I lost everything: my stereo, my TV, my pool table, everything I had, and I miss my parents so much," Headley said. "But after all that's happened, I can't say enough about how much the people here welcomed me with such open arms because they've been so good to me. I never expected for everyone to go this much out of their way. It means a lot to me."
"It's good that's he up there and not with us, because there is no infrastructure here and no activities to do -- the only thing open in our town is the gas station," Karen Headley said. "I called him after the soccer game [against Glenelg], and he told me he never felt homesick like he is right now; and I told him I wished I was at the game watching him play. Right now, I really don't know when he's coming home."