As he sat in a hotel room in California this week, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Horn couldn't tear himself away from the televised images of destruction, death and suffering coming from his team's home city. He left the room only when necessary and turned the TV off only when meals arrived. He felt too guilty sitting there eating while watching people struggle for survival in New Orleans and other areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding.
Tears began to gather in Horn's eyes as he spoke, standing in the locker room in Oakland late Thursday night after the club's preseason finale against the Raiders, about the scenes that had haunted him the most -- those of survivors who'd been left homeless and were searching desperately for ways to keep themselves and their children alive while waiting for help to arrive.
"Reading the people's lips: 'Where's the food? Where's water?' " Horn said. "They were there for four days. I mean, drop something out of the sky. Fly helicopters over and drop something, whatever you have to do. That's what killed me, man. I'm cried out. I'm just cried out."
Horn -- along with his teammates, coaches and other Saints employees -- left New Orleans late Sunday, before Katrina hit, and spent the week in San Jose. The team flew back to San Antonio after the game Thursday and spent Friday setting up its temporary home here. Horn's wife and children also made it out of New Orleans in time and are safely ensconced in a hotel in Tupelo, Miss.
But just because they were physically removed from the devastation didn't mean that they were emotionally detached from it, Horn and other Saints players said.
"There's a lot of anxiety," tailback Deuce McAllister said. "There's uncertainty about what's going to happen, what's going on. It's devastating because of what happened to the city, what happened in Mississippi and other places. . . . I watched. I tried to keep up with it and see what's going on. . . . Unfortunately, you have to expect the worst. Many of the worst things that could have happened, they happened."
Saints players were given the weekend off until Sunday night, when they have to report to San Antonio. They'll resume practicing Monday in preparation for their Sept. 11 regular season opener at Carolina. By Sunday, most of them will have checked on family members who fled New Orleans to other cities. Some will have tried to get back to the New Orleans area to see if their homes are still standing.
McAllister said he intended to check on his house Friday, having been told it was damaged but not destroyed, then spend Saturday handing out provisions in relief shelters in Jackson, Miss., near where he grew up.
"They don't have a lot of things," McAllister said. "We're going to try to help those families out. I know Steve [McNair] and Brett [Favre] have sent some food to the Gulf Coast. We're going to try to fill in the gaps where it's needed the most."
McAllister said he'd been unable to reach about 15 to 20 friends and family members in affected areas, including some cousins and his high school basketball coach. "He's a real good friend of mine," McAllister said. "I don't know if he and his family got out."
Horn said he didn't plan to see his wife and kids until Sunday. He didn't feel a pressing need to check on them because he knows they're fine, he said. Rather, his plan for Friday and Saturday was to find a way to get to Houston, where thousands of refugees have been taken to the Astrodome, and see what he could do to help.
"I'm going to try to take some of the resources I have, that I was blessed with, and go to Houston and try to rent some buses and get some vouchers and gift cards to Wal-Mart and see if the Red Cross will let me come to the dome and let some people get on the bus and go buy some stuff at Wal-Mart, some food," Horn said. "And I'm going to try to go to the hotels and see if someone needs me. . . . They can hear professional athletes talking. [But] until they see you eyeball to eyeball trying to help their family, it doesn't matter."
Horn is best known to NFL fans nationwide for a touchdown celebration during a nationally televised game in 2003, when he pulled out a cell phone he had stashed in the padding of a goal post and pretended to make a call. That earned him a reputation as a diva, but he said he didn't care if anyone thought his desire to pitch in now resulted from a craving for publicity.
"I'm going to help some family," he said. "If it's only one family -- I'm going to take a family out and get something to eat, get some clothes if I can do that. That's what I have to do. . . . They're not going to know who I am. They're not going to care. They're going to say, 'Sir, you have to get out of here.' I don't know. But I'm going to try my best to help some kind of way. . . . I can't save the world, but I can do what I can do."
The pain on Horn's face turned to anger when he talked about the government response to the crisis, which he said has focused too much, in his opinion, on stopping looting and not enough on getting aid to victims.
"Most of the people that I see getting diapers, getting food, getting clothes, getting sneakers, getting shirts -- that's not looting to me," he said. "That's surviving. . . . The stores that they're breaking into, they'll [open] again. They'll go up again. These people are trying to survive and stay alive. And we have to have the National Guard come in and stop the looting? That's ridiculous. They should have them go home. . . . No one cares about a store or a pair of shoes that they're taking out of a store to put on their feet. That's irrelevant because that's replaceable. A life isn't replaceable.
"When we're here in America and we see these other countries on TV that we hurry up to get to and try to assist them, I love that. I'm American, and I love that. But what I see is right in our back yard, right in my back yard, and we have to take two or three days, four days, to get some assistance down to New Orleans? Get out of here. That's ridiculous. . . . I know we have help on the way. I understand that, and I appreciate my government for doing that. But how soon is quick enough? It wasn't quick enough."
Horn didn't play Thursday along with McAllister and some other top players. He said he wouldn't have minded seeing the game canceled. But once the regular season begins, he said, the games will feel meaningful because he knows they will be meaningful to many of the people in New Orleans and throughout the region. Even Thursday's meaningless game was shown at the Astrodome.
"Those people are going through the roughest time in their lives," Saints Coach Jim Haslett said. "They have nowhere to live. . . . Everybody on our team is heartbroken. They feel for the people who are going through tough times."