-- Much like the Louisiana State campus and athletic department, LSU Athletic Director Skip Bertman is stuck, quite literally, between dueling realities.
He walks to one window near his office and sees a handful of college students, a peaceful campus where classes are scheduled to start Tuesday and a football stadium where he envisions hosting a game next weekend.
He walks to a window down the hall and sees dozens of police officers and doctors, emergency helicopters landing on the school track and a basketball arena in which dozens of evacuated hurricane victims recently died.
At LSU, Bertman said, heaven and hell are separated by a two-lane street and a few makeshift police barriers, and Bertman's office sits on the dividing line. Two of the school's athletic buildings, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center and the Carl Maddox Field House, have become rescue areas for some of the most dire victims of Hurricane Katrina. Every day since Monday, about 1,000 people, most in need of immediate medical care, have been dropped off at the school. Many receive treatment and leave for another shelter. Some stay in intensive care. Others die under the LSU basketball scoreboard.
The school's other prominent athletic structure, Tiger Stadium, is at the center of a different effort: to provide a brief respite to a football-crazy state and a major college campus by hosting a nationally televised football game against Arizona State on Sept. 10.
LSU has already postponed one game, scheduled for Saturday against North Texas, and some have said football has no place a few hundred yards away from hurricane victims battling for their lives. But it's there, Bertman and others said, where a game next weekend would be most effective.
"Football is woven into the fabric of society here, and to play next weekend would be great medicine for an ailing state," Bertman said. "Some people might call it insensitive, but sometimes you need a distraction. You need a game."
Fighting for Lives
Anthony Small needs a game so he can think about something besides death, which has consumed his mind for almost a week. He thought he was going to die in his New Orleans apartment before a helicopter rescued him and delivered him to the LSU campus. He has seen at least a dozen people die, he said, since he arrived here Monday night.
"It would feel pretty good to see people partying and cheering," said Small, 36. "It's been awhile since I saw something good like that."
Since Monday, almost all he has seen is the inside of the Pete Maravich Assembly Center (PMAC), where a few hundred people lie on stiff cots under plastic yellow sheets. The arena is divided, like a hospital, into several sections, all marked by signs. Dialysis, intensive care and pediatrics each occupy a section of the gymnasium floor. There are 12 medical baby cribs, at least 10 electronic shock machines and a makeshift waiting area for families of the injured.
Many of these people, university officials said, were evacuated from New Orleans hospitals, where some have already fought for their lives. At the Maravich center, many don't make it. Nurses and volunteers occasionally have to administer CPR, and bodies are carted out quickly to a local morgue.
Once a patient is stabilized, he is moved to the Maddox Field House, where more than 400 cots fill a gym the size of three basketball courts. It's as much a shelter as a hospital. Small is glad, he said, that he was placed there immediately after a brief checkup and rehydration.
"A lot of these people here are either critically injured or have special needs, like people from nursing homes or hospitals," said LSU Vice Chancellor Michael Ruffner. "It's an area unlike anything I've ever seen or dealt with."
Nobody knows how long evacuees will remain on campus, but Ruffner guessed it could be months. For now, their population is still growing. On Friday, eight helicopters landed at once on the LSU track. About 30 helicopters arrived during the course of the day.
Small said he plans to leave as soon as he can get a ride somewhere else. He might go to Texas, where he has family. Or he could go to Florida, because he has always wanted to live there.
"You can't be around a place like this for too long," Small said. "You've got to get your mind somewhere else."
Caring for Family
Skyler Green needs a game to distract him from the chaos at his apartment, where almost 20 people have moved in over the last week. A senior who earned all-American honors as a wide receiver with the LSU Tigers, Green is now more important as provider to a family that suddenly relies primarily on him.
In the days since Hurricane Katrina, most of Green's relatives have joined him in Baton Rouge, and it might be awhile before anybody moves out. There's his aunt, his mother, two of his mother's friends, a niece, a nephew and a sister-in-law. "There's some more staying with me," Green said, "I can't even remember."
It's a two-bedroom apartment.
Some relatives arrived the day before the hurricane, a few more followed late Sunday night and three others, Green said, escaped a flooded New Orleans to make it to his haven. Green, who went to Higgins High School in hard-hit Westwego, La., hasn't had time to track down most of his high school friends. He has been too busy running to Wal-Mart to load up on water, food and blankets. When he sleeps, it's in the same bed as his roommate, junior lineman Brian Johnson.
"Everybody needed a place to stay, so we made room," Green said. "There are three people sleeping on all the beds, some people on blow-up beds and a few on egg-crate mattresses. It's almost like a homeless shelter."
"I guess it kind of is a homeless shelter."
Green still goes to football practice every day -- "my escape," he calls it -- and he's eager to lose himself completely in a real game. Still, making it through nearly three hours of high-contact exercise on little sleep feels almost impossible, Green said, and his teammates can relate. Starting quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who has a dozen people staying in his apartment, needed a hydrating IV on Thursday. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who is staying with in-laws because his apartment lost electricity, finds it hard to focus.
On Friday, Green went up to LSU Coach Les Miles and told him he felt tired. Miles nodded his head, Green said, and told his player that was all right.
"In the old days, days when it wasn't life and death, you could say, 'What are you doing? Why are you staying out so late? Go to bed.' " Miles said later. "Those were different times. Now other things are more important."
LSU is ranked No. 5 nationally and aspires to win a national championship -- it accomplished just that in 2003 -- but its more immediate focus is to help victims of the hurricane. On its own initiative, the team loaded a trailer full of shoes and clothes -- "some of the best extra, extra large items around," Miles said -- and delivered it to a local shelter.
The team's equipment manager volunteered to wash about 20,000 pounds of clothing and sheets. The strength and conditioning staff unloaded 18-wheeler trucks filled with medical supplies. Football players visited shelters to shake hands and autograph posters.
What would help most, Miles said, is for the LSU football team to play Saturday night.
"Everybody wants to see this game," Miles said. "Everybody wants to get their mind off this. Even if they can't go to the game, just to lie in the PMAC and ask, 'What's the score?' That helps."
Saturday night's game would likely bring 90,000 people to Tiger Stadium, and it's scheduled to be televised nationally on ESPN. It could be a major statement game, Bertman said, and not in the football sense.
"This would be a chance for us to show the country, 'We're okay. We're going to make it through this,' " he said. "There's a time to mourn and recover, and then you have to get on about your life. We can help people get to that next phase."
Bertman said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and LSU Chancellor Sean O'Keefe are strongly in favor of holding the game, but nobody is quite sure how to do it. The university is short on parking space because of the relief effort. Baton Rouge has no hotel rooms because the city's population has swelled from about 450,000 to almost 800,000. Louisiana has far too few available police officers to manage a crowd that could swell to 90,000 by the 7:45 p.m. kickoff.
More than 30 percent of Tigers season ticket holders come from New Orleans, which creates problems, too. As many as 10,000 fans lost their season tickets in the hurricane, Bertman estimated, and all of those tickets need to be replaced and redelivered.
If those complications preclude LSU from hosting the game against Arizona State, the University of Mississippi has offered its stadium. If forced to leave Baton Rouge, Bertman said he'd probably rather move the game to Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La., a city about four hours away with casinos and hotel rooms.
Bertman's ideal, though, is to play the game at home. A home game is worth about $3.25 million to LSU, and he said it also would generate revenue for the hurricane relief effort. Bertman said he has talked to producers at ESPN who promise to broadcast relief donation numbers during the game. "This game can be a good for absolutely everyone," he said.
LSU fans tailgate for an average of nine hours, Bertman said, and many of them arrive the night before the game and sleep in tents on campus. When Bertman thinks about Saturday, he imagines tailgaters and refugees eating together on campus and talking. He pictures LSU's two worlds blending together.
"Football, around here at least, can pick people up," Bertman said. "I'm not sure there's a more important thing that a game can do."