After Hurricane Katrina scattered them across the south, four best friends were reunited in this tiny town.
Cameron Zipp had arrived first, driving with his mother and father from their home in Mandeville, La., through fallen trees and standing water, to his aunt's house here in the northeast corner of the state. Chris Johnson came two days later, filling six, two-gallon gas cans and driving alone from Atlanta. Santiago Cordova and Ashton Autin spent a few days convincing their parents they could live on their own, then carpooled from Mississippi over the weekend.
In many ways, the four high school seniors said, this is an illogical place to restart their lives after the hurricane damaged their homes and shut down their high school in suburban New Orleans. They'll spend at least five months sleeping on couches and inflatable beds at the home of Zipp's aunt, with three of the boys hundreds of miles from family members who evacuated elsewhere.
It's here in Rayville, though, where the friends found the appropriate foundation on which they can rebuild: high school football.
"We've been playing football our whole lives, so if we want to get things back to normal, it pretty much starts with playing football," said Zipp, an offensive lineman. "Our families understand. We're basically using football to start over."
Thousands of New Orleans athletes practiced for the first time with new teams during the last week. Hurricane Katrina displaced about 20,000 high school athletes from the New Orleans area, said Louisiana High School Athletic Association Commissioner Tommy Henry, and the LHSAA modified its rules to allow hurricane-effected athletes to transfer and play anywhere they want.
Zipp, Johnson, Cordova and Autin were among the lucky ones, walking into their first practice at Neville High School in Monroe, La., together Monday. It felt, to them, eerily reminiscent of any pre-hurricane morning. For two years, they had carpooled to Fontainebleau High School in Mandeville, La. All starters, they led the football team to the 5A state semifinals in 2004 and, together, they vowed to take Fontainebleau to the state championship game as seniors.
During the summer, they met every morning at 7:30 to run and lift weights. They made an odd foursome, teammates said. Zipp (offensive lineman) and Johnson (defensive end) had major talent and were heavily recruited; Cordova (linebacker) and Autin (cornerback), both small, wanted little more than a state championship and the camaraderie of their teammates.
On Monday at Neville, though, that camaraderie seemed a distant aspiration. The four friends walked into the locker room to confused stares, not high-fives and jokes. Neville Coach Mickey McCarty introduced them as new teammates, but a roomful of players eyed them like competition.
"My team is smart enough to realize that bringing in four new starters means some old starters will lose their spots," McCarty said. "Hopefully everybody will accept it, but some might turn sour. That's something we'll deal with along the way."
Zipp knew Neville High had a successful football program, making the 4A state semifinals in each of the last three seasons, and was close to his aunt's home in Rayville. He drove to the school to check things out shortly after he and his family arrived and talked to McCarty. The coach said Zipp and his friends could join the team, and Zipp began contacting Autin, Cordova and Johnson by text message.
Johnson had gone to Atlanta with his family the day before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, the same day that Autin and Cordova left for Mississippi. They have regrouped to join a team that draws more than 10,000 fans to games on Friday nights and usually enters the fall with high expectations. This season, however, had seemed headed for disappointment until Hurricane Katrina remade the team's roster.
Even though Monroe is about a five-hour drive from New Orleans, the Tigers -- like most area teams -- welcomed five new players, with more possibly on the way. Darold Hughes, a junior quarterback who evacuated from Marrero, La., joined the team and immediately took snaps with the starting offense.
"It's a crazy situation," said Robert Bratton, a Neville assistant coach. "The truth is, we have a totally different team today than we did yesterday."
Neville coaches said they did nothing to pursue their new players, which would have violated LHSAA rules even after the hurricane, but rumors of recruitment abound. Zipp said two high school coaches in the Monroe area, neither from Neville, contacted him about playing for their schools. After his first practice with Neville on Monday, Johnson received a phone call from a coach in Texas who offered him free housing and clothing to play for his team.
"There are some possibilities for me," Johnson said, "but we all decided to go to this school together, and I'm not leaving my friends."
Said Henry, the LHSAA Commissioner: "People are taking advantage of the rules and that's hard to stop. We're not controlling where these kids play, because they're essentially being classified as homeless."
For the quartet from Fontainebleau, that description is not far from the truth. About 11 people -- nobody is quite sure exactly how many, because it varies from day to day -- live with Ronnie and Connie Hubbard in their farm-style house in Rayville, La., 20 minutes from Monroe. The Hubbards also have taken in three family friends and Zipp's mother. Their son plays football at St. Frederick High in Monroe, so when Zipp, their nephew, asked to invite three friends to live with them, they hardly hesitated.
"We know what football means to a high schooler in Louisiana," Connie Hubbard said. "That's something you make sacrifices for."
So Johnson and Autin sleep on an inflatable bed, Zipp sleeps on a small mattress and Cordova stays on a couch. There's no closet space, so all four high schoolers pile their clothes on top of an old pool table. Everyone who stays at the house leaves their shoes -- 32 pairs in all -- under the pool table.
On Sunday night, Connie held a house meeting to outline rules for the next several months. With this many people, she said, it would be important to stay organized. Women would shower in the morning; men would shower at night. The high schoolers would be allowed to go out one night every weekend, so long as they came back by 1 a.m. All 10 cars needed to be parked behind the house on one side of the street. "Otherwise," Hubbard said, "this will look like a used car lot."
Connie and Zipp's mom, Patty, have already made three trips to Sam's Club to buy groceries in bulk. Connie said feeding a house full of football players will become her full-time job. On Monday, Zipp, Johnson, Autin and Cordova ate fried chicken with their teammates after football practice, went out for pizza, came home and snacked, and then asked Hubbard if she would make crawfish for dinner.
"They're trying to make us feel at home out here, even though this is pretty different from living near the city," Autin said. "We've got everything we need. It's just that we're basically sleeping on top of each other."
There are other problems, too, and it might take a while before all of them are sorted out. Cordova only has a few items of clothing, and he hopes to go back to Mandeville to get the rest of his stuff. Johnson's mom had planned to watch all of her son's football games, which is now impossible. She is with family in Atlanta, six hours away, and she plans to order tapes of her son's games from a Neville videographer.
Johnson and Zipp have tried frantically to contact the college coaches who had recruited them at Fontainebleau. Zipp already has scholarship offers from Memphis and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, but Tennessee and Southern Mississippi had promised to watch his first three games this season and, if he played well, make an offer.
"I've been looking online, trying to contact all these people to let them know what's going on," Zipp said. "The first three games of this season were going to be the biggest ever for me. Now I don't even know who will watch them."
Or who will play in them. After their first practice with Neville, Cordova and Autin tried to name as many of their new teammates as possible. They managed to come up with four names. They felt confident they'd recalled one of them correctly.
Still, they knew more about their teammates than they did about the Neville playbook. During practice, coaches held a large playbook in the huddle for players to read. "I'm sure it won't take long to get," Autin said, "but right now it doesn't make too much sense."
Neville finished its practice Monday with an exercise in school tradition and team unity. After every stretch, players yelled, "TIGERS" and clapped in rhythm. Johnson, confused, clapped in a silent moment, and a few teammates stared at him.
Johnson didn't clap again.
"It's going to be a while before it actually feels like being on a team with these guys," Johnson said. "Right now it's a little bit of us and them. Hopefully sometime soon we'll all come together."