Football practice is still Darius Smith's favorite part of the day -- it just takes place about 1,100 miles northeast of where he had expected it to be.
Smith, a standout senior middle linebacker, took the practice field at Gaithersburg High for the first time yesterday after he and five family members were forced to flee their home in Metairie, La., because of Hurricane Katrina.
"When I first left and saw what the hurricane did, it hit me that my high school career was going to be over," Smith said. "Playing football is what I look forward to doing every day, and I'm just happy I get the chance to hit somebody."
Smith is one of thousands of high school students from the Gulf Coast area who have been forced to enroll at new schools, including several in the Washington area. Officials at local schools say they are trying to make the students' arrival a smooth one.
"The main concern right now is to return these students to some normalcy," said Greg LeGrand, the assistant director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletics Association. "This is a national tragedy, and once these kids find a residence, we want them to ease the transition, and part of that is getting them involved in high school sports."
The Virginia High School League informed its member schools that students who have been displaced because of the hurricane should be allowed to participate immediately as long as they meet the state's age requirements.
The 6-foot-2, 227-pound Smith said his home in suburban New Orleans lacks running water and power but is structurally intact. His family is part of a group of relatives who have moved in with his uncle, Otis Smith, increasing the occupancy of Smith's Gaithersburg home from five to 31.
Otis Smith, a New Orleans native who retired earlier this year after playing for 13 seasons in the National Football League, is serving as a volunteer assistant coach at Gaithersburg this fall.
"It's been a hard and stressful adjustment on everyone," Otis Smith said. "But it was my family, and they had nowhere to go. One of the fun parts though will be getting to see my nephew play for his senior year. I've heard from family members how good he is, but now I'll see firsthand."
Darius Smith used to have his own bedroom; now he has a couch in his uncle's game room. It's different, but he is slowly fitting in as a Gaithersburg Trojan.
"Some of the guys on the team took him swimming and got something to eat [on Monday], and he's a really cool kid," Gaithersburg senior guard Ryan Hudson said. "He's already like one of the family."
"He's been so polite and respectful, and I hope he rubs off on the rest of our players," said Gaithersburg Coach Kreg Kephart, who has already called several major Division I colleges on Smith's behalf."Back at my old school, we talked about winning a state title this year," said Darius Smith, who will likely play in Friday's season opener against Whitman. "Now, my goal is to still win one. I'm just going to be helping to win one for Gaithersburg."