At LSU, football's a diversion

College football: The Tigers hope to provide something positive after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

College Football

September 10, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There are places like it all over the country, where college football is more religion than mere sport, where a small city or a college town swells in population and revels in celebration six or seven weekends every fall.

In that way, the city of Baton Rouge, La., and the LSU Tigers are no different than Ann Arbor is to the Michigan Wolverines. It has been that way for generations.

That has now changed, as the state of Louisiana has forever been altered with the destruction and devastation caused by the most catastrophic hurricane in U.S. history.

Tonight, when fifth-ranked LSU opens its 2005 season against No. 15 Arizona State - one week late and 1,500 miles from where it was originally scheduled at Tiger Stadium - another phase of the relief effort will have begun.

The tiniest morsel of what life was like before Hurricane Katrina struck nearly two weeks ago might return, if only for a few hours.

The LSU team, many of whose members have been affected with their families uprooted, might be transformed into a small beacon of hope. How bright that light becomes could likely depend on what kind of season the Tigers put forth.

"It's not necessarily the thing that's best for the football team by itself, but what's best for the state and what's best for the school," first-year coach Les Miles said this week after it was announced that the opener would be moved to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.

Former LSU quarterback Bert Jones understands what the Tigers playing again could mean to those who have been traumatized by this tragedy.

"I think what they [the people of Louisiana] would like to have as much as anything is a routine," Jones said this week from his home in Ruston, La., which went unscathed. "Something regular because everything in their life is irregular now. Consequently, it may be a good diversion."

But even Jones has some doubts whether LSU should be playing football yet, and questions whether the Tigers could play at home as long as the city of Baton Rouge and the school's campus have become what he called "the epicenter of relief."

According to news reports, a city of 350,000 has taken in between 200,000 and 300,000 left homeless by the hurricane. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center, across the street from Tiger Stadium, treated as many as 6,000 sick and injured patients before finally being closed as a medical facility by the state's Health and Human Resources Department on Thursday.

While LSU football might not be a priority for Jones, who is playing host to a family of six from New Orleans that he didn't know before while trying to get supplies and housing to 1,000 more evacuees that have come to Ruston, the former Baltimore Colts star understands it still might be important for others.

"Athletics will be, I guess, a common denominator to let people come and see and enjoy and get their minds off it," said Jones, whose only personal loss in the hurricane was a fishing camp he owned that was destroyed in the coastal town of Boothville, close to where the eye of Katrina came ashore. "But right now we're so involved in the relief effort of this hurricane that I haven't even thought about a game."

Jones compares LSU fans, and the feeling in Baton Rouge about the beloved Tigers, to another team he played for and another town in which he spent a considerable amount of time.

"If you remember the old Baltimore Colts fans, and I got a taste of them during the '70s, how avid and how loyal and how knowledgeable and how revered their team was in Baltimore, it's very similar," said Jones, who played for the Colts from 1973 through 1981. "I find the kinship between those loyal fans ... are the closest two of any other place."

That kinship at LSU goes back half a century, if not longer.

"Even though the Saints are down the road, LSU was there a long time before the Saints showed up. It's always been considered Louisiana's pro sports team," said Ron Higgins, a columnist for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal who spent much of his childhood in Baton Rouge while his father, Ace, was LSU's sports information director.

In Baton Rouge, they still talk about the "Halloween Run" of Billy Cannon in 1959, an 89-yard punt return in the fog that helped beat Ole Miss and helped Cannon win the Heisman Trophy. They still talk about the time Jones beat Ole Miss on a two-point conversion pass with no time remaining. They still visit Mike the Tiger, who is stationed near the visitors' locker room and has unnerved more than a few opponents with growls loud enough to infiltrate the walls. The mascot's angry mood is fed by the fact that he isn't fed for a few hours before the time, and his cage is raked with metal sticks by the cheerleaders.

And anyone who has been to Tiger Stadium feel as if they've been to a rock concert or a rocket launch because of the noise.

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