As high school football players take the field in the shadow of destruction along the Gulf Coast, it's not the first time the nation has used sports to cope after a tragedy.

With no cure for pain, playing on helps with healing

Katrina's Wake

September 11, 2005|By Rick Maese

OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. - If you were to somehow retrace Katrina's steps and ease your way over the Gulf of Mexico and past the shoreline, you'd see a woman laying clothes, bed linens and family photographs on the ground to dry.

One street away, a man, his daughter and a neighbor are taking the insides of a home and piling it into a cluttered mess near the road.

From above, you'd see officers help with traffic, and people coming in and out of makeshift tent cities that line Highway 90. But once you get just a mile inland, you'd look down below and notice a large field of grass where a football team - more than five dozen players - is taking a knee. You wonder, why?

Most wear only shorts and sneakers. Their chests and backs shine under the afternoon sun. A man with a floppy hat and a whistle around his neck stands in the middle. Again, why?

"The lights will be on in one week," the coach says. "We've got to be ready. When you get out there, they won't care that you only have two pairs of underwear and a shoe for your right foot. Football has prepared you for this adversity."

But why are they out there already, this soon after Hurricane Katrina delivered its powerful uppercut to the country's Gulf Coast? Is it necessary that we hop from tragedy to kickoff without taking a deeper breath?

I drove through Ocean Springs thinking there are more important things right now. Classes won't even resume for three more weeks, but the Ocean Springs High School football team is back to the practice field, one of the first in the area to strap on helmets.

It might seem trivial, if not offensive. But not here. In Mississippi, putting on pads as soon as possible was absolutely necessary.

"Every day, every person I talk to, they say the same thing," says Don Hinton, the school's athletics director. "First they ask me if my family is OK. Then they ask about my home. And then they want to know when the Greyhounds will be playing again."

Ocean Springs is just five miles east of Biloxi. Nearly 100 people died in the two nearby counties. Only about 17,000 residents live here and even as they piece their lives back together, many have already begun to talk about football.

"In situations like this or situations like 9/11, we're reminded how important it is for people to feel like they can go into a stadium and not be burdened with all these other concerns," says Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, a sociological think tank based at Northeastern University in Boston.

Today marks the four-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It's a time to think about the lives that were lost and the families that were left behind. But I like to remember what we learned about ourselves. Not only did people come together in ways I'd never seen, but we also were forced to appreciate every bit of our lives.

In the Deep South, football is important, as fundamental to the cultural quilt as the bayou, the blues and barbecue. It's not necessary to have life, but for many, it is necessary to enjoy it. "Football is king around here," is how Ennis Procter, head of the Mississippi High School Activities Association, puts it.

At Ocean Springs, more than 4,000 people come to every game - about a quarter of the town's population. They fill the bleachers and stand around the track. In the barbershop and out at the lumber yard, last week's game is what you talk about right up until this week's game begins. About 9,000 showed up last year to watch the Greyhounds play in the state championship game.

But as the storm brewed in the Gulf of Mexico two weeks ago, the football talk stopped. By the time Hurricane Katrina fell on Ocean Springs, most of the residents had been evacuated.

Richard Dicksen, a 17-year-old tight end for the Greyhounds, says he returned to the area after a couple of days. He and his father needed a boat to find their home, which used to stand so proud along the beach. It was ruined, porch steps leading to nothing.

For the past 1 1/2 weeks, Dicksen has stayed with a half-dozen different families. He has spent his waking hours working on roofs and hanging drywall.

"Doing all this work on houses has me more determined than ever to get a college degree," he says with a chuckle.

It's somewhat soothing to hear how much Mississippi has missed football. But it's also upsetting. The state's governing body is allowing players from the hurricane-stricken areas to transfer to other schools.

Dicksen is a prized recruit, weighing scholarship offers from 30 schools. He's as quick as he is thick, with muscles nearly bursting through his skin. In the past week, his family has been approached by two high school coaches trying to lure him from Ocean Springs. When some confuse tragedy with opportunity, you wonder whether it's possible that football is too important here.

Dicksen's thoughts remained with his own team and teammates, a group that's closer now than ever.

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