SHORTLY AFTER dawn on Aug. 28, Jamarr Thompson and his family left their hometown of LaPlace, La.--a town on a narrow spit of land between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River northwest of New Orleans--in advance of Hurricane Katrina's arrival. "We always evacuate when there's a storm coming," says Jamarr's mother, Jacquelyn. "We get the children out of there. You can always go back."
Jamarr drove his Chevrolet Avalanche pickup at the rear of a three-vehicle caravan, gazing at the northbound traffic and absorbing the impact of his family's decision. A 6'6", 320-pound two-way senior lineman, he was being recruited by Alabama, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and others, but none had offered a scholarship. He was not considered a can't-miss prospect; he needed a strong final season. "I was feeling pretty emotional as we were driving," Thompson recalls. "I was like, It's over. I guess I'm not going to have a senior year of football. That's it."
But six days after having those thoughts, Thompson would play in a high school football game--just not for East St. John High in Reserve, which he had attended for three years. Instead, he suited up for Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, 320 miles from LaPlace. "It sure is going to be strange seeing him wearing that uniform," said Thompson's father, Joyce, on the evening before the game.
Similar scenarios were playing out across the Gulf Coast, into Texas and beyond, as families displaced by Katrina were forced to relocate, and high school athletes sought to resume their careers. Many state high school athletic associations relaxed transfer eligibility rules to allow athletes to play as quickly as possible once enrolled in new school districts.
In Beaumont, Texas, 25 miles from the Louisiana border, a big, soft-spoken sophomore showed up at West Brook High football coach Craig Stump's office last Friday afternoon. "He said he was a football player, and he sure looked the part," said Stump. "He told me his whole family is here living with his aunt. He's from New Orleans, and they think they lost everything." Stump told the boy to make sure he lives in the school's district, then to enroll and come back to see him.
In Alabama schools prepared for a huge influx of athletes. "In the city of Mobile and in Baldwin County, they are expecting hundreds of transfer athletes next week," said Dan Washburn, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association. "We'll try to make it as easy as possible; these families have been through something we can't imagine."
This exodus will almost certainly tilt the competitive balance in football. "I've heard there are some Louisiana kids in the school; I haven't seen them on the practice field," said Ray Seals, coach at Madison High in Houston. "But I'm hoping. They've got some good players over there." Says Allen Wallace, national recruiting editor for scout.com, "Louisiana and New Orleans are among the most heavily recruited places in the country."
College coaches should still be able to find Jamarr, though his journey to Shreveport was hardly a direct route. The Thompsons drove first to Baton Rouge in hopes of staying with Jacquelyn's sister, but her house was full. They stopped at a rest area on Interstate 49 near Opelousas, north of Lafayette, but a state trooper told them the storm would be too strong there and sent them farther north.
They were eventually directed to a shelter at the Living Word Church in Mansfield, 30 miles south of Shreveport. One of the church's deacons told the family about Evangel Christian's football team, a national powerhouse. Jamarr enrolled on Aug. 31, along with more than 100 other evacuees, four of them also football players. After practicing two times, Thompson took snaps on both sides of the ball in a nationally televised game in which Evangel lost to Springdale (Ark.) High 35-7.
The Thompsons drove back to LaPlace on Sunday to see what remained of their home. There was less damage than expected, and they still hope to live there again someday. In the meantime the family will remain in Shreveport, and Jamarr will attend Evangel.
"My life feels strange right now," says Jamarr. "But sometimes you get brought to a place for a reason. This might be a story I'll be telling people in 10 or 15 years." And far beyond that.
For a photo gallery on Josh Leavell, go to SI.com/leavell; for an archive of Tim Layden's columns, go to SI.com/layden.
JOSH MERWIN (2)
FAMILY MATTERS Evangel coach Dennis Dunn (inset, with Jamarr) is now part of Thompson's support group.