Publish date:

LSU to the Rescue

Sports? No, sports had absolutely nothing to do with the Gulf Coast's trying to survive Hurricane Katrina.

Except that while the fifth-ranked LSU football team practiced in Baton Rouge, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, the coaches were hollering above the drone of helicopters, 20 in all, dropping off evacuees.

Except the infield of the outdoor track was being used as a heliport 24 hours a day.

Except that the basketball arena, Pete Maravich Assembly Center, had been turned into a two-hooped hospital. Triage was where the band plays during games. Dialysis was where the scorekeepers sit. And pediatrics was where students usually wail. People still lined up outside to get in, though. It's just that they were all on stretchers.

No, sports weren't at all involved, except that the field house next door was a patient ward. And the baseball stadium was an evacuee processing center.

Katrina chaos was everywhere. In the LSU sports information office, student assistant Bill Martin couldn't sleep after volunteering at the Maravich Center, so he decided to urge his friends to help out by e-mailing them about what he'd seen.

Blackhawk helicopters were carrying in victims who'd been stranded on roofs. Buses rolled in from New Orleans.... A lady fell out of her wheelchair and we scrambled to help her up.... A man from New Orleans was badly injured on his head. Five minutes later he was dead. Mothers were giving birth in the locker rooms.... A man was rolled in on a stretcher [suffering from] gunshots. A paramedic said a looter needed his boat and he wouldn't give it to him.... The auxiliary gym was being used as a morgue. I couldn't take myself down there to see it.

Martin's friends should have heard the story of his colleague Jason Feirman. He was stranded on I-10, near the police roadblock 20 minutes outside New Orleans, when a displaced and distraught woman snapped and walked straight into traffic. Feirman jumped out of his car, sprinted down the highway, grabbed the woman and dragged her to the shoulder.

It was a week none will forget, much as they would like to. The Tigers' starting quarterback, sophomore JaMarcus Russell, had a lot on his mind too--the team's game this Saturday night against Arizona State and the 22 displaced people in his three-bedroom apartment. The guy sleeping on his couch? Fats Domino.

Domino, the R&B icon who'd been listed in the papers as missing for two days, is the granddad of Russell's girlfriend, Chantel Brimmer. After the levees gave way in New Orleans, Domino was trapped on the second floor of his house. He was rescued by boat and taken to the makeshift hospital at the Maravich Center. Russell happened to be volunteering there that night--as so many LSU athletes were--bumped into Domino and took him home.

Since then the quarterback has been attending to the people in his apartment. "I've been staying up real late getting medicine and stuff," a bleary-eyed Russell said. "Plus, I couldn't eat after what I saw [at the Maravich Center]."

Is he worried about losing the big game? "What's losing a game," he said, "when people are losing their kids, their parents, their houses? Nothing."

Just ask Russell's teammate, defensive end Donald Hains. As of Sunday he still hadn't heard from his parents, who live in Diamond Head, Miss., which took a direct hit from Katrina. "I'm glad I have football," Hains said. "It's my only escape."

The LSU equipment manager, Greg Stringfellow, was up to his clipboard in everything but football. "The Minnesota Vikings just called," he said, staring at his Blackberry during Saturday's practice. "They're sending two semis full of supplies." A Detroit Lions fan named Vince Soulsby was sending 25. Out in the parking lot LSU athletes had already filled up one tractor-trailer with stuff they had donated or collected on their own.

Everybody in the athletic department was in chin-deep. Driving to campus, the football team's trainer, Jack Marucci heard a plea from the hoop hospital over the radio: Vaseline, gauze and 20cc syringes were desperately needed. Hey, Marucci said to himself, I have all that. Fifteen minutes later, he delivered them.

So, no, sports had nothing to do with the Gulf Coast's surviving Katrina, except everything. And that's because you always forget what sports can provide--can-do staff, fit and focused athletes, and huge, versatile arenas--in times of trouble.

Inside the field house--hospital, half the patients wore LSU purple and gold because so many students had donated clothing. As I gazed out at that sea of beds, I thought it looked as if the school's booster club was fresh from a train pileup.

"I never used to root for LSU much," said one purple-shirted diabetic, who'd been rescued by boat from the flooded Charity Hospital in New Orleans, "but after this, I guess we're all fans."

• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to

The Maravich Center was a two-hooped hospital. The field house was a patient ward. Katrina chaos was everywhere.