EVERY TIME a bus rolled down Lafayette's Cajundome Boulevard early last week, linebacker Mack Fair and some of his Louisiana-Lafayette teammates stopped practicing and scanned the windows for familiar faces. Their gazes followed the riders as they stumbled off the buses and filed into the Cajundome, which had turned into a shelter for Louisianans displaced by Hurricane Katrina. At night the players would furiously--and almost always futilely--try to reach loved ones by phone or text message. "All I could think about, all the time, was my family," said Fair, a junior from New Orleans who had to wait three days before he learned that his parents were safe in northern Mississippi. "How could we think about football?"
Yet Fair was among 16 Ragin' Cajuns from the New Orleans area who made the trip to Austin for last Saturday's opener against No. 2--ranked Texas. The Ragin' Cajuns, 40-point underdogs, didn't expect to pull off an upset--nor did they, as Texas prevailed 60-3--but they played nonetheless, seeking normalcy at the end of a nerve-racking week.
Junior defensive tackle Marshall Delesdernier opened his off-campus apartment to his parents and an older brother before Katrina reached their home in Metairie, six miles west of New Orleans. They shared the cramped, two-bedroom space with Marshall's roommate, the roommate's cousin, two friends (one with a 10-month-old child) and two dogs.
Senior safety Terryl Fenton's parents and younger brother had moved into Terryl's dorm room in advance of the hurricane. "I hardly went to class all week," he said. "I helped my mom find a school for my brother. I helped my dad with his résumé so he could get a new job. I looked in the classifieds trying to find them an apartment. But I'm just so happy they're close."
Some alumni had pushed to postpone the game, but interim athletic director David Walker told them, "It's important for the kids to have this distraction, if only for a few hours." Fair, for one, said it worked.
"I thought of my parents only once during the whole game," he says. "It was on a kickoff. I ran down and saw that the up man had caught the ball, and I cleaned his clock. I was happy, but then I thought, My parents didn't see that. But that's O.K. They're safe."
For a more on Louisiana-Lafayette, go to SI.com/lafayette; for more on Danny Wuerffel and Desire Street Academy, go to www.desirestreet.org.
TRIUMPHANT SPIRIT Despite the lopsided defeat, the Ragin' Cajuns received plenty of heartening news.