ALL THAT remains from their lives as Tulane students is in room 343 of a Best Western hotel in Birmingham. Lying on a small desk are Kali Miller's and Jackie Obert's two laptops, a notebook, a pen, a jar of grape jelly and a pair of shorts. The floor is littered with sports bras, T-shirts, underwear, duffel bags and board games. A tattered stuffed panda, which Miller has slept with since she was seven, rests on a nightstand.
"I've cried five times today, and honestly, I'm not a crier," says Obert, shaking her head as she sits on her bed. "I'm just so stressed out. I don't know what's going to happen in the future. I really, really want everything to be normal."
Nothing has been normal for the Tulane women's soccer team since 10 a.m. on Aug. 28. As Hurricane Katrina was gaining muscle in the Gulf of Mexico and bearing down on New Orleans, the 23 players evacuated their campus, which is located four miles west of the Superdome, to head to Jackson, Miss. Told to pack two days' worth of clothes, they squeezed into three buses and four vans with 101 football players. Many of the women sat on coolers in the aisle.
After inching through traffic for 10 hours--the trip is normally three--the players from the two teams were housed in the Jackson State gymnasium, which was divided down the middle by bleachers. The women slept on air mattresses on one side; the men on the other. As Katrina pummeled the Big Easy in the small hours of Aug. 29, the 124 athletes lay in the dark and hoped that their school wouldn't be obliterated. "The longest night of my life," says Miller, a junior midfielder.
After spending two nights at Jackson State--which itself was battered by 75-mph wind and nearly four inches of rain--the Green Wave women rode in vans 240 miles to Birmingham, where they were scheduled to play in the Nike Classic at UAB. Because power had been out in Jackson and cellphone service was erratic, the team had little sense of the havoc Katrina had wreaked. But that changed when the players checked into their hotel. Television showed their city underwater. They would later learn that their school was in one of the few areas not flooded, but those living off campus feared that their homes had been either destroyed by the high winds or looted.
"We realized we weren't going back to Tulane anytime soon," says Green Wave coach Betsy Anderson. "It was devastating to see."
Though none of the players grew up in New Orleans, their connections to the area run deep. Take Miller, whose boyfriend, Nick Narcisse, a former Tulane football player, decided to weather the storm at his family home in Slidell, La., 30 miles northeast of New Orleans. When the hurricane roared ashore, Miller was talking on her cellphone to Narcisse, who reported that trees were flying by. Narcisse told Miller that he was abandoning his house and seeking shelter in the town post office, where his dad is the postmaster. Then Narcisse's cellphone lost service.
For 2 1/2 days Miller couldn't contact Narcisse. But on Wednesday of last week, as Miller was walking out of the hotel to go to practice, Narcisse called to say that while his house was swamped by eight feet of water, he and his family were fine. When Miller excitedly shared the news with her teammates as they rode to practice, everyone broke down.
What's next for the Green Wave? Though Tulane has canceled classes this term, the soccer team, based at Texas A&M, will play its remaining 15-game schedule. (The football team will also continue to play; it spent last week in Dallas and will move to Louisiana Tech in Ruston. As of Monday night Tulane officials said that the remaining sports teams would be distributed among Louisiana Tech, Rice, SMU, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.)
"People say that sports don't matter, but to us they matter more now than ever before," says Obert. "It's all we've got."
At 5 p.m. last Friday, Tulane played Louisville in its first game since the hurricane. Five minutes into the second half, Kali Miller of Best Western room 343 feathered a pass between two defenders to Jessica Mendez, who drilled a shot from point-blank range for the game's first goal.
As most of the fans in the crowd of 50 cheered, Mendez jumped into Miller's arms. Obert quickly joined them in a group hug. For a few moments, out there in the bronze light of early evening, the Green Wave girls did the one thing that they hadn't since Katrina blew into their lives: They stopped worrying about the future.
BILL FRAKES (2)
SOMETHING TO LEAN ON Soccer, say the Green Wave players and their coaches, matters more than ever.