Though they’d been Louisiana State champs the previous year, no one expected 2005 to be anything but a rebuilding year for the John Curtis High School Patriots. They’d lost nine seniors and their star quarterback had transferred to another school, leaving the team in the hands of untested underclassmen. At least, that was how things looked on 26 August 2005.
By the next day, the Jefferson Parish players and their families were loading up their cars and looking for a place to weather the Category 5 hurricane heading for their homes. Within a few days, many students had been separated from their families, worried over relatives who’d stayed behind, lost their homes, and everything else they owned.
That the football season was over before it began seems like it would have been the last thing on anyone’s mind.
However, J.T. Curtis, head coach of the Patriots, was determined to reopen his school and play football. In the weeks after the storm, Curtis rounded up the players who were able to return to John Curtis High, pieced together a football schedule, and coached the inexperienced team to the school’s 19th state championship. The story Neal Thompson tells in Hurricane Season: A Coach, His Team, and Their Triumph in the Time of Katrina originally appeared as an article on ESPN.com. Intrigued by the underdog Patriots and their charismatic coach, Thompson went to John Curtis High to interview the players, their families, and the teachers and coaches at the school.
In each of their stories, it becomes clear that Curtis is responsible for leading his school to far more than a winning season. Thompson’s account of the 2005 season is, on the one hand, an inspiring sports story, but it’s also the story of a community struggling to reclaim normalcy in a time of chaos, and looking for something to cheer about in the face of overwhelming loss.
The John Curtis Christian Schools are atypical among Louisiana private schools. Founded in 1962 by John T. Curtis Sr., a preacher turned educator, the school is nondenominational, has low tuition and a diverse student body. Additionally, it’s less a business than a family affair – all of John Sr.’s children work at the school as teachers, coaches, and administrators.
And if the school is atypical, so is its football team. In a region of the United States where bloated athletic budgets are the norm, the Patriots don’t even have a stadium. J.T. maintains a “no-cut” policy, and welcomes any student willing to endure the grueling, year-round practice schedule, including “three a days” in the summer. And J.T. isn’t a coach of the screaming tyrant variety. He’s slow to criticize, his plays showcase the talents of all players, not just the stars, and he tells his boys to play “like Christian gentlemen”.
The strategy seems to work, as the boys interviewed for Hurricane Season come across as well-rounded and thoughtful, more concerned with being thought good people than good players. This is especially remarkable considering the heavy burdens that each boy carries. Once the school has reopened and families begin to trickle back to the Parish, Thompson describes the brutal post-Katrina lives of the players.
After a day of school and football practice, many return home to help their families tear out moldy carpets and walls, empty rotting food from their refrigerators, and try to do their homework in a 224 sqare foot FEMA trailer. And many don’t have that much to go home to. With many of their parents transferred to jobs in Houston and Baton Rouge, some players opt to sleep on the couches of friends and teachers or make 9- minute commutes to school just so they can play for John Curtis High.
The bright spots come on Friday nights when the Patriots play, and Thompson details the games with gleeful play-by-play aplomb. The book is filled with laugh out loud triumphant moments, like the game where 300lb. defensive player Jonathan “Tank” English pulls down an interception and runs for a 30-yard touchdown with a member of the opposing team clinging to his back. Watching the sloppy team band together to claim victories that are bigger than the win itself are the highlight of the book.
Unfortunately, there aren’t quite enough of them. J.T. Curtis is at the center of the book, and while he’s an inspiring coach and a man of tremendous character, one gets the feeling that the spotlight belongs elsewhere. Thompson focuses on Curtis at the expense of letting the reader get to know the players under his wing.
In addition to Tank, the good-natured big man and team leader, there’s struggling quarterback Kyle Collura who faces his own limitations as a player while rising to the occasion for his team. Scholar athlete Andrew Nierman spends a week in lockdown with his mother, a nurse at Ochsner Medical Center and witnesses the horrors of the storm and its aftermath firsthand, while his teammate, Colby Arceneaux rides out the storm on his uncle’s fishing boat.
Joe McKnight, one of the most compelling figures in the book, is also one of the most elusive. Now a freshman tailback for the USC Trojans, as a high school junior, McKnight is an astonishingly gifted player whose strained relationship with his mother leads him to live with friends, and after Katrina, with Curtis and his family.
Thompson only scratches the surface of what these boys have been through and the tremendous resources they’ve drawn upon through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Still, Hurricane Season is a rousing and inspirational page-turner with Friday Night Lights appeal. Like most sports stories, it’s riddled with well-worn pep talks and catchphrases. Here, however, they take on a kind of immediacy and freshness because each game represents more to the players and coaches than a step towards the state championships – it’s a step towards normal.