J.T. Curtis has been head football coach at John Curtis Christian School in New Orleans for the past 37 years. He has led his team, the Patriots, to more than 400 winning games and 21 state championships. Along the way, Curtis has taught young men how to believe in themselves, be team players, and live with purpose. Then, two years ago, Hurricane Katrina stormed into New Orleans to put those lessons to the test.
There was rarely a time when J.T. Curtis was not dealing with unexpected situations, as head football coach at the school his father founded in 1962. But the biggest challenge, he recalls, came on August 29, 2005, when Katrina hit the city.
"We were coming back on the bus from the first game (of the season), talking about getting ready for the next week, which was going to be a big game for us against a team from Utah," he says. "There were a lot of concerns, but a lot of anticipation that this team would continue to improve. And Katrina shattered that."
When the bus arrived at the school, Curtis says, parents were there, ready to pick up their kids and evacuate the city.
"This was not an unusual experience for us," he says. "This was probably our 4th or 5th evacuation in the last seven or eight years. We fully anticipated within six hours, being able to be home."
But not only couldn't they come home for weeks, they were not able to get in touch with each other.
"In 2005, you would think it's a matter of just picking the phone or cell phone, or e-mailing and being able to get in touch with anybody all over the world," he says. "Well, Katrina changed all that. We found out we were still vulnerable to Mother Nature."
John Curtis School sustained only limited damage, and was one of the first schools in the area to re-open. For Coach Curtis, the first task was piecing together a team and a season following Katrina.
"Our players were scattered, not only in the state of Louisiana, where they had evacuated to different spots, but we had kids who were as far as Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and Texas," Coach Curtis says. "What we were able to do was send text messages early in the morning, at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. That was the only time you could get communication through to try to find out where players were, were they safe, and that was their ability to communicate back to us."
Slowly, Curtis says, as they saw their school coming back to life, students began to
trickle back. It was an emotional experience for Michael Walker.
"I almost cried," Walker says. "I was very excited to see all the old faces, the familiar faces and kind of have my comfort zone back."
His teammate Andrew Nierman agrees. "It was the time when go to practice and hang out with my football friends, I was able to just to release the stresses of hearing about the damage of Katrina," Nierman says. "It allowed me to console friends who had troubles at their home, like Mike (Michael Walker). He was living in a trailer for almost a year. So it gave us time to bond and get closer."
And, Coach Curtis says, the football Friday night games provided what students, players, teachers and parents needed most: a sense of returning to their normal lives.
"(For) so many parents, the only normal thing they had left in their lives was those football games on Friday night. They had all gathered together through the years to enjoy the game and rekindle relationships," he says. "All of a sudden, that became the only place they could do that. Restaurants were closed. There was no place to socialize. It was really a difficult time. Those Friday nights of those football games became a focal point for family, fellowship, camaraderie."
The story of Coach J. T. Curtis and the Patriots is chronicled in a new book, Hurricane Season: A Coach, His Team and Their Triumph in the Time of Katrina. Author Neal Thompson spent long hours with the football players, visiting their homes, and interviewing their parents and teachers.
"They are as much of a family as they are a group of students," he says. "And after the storm, when they came back, it sort of put to the ultimate test that friendship and that closeness. And they really helped each other out and helped each other get through this difficult time. As you can probably imagine, a lot of the kids had damaged or destroyed homes. So a kid whose house was intact would offer to let a friend of his stay with him. Or kids who lost their cars, another student would help drive him to and from football practices. A lot of the kids really arranged these things on their own, without needing to be asked to do so or told to do so by school officials."
Thompson says these young men and their coach displayed an impressive team spirit that helped the whole community survive and heal. He says he hopes his book will serve as a reminder of how badly Katrina damaged New Orleans, and how much more help is needed for the city to return to normal.