He knew, of course, that it was hard for the Patriots to stay focused on football while reminders of Katrina's destructive aftermath still surrounded them.
Katrina remained a constant presence, and J.T. realized that, while he treats his players like men, they're just boys…. Just man-sized boys, some sleeping in 240-square-foot trailers or on relatives' floors or in temporary apartments. They lost the beds they'd slept in since childhood. They lost their favorite blankets and their bedroom slippers, their CD collections and framed pictures of their girlfriends. Some of them had still kept a few stuffed animals from childhood hidden away on a shelf or in the closet, and those were gone, too. Also missing were the friends who evacuated and never returned.
Still, J.T. told his players at the start of the season to look forward, not back—to walk by faith, not by sight. "We can't use the storm as an excuse," he said.
This season had started so badly that it's hard to believe how far they've now come. None of the players or parents necessarily expected a normal year, nor a great one. They just wanted a season. Any season. But now, the Patriots of John Curtis Christian School find themselves headed to Shreveport to compete for the state championship, a game that normally would be held in their home town but this year will be played far from their pocked and putrid city. Their war zone of a sorrowful city.
When the Louisiana Superdome opened in 1975 in downtown New Orleans, on a site that was once a cemetery, it was the largest domed structure in the world. In addition to hosting the annual college Sugar Bowl and more Super Bowls than any other stadium, the Louisiana high school championships have been played at the Dome since 1980. Reaching that stadium, home of the Saints, with its bright-green Astroturf and awesome klieg lights, has become the Patriots' annual goal.
But the Superdome is now a bulbous symbol of human suffering and chaotic failure, remembered as the "Terrordome," and nowhere near ready to host football. The 2005 high school football championship games will instead be played 300 miles away at in Shreveport. On their five-hour bus drive north, the Patriot players and coaches all have plenty of time to look back on the most improbable season of the lives.
On Friday morning, December 9, the team meets for breakfast at their hotel and then gathers in a banquet hall a few hours before their 1 p.m. kickoff. J.T. goes over some last minute instructions, reminding them to "Play hard, and play smart."
Thoughts of his father, the Baptist minister who'd founded John Curtis Christian School in 1962, are much on his mind; J.T. knows how much his dad, the Patriots' biggest fan, would have loved to be here. In the locker room at the Superdome before last year's championship game, Mr. Curtis had stopped in to visit with his son.
"Are you nervous?" he asked, and J.T. chuckled.
"No, sir. I'm not nervous," he said, though it wasn't entirely true. Memories of the heartbreaking loss in the previous year's championship game were still fresh.
As if reading his son's mind, Mr. Curtis said, "If you're prepared, you're not nervous." He then walked out to take his seat at the fifty yard line.
In that game, the Patriots broke a 14-14 fourth quarter tie with a long punt return by Joe McKnight and then a fifteen-yard quarterback sneak for a touchdown by Johnnie Thiel, who played brilliantly and was named the Most Outstanding Player.
"This is not about the prize, this is not about the trophy," J.T. told his team after the game. "It's what you do that separates you in later life. You have to find a way to get things done, to handle adversity like you did tonight. You must do things with a purpose."
J.T. has delivered hundreds of speeches to his team over the decades, becoming so skillful at motivating others that New Orleans area companies sometimes hire him to give inspirational talks to their employees. His style has always been business-like, focusing on his work-hard message, accepting hardship and set-back as the price of victory. He tried not to reach for loftier messages, his father's domain.
Now, many miles from home and with his father seven months gone, he decides to give a different kind of speech. He takes a moment, searching for just the right words.
Sons are a heritage from the Lord. Children are his reward.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior, sons are born to one's youth.
Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children. They will not be put to shame.
For when they contend with their enemies at the gate, they shall be blessed.
Then he reads the verse a second time . . . Like arrows in the hands of a warrior . . .
J.T. closes the Bible and takes off his reading glasses.
"That kind of sums up where we are," he says softly.
His players lean in.
"You are our children, and you are loved."
As he looks around him, into the sleepy eyes of Kyle Collura, the joyful eyes of Tank English, the wide eyes of Mike Walker, and the fiery eyes of Joe McKnight, he tells them they've done amazing things this year. Then he says, "This is more than a football game, guys." He reminds them that they could win a hundred thousand football games and they'd all be in vain if they don't strive to be good people above all else.
"Is it important to win? Yes. But is it who you are?" The players shake their heads, and J.T. continues, "No. Our prayer for you is that your character always be sterling, so that all that you do, from this day forward, won't be in vain."
The players then join hands, bow their heads, and pray.
On the last day of the season, as it has been from the first, old man Curtis's presence is everywhere. As the players arrive at the stadium and walk into the locker room just hours before kickoff, they find a surprise.
The assistant coaches met secretly two weeks earlier and decided to order new uniforms for the game: red pants with white stripes and blue stars running down the side - the uniforms Mr. Curtis had wanted his players to wear decades earlier but which J.T. had nixed. They are hanging neatly in each player's locker. The coaches haven't even told J.T.
As the team suits up, J.T. comes into the locker room for a speech. His pre-game face, typically stone-cold serious, breaks into a wide, reluctant grin when he sees the uniforms. At first, he sticks to business, telling them that their victory over St. Charles earlier in the season means nothing. That game is in the past, he says, and a team can change a lot in two months, and the Comets are "capable of big plays on offense and defense."
After a short prayer—"Lord we ask that we might play as Christian gentlemen…"—J.T. then looks around the room.
Normally so bold and booming, his voice once again becomes soft…
"Listen to me," he begins.
The room grows quiet as his players and coaches lean in toward him, the only sound a dull echo from the three thousand fans outside in the stands.
"Thirty-four years ago, my daddy…"
He can't finish the sentence and tears well in his eyes.
"My daddy wanted those pants 34 years ago..."
He's crying now and his team remains silent, transfixed.
"I never got them for him, but I was wrong," he says. "They look pretty good."
He clears his throat, wipes his face, and then finds the voice that has helped inspire so many Patriot teams to reach this game. His daddy might be gone, but his Patriots are right here where they belong. "I want you to wear those pants with pride, because I know he's smiling from ear to ear today as he watches down on you. Make him proud…
"Make him proud. Now let's GO!"
Then, like the fearless warriors they've become, young men who've seen terrible things and grown stronger for all the hardship, they charge out the double doors, up the tunnel, into the chilly afternoon and onto their green-grass battlefield.
They've come farther than any of them would have imagined months earlier, against ridiculous odds, and they have forty-eight minutes to prove they deserve it all.