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A new Wave of hope

A year after Katrina tore apart their campus -- and season -- QB Lester Ricard and Tulane move forward

Posted: Friday August 25, 2006 11:41AM; Updated: Friday August 25, 2006 2:55PM
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After a disappointing '05 season, Lester Ricard is looking forward to showcasing his skills for NFL scouts this fall.
After a disappointing '05 season, Lester Ricard is looking forward to showcasing his skills for NFL scouts this fall.

By Tripp Mickle, Special to SI.com

The white Cadillac Escalade eased through New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, passing by yards littered with abandoned cars and debris. Over the thumping base of a Lil' Wayne song, Lester Ricard, the driver turned tour guide on this late July afternoon, looked toward the backseat. "What do you think?" asked Ricard, the starting quarterback at Tulane.

T.J. Goolsby, the younger brother of one of Ricard's teammates, didn't speak and stared out the window in awe. Goolsby, a high school junior from Houston whose classmates include several whose families were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, now understood what people from New Orleans -- and all those who were affected by Katrina last August -- left behind. And the destruction was worse than he had ever imagined. "We don't talk about that stuff much," Goolsby said of his conversations with his classmates, "but that tour changed my appreciation for them."

Ricard was happy to play tour guide on this day. He doesn't always take people through New Orleans. Only when asked and only in the last six months has he been able to do it. That's because each day he has grown more confident that things are finally starting to get back to normal. Simple things, like having a place to live and being part of a community that's finally healing. Ricard is also confident that the Tulane football team will rebound from a trying 2-9 season, during which the Green Wave were lost and, at times, left without hope. But much has changed in the last year. The region has been rebuilt and is moving forward, and so is Tulane.

First, Ricard saw the new weight room completed, then watched as his teammates worked out with an intensity not seen in years past. He was juiced after the spring game, when he overcame two interceptions to help his team rally from an 18-point deficit and tie the game. But most of all it's listening to the conviction of his teammates who say over and over: We aren't looking back.

It's not always easy to be so optimistic. Each time he shows people around the city and Tulane, he knows that he's a part of living history. Relics of destruction left over from Hurricane Katrina, arguably the largest natural disaster in U.S. history, are reminders of his journey over the past year.

Turned upside down

At 6-feet-5, 222 pounds, the 21-year-old Ricard looks more like a basketball star than a football player. Muscular and lean, he was raised in Denham Springs, La., a town of a few thousand outside of Baton Rouge. His father oversees a nondenominational church in town. He also taught Lester how to throw a football, hanging a tire from a pecan tree to develop accuracy. By the time Ricard was a high school senior, he could throw the ball 70 yards. Parade magazine named him an All-American in 2001, making him a top national recruit. He signed with LSU but transferred to Tulane after his freshman year with the hope of earning more playing time and fulfilling his dream of playing in the NFL.

On Aug. 27, 2005, Ricard yanked open a series of dormitory drawers, grabbed a handful of clothes and threw them in a duffel bag. Tulane president Scott Cowen planned to close the school's dorms, and he wanted all students to evacuate within 24 hours. Hundreds of miles to the south, over the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katrina had swelled into a Category 4 storm and turned toward New Orleans.

After packing that afternoon, Ricard met four teammates for an early dinner. They laughed as they talked about Desperate Housewives and the latest gossip on campus, but mostly they discussed the upcoming season. They believed the team was the best in five years at Tulane -- better than even the 2002 squad that went 8-5 and won the Hawaii Bowl. Qualifying for a bowl game wasn't a question; the question was which one. 

The next day Ricard and his teammates woke to news that the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, had ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city. "The first choice of every citizen," said Nagin, "is to figure out a way to leave the city." As Ricard and his teammates boarded a charter bus that morning, they wondered what Katrina would do to Tulane.

More than 18,000 people an hour were streaming out of southeastern Louisiana on Aug. 28. Ricard marveled at the traffic as the team bus headed northeast. Cars clogged the highway, and what should have been a two-hour trip to Jackson, Miss., became a 10-hour journey. By the time they arrived at Jackson State University's gymnasium -- Tulane's makeshift shelter -- Ricard was stiff, hungry and grateful that a warm meal awaited them.

As Ricard and his teammates slept on the gym floor that night, Katrina barreled toward Louisiana. The hurricane made landfall at 6 a.m. with 114 mph winds. From there it moved north, hitting Jackson by mid-morning. The team awoke to strong winds and heavy rain. Outside, players saw a house that was being framed collapse in the wind.

Seeing the destruction, Lester wondered if his family was safe. Cell phones were jammed with people making calls across Louisiana, so it was tough to contact them. When the power went out in the gymnasium, he lost the ability to charge his phone. Fortunately, Lester reached his father, who had ridden out the hurricane at home. His dad told him that the levees had broken and that New Orleans had flooded. Ricard's teammates heard similar stories, but without power or television, the team was in the dark about the extent of the damage the storm had inflicted.

The next afternoon, the Green Wave learned that their first football game had been postponed and that they would relocate to a Dallas hotel. When the charter buses bound for Texas stopped for gas halfway into the six-hour trip, Ricard went inside for a snack. Standing in line to pay, he saw a TV tuned to CNN. The images stunned him. He watched as a man on top of a roof held his three children in one arm and his wife in his other. She slipped and the current of the water pulled her away from him. "Don't worry about me," Ricard heard the woman say. "Save the kids."

Seeing a family divided was devastating. Back on the bus, Ricard began to cry. "I'm a Christian-hearted young man," he says. "I don't wish bad upon nobody. To see how it affected everybody from a place I call home really hit me."

Ricard wondered why God would let something like that happen. The destruction was unimaginable. Unrelenting wind and rain had battered New Orleans, uprooting trees and shattering car windows. Newspaper boxes, street signs and bricks littered the city's streets. When the levees broke, more than 80 percent of the city flooded, including parts of Tulane's campus. Four feet of  brown water spilled onto the athletic facilities. The football team's practice fields became a lake and water spilled through the doors of the nearby Wilson Center, which housed the school's athletic offices, turning the base of its three-story rotunda into a swimming pool. But the worst of the damage in New Orleans was what Ricard and his teammates saw on the gas-station TV.

"You saw things like you would see in Africa," Ricard says. "It was like New Orleans was in a war."