Adapted from Hurricane Season By Neal Thompson. Copyright By Neal Thompson and J.T. Curtis. Reprinted with permission of Tree Press, a division fo Simon and Shuster Inc.
The John Curtis faithful, who first got behind school founder and its original
coach, John, root now for his son J.T., who has the second most wins in high
Courtesy of Chris Medley
AUGUST 26, 2005
Joe McKnight sits alone in the front seat of the team bus, listening to a speech from Any Given Sunday on his headphones. "The six inches in front of your face . . . that's football, guys," says Al Pacino, who plays a pro football coach. "That's all it is. Now, whattaya gonna do?"
On this sultry New Orleans night the Patriots of John Curtis Christian School are crossing Lake Pontchartrain behind a police escort. They're headed north to their final preseason game, part of the annual "jamboree" that kicks off southern Louisiana's football season. The Patriots are coming off yet another undefeated season, capped by their 19th state championship. But nine offensive starters graduated, and this year's squad is filled with sophomores and juniors and has a greenhorn at quarterback. Head coach J.T. Curtis has called it a "rebuilding year," and the team is counting on Joe, a junior, to lead it.
College recruiters have lurked around Joe since he was a freshman. USA Today ranks him among the nation's best high school prospects, and he's being wooed by USC, Miami and Notre Dame. Still, Joe takes nothing for granted. "God blessed me with ability," he once told a reporter, "but I could be a better player."
Last year the coaches began transitioning Joe from defense to both sides of the ball, as if they were afraid to turn him loose all at once. This season he'll play five roles: defensive back, kick returner, punt returner, wide receiver and his favorite, running back. Joe spent every morning this summer in the weight room, every afternoon running laps wearing a weighted vest. Football is his escape route from his troubled youth.
"In any fight," Pacino says, "it's the guy who's willing to die who's gonna win that inch. That's what living is." Kickoff is an hour away.
Meanwhile, a storm is lurking to the south, growing stronger by the hour. It will soon threaten to destroy not only Joe's season but also his school, his team and his future.
Earlier in the day the National Hurricane Center warned that the year's 11th hurricane had passed to the west of the Florida Keys and that New Orleans was its new bull's-eye. Katrina is still 500 miles away, though, and most New Orleanians have greeted her approach with a shrug. Hurricane season is annually filled with dire warnings of monster storms that never quite materialize, so Katrina isn't about to distract fans from tonight's prelude to the 2005 season.
On the verge of an 0-2 start in '05, the John Curtis players rallied for 10
straight wins, the last of which produced the school's 20th state title in 31
Courtesy of Chris Medley
Playing 30 miles northeast of the Crescent City, against the Bulldogs of Fontainebleau High, the Patriots are up 12-0 by halftime. On one play in the second half the Bulldogs quarterback drops back, is flushed out of the pocket and hurries a throw down the sideline. Joe times his leap perfectly, reaching above the intended receiver to snag the ball. He sprints diagonally to the far sideline, turns upfield and accelerates. Six feet tall and just shy of 200 pounds, Joe is a beautiful runner with a graceful stride that makes it look as if he's hardly pushing. Heading toward the end zone some 15 yards ahead of the nearest defender, Joe saunters across the goal line, casually drops the ball and lopes to the bench.
The Patriots depart with a 19-0 win. On the unusually subdued ride home, as they roll past New Orleans and the glowing spaceship of the Superdome, word trickles down the aisles that Katrina continues to barrel toward the Big Easy. When the players arrive at John Curtis, at midnight, they learn that Louisiana governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has declared a state of emergency, and New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin may order the city evacuated as early as tomorrow.
Even with the looming threat, Coach Curtis reminds his players to show up for tomorrow's practice. "I'll see you back here at 8:30," he says. "Don't be late."
It's always troubling for Curtis to watch Joe leave school. He's not sure where Joe is living these days and has no idea where he's headed tonight. J.T. and his wife, Lydia, have repeatedly offered to let Joe move in with them, but Joe always politely declines, uneasy with the idea of living with his white coach.
Handsome and intense, Joe is not jumpy like most teens, who avoid adults' gazes. He makes unflinching eye contact. He admits to being mad at the world for sticking him with an absentee father and a mom who struggles to put food on the table. When Joe was a toddler, his dad, an amateur boxer, left home. Joe wasn't sure if he went to prison or just disappeared, and he claims he never much cared. "Never knew him" is the most he'll say.
Along with an older sister, Johanna, and a younger brother, Jonathan, Joe was raised by his mom, Jennifer. The family lived in Kenner, often at Jennifer's mom's house, while Jennifer tried to finish school. Just a kid raising kids.
When Joe was six years old, Jennifer began dating a youth-league football coach named Elmo Lee, who noticed that Joe never played with toys, only with balls. To provide an outlet for Joe's energy, Lee set up garbage cans in the backyard and trained Joe to zigzag among them carrying a football. Lee suggested to Jennifer that she send her kids to John Curtis, a private, nondenominational Christian school that was known for its diversity and its football program.