It helped Joe to have a father figure, but then Lee moved on, and other men rotated in and out of Jennifer's life. Joe began to roam. His mother was busy working and going to school, and she gave Joe all the freedom he could handle. But tensions between them grew. He'd leave after a disagreement and spend a few days with his grandmother or cousins or friends. He'd come back and live with his mother for a while, until another disagreement sent him back out the door. Joe says that since he was 11, he's been on his own. At the same time, he loves his mom and has her name tattooed on his arm, above a picture of an angel and the word FOREVER. The other biceps reads JOE, above a tiger.
Joe rarely smiles, not at his own sly jokes, not even when he scores touchdowns, which he's been doing regularly since enrolling at John Curtis as a skinny third-grader. The school became his real home. Coaches and teachers looked after him.
John Curtis Christian School was founded in 1962 by J.T. Curtis's father, an eccentric Baptist missionary preacher who built many of the school's ramshackle one-story buildings with his own hands. The campus is in River Ridge, a middle-class, mostly white community in Jefferson Parish, 10 minutes west of New Orleans. John Curtis, who died in May 2005, was a rabid football fan who coached his school's team with little success before turning the reins over to J.T. in 1969. J.T.'s brother, sons and nephews now also help coach the Patriots, and J.T.'s three sisters and various in-laws are on the faculty at the school.
J.T. would become one of the nation's most successful coaches. His 417 wins entering the 2005 season were the second most in the history of high school football, a remarkable feat for a cash-strapped school that doesn't even have its own stadium. At John Curtis there are no tryouts, and no one gets cut. J.T. runs a triple-option offense known as the Houston Veer, and the Patriots call virtually the same plays year after year. J.T. stresses fundamentals, drills and discipline. He shrugs off fumbles and interceptions, using them to remind players that "things in your life aren't always gonna go well. You're gonna have to learn to get up, dust yourself off and go again."
After Saturday morning's practice J.T. says that if things get rough because of Katrina and the Patriots miss practice on Monday, the first day of school, he wants them all back on the field Tuesday. "Don't go freaking out about it," he says. "Just get back as fast as you can."