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But now, just two blocks into his run through the oaks and the pine trees, Josh felt his legs slow ... then stop. How could he jog while rescue teams in boats used sticks to push away the bloated corpses of his Ninth Ward neighbors?
He walked back to the Colliers' house. He checked his e-mail for the hundredth time for word from his family. Nothing. He went outside to play basketball. It seemed absurd, playing games invented to imitate man's struggle for survival, when back home attics were filling with water and people's fingers were clawing at roofs. He lasted 15 minutes and then put the basketball away. Sports wasn't what he thought it was. Sports was a luxury.
He turned on the TV again. It stupefied him, every time. The worst natural disaster in the history of the nation, death toll in the thousands, damages estimated at $100 billion. All the stadiums and arenas, the houses of glory, had been turned inside out, into houses of suffering. The hardwood at Louisiana Tech's Thomas Assembly Center, where Karl Malone once sent bodies sprawling, was now filled with sprawling bodies. The Pete Maravich Assembly Center at LSU, where Shaquille O'Neal once thunder-dunked, was now a hospital groaning with stroke victims and diabetic survivors struggling to hang on.
And the most incomprehensible of all, the Superdome--where one of Josh's heroes, Michael Jordan, feathered in the jump shot that delivered Dean Smith's first national championship for North Carolina, in 1982; where Josh's guardian angel, Wuerffel, picked apart Florida State 52-20 in the '96 Sugar Bowl to win the national title for Florida; where Josh himself had raced onto the field two years ago as a puny eighth-grader, playing in a scrimmage before 60,000 at halftime of a Saints-Dolphins preseason game, grabbed an option pitch with his heart in his throat and slammed for three yards--was now the site of riots, murders and rapes, even an apparent suicide by a man who couldn't bear another moment of the stench and hurled himself from a balcony. The cathedral designed so that every game could be watched at 72� Fahrenheit and 50% humidity, free of nature, had been overwhelmed by nature.
That night, playing in the Dome, awash in sound and light, Josh had his epiphany: He'd go to Nebraska, where the option pitch had once been the game's deadliest hammer. He'd become a pro football player. He'd play in the Superdome again, make all of them--Hasselbeck and Wuerffel; his mama, who drove city buses; Collier, the teacher who'd all but adopted him--proud. But now ... would anyone ever play in that hellhole again? Would any fan ever be able to stand and scream for a 15-yard buttonhook pass? Or would the Dome have to be razed for the city to roar again and forget?
The kids had to play ball again, adults across the South agreed. Before federal troops had even reached the Big Easy to stop the looting and feed the starving, high school athletic associations on the fringes of the apocalypse began moving up starting times to squeeze in football games before city-ordered curfews, passing lightning legislation to allow the masses of displaced student-athletes immediate eligibility at any new school where the tide had washed them.
From his parents' home in Destin, Fla., Wuerffel worked the phones trying to pull off another miracle: to move all 12 teachers and 190 at-risk boys from Desire Street Academy to a conference-center camp outside Jackson, Miss., turning it into a boarding school. The Colliers, Aaron and his wife, Kristen--Wuerffel's assistant at the school--began searching for a school where Josh and his twin could begin anew and play ball. Josh stared into space as the adults babbled about plans. He still had no clue where his coach or teammates were. Maybe they'd all made it out. Maybe not. What he wouldn't give now to see them all back together on that ragged practice field where the grass was so long that a fumble could be recovered only after it was found.
He couldn't imagine starting over at a new school, joining a team of total strangers at Kristen's alma mater, Boiling Springs High, amid the peach orchards in Inman, S.C. But that was the plan. Would they even let him suit up, three weeks after practice had started? Would he ever touch the football? Would they stare at the refugee freaks?
His head began to pound each day. He leaned closer to the TV screen, trying to glimpse one of his family members amid the lost souls being herded from one domed sports palace to another, spilling out of buses in T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of teams and sports organizations that had been the first to step up and clothe them. No. Nothing.
And still, each night, just before he lay in bed, he found himself dropping to the floor to do 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups. Somewhere beneath all the dread, he longed to race across grass again.