FOUR DAYS after four breached levees had left New Orleans underwater, a Hurricane Katrina volunteer wandered through the Houston Astrodome, serving lunch to evacuees. Saints wide receiver Joe Horn looked at the plastic bin without expression and, almost reflexively, reached in and pulled out a sandwich. He studied the flimsy-looking jumble of soggy white bread, processed turkey and American cheese for a moment before removing the plastic wrapping. Then Horn sank into an orange stadium seat and devoured his first food of the day.
A bald man wearing only black dress socks on his large feet sat next to Horn, biting deliberately into a sandwich of his own. The elderly man smiled at the sight of Horn, the star of a devastated city's pro football team, wiping mayonnaise from his upper lip. Horn noticed his expression and responded in kind. It was one of those cosmic moments that connect total strangers, and it carried a simple yet powerful message: Joe Horn could be eating cracked crab if he wanted, but instead he's sitting here in this godforsaken place chowing down on a soggy turkey sandwich with us.
The man's grandson and a few of his adolescent friends raced over to talk to Horn. He put his right hand on one of the kids' shoulders and said, "Y'all take care of each other, O.K.? We gonna roll through this, no doubt. The water's gonna go away, and we're gonna bounce back."
For the past two hours the 33-year-old Horn had been offering similarly encouraging words to hundreds of other displaced Louisianans in the Dome. At first he seemed to be putting on a brave front, just as thousands of volunteers were doing throughout the Gulf Coast region for victims of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. But now, as he neared the end of his unscheduled visit--that morning Horn had driven to the Astrodome parking lot, entered through an open stadium door and started hugging anyone he saw--the optimism in his voice took on greater conviction.
Just as the presence of a Crescent City celebrity had let the Astrodome occupants know that the outside world cared deeply about their plight, the opportunity to walk among the evacuees--to embrace them, to hear their stories, to talk a little football with them--had brought a measure of comfort to Horn. For the first time since the approaching storm had forced the Saints to make a quick escape to Northern California, where they were to play their final preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, Horn felt less of the helplessness that had gripped him as he watched the news and frantically tried to track down friends and family members.
Something unexpected had happened as well on that day in Houston. After mingling with the masses, Horn had decided it was O.K. to play football again.
On the ride to the Dome that morning, Horn's friend Terrence Rice had brought up how Katrina might affect plans for a new football stadium in New Orleans. "Football?" he responded incredulously, before dismissing the comment with a Tcccccch.
Professional athletes must often live down to their images as self-absorbed, inaccessible brats. Yet four years ago, after 9/11, it was the NFL players who had seemed most in touch with the mood of the nation, rejecting--more forcefully than team owners, the league office and many fans--the naive idea that an instant return to the football fields would hasten the healing process. Essentially the players declared, We all need to take a beat, get our bearings and grieve a little before the games can resume.
In their response to Katrina, the players again struck the appropriate chord. While the NFL made a relatively small donation of $1 million toward relief efforts, stars such as Warrick Dunn, Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Peyton and Eli Manning--all of whom had Gulf Coast roots--quickly mobilized, devoting time and money to the cause and urging others to join them. As fans pondered the implications of the Saints' sudden vagabond status or debated the fairness of moving the team's home opener to Giants Stadium, the New Orleans players were reassuring the world that the inconveniences they faced didn't compare with the hardships endured by hundreds of thousands of displaced residents.
So when Horn encountered so many evacuees in the Astrodome who, despite their dire circumstances, still cared deeply about the Saints, he was caught off-guard. "I had to be here, I had to come feel their hearts, hear their stories that aren't being told on TV," Horn said softly as he prepared to leave the stadium. "I feel so much better now. These people supported the New Orleans Saints when the water wasn't there, and I'm here to support them now. The fans I've talked to here still want us to win because, I guess, that's what they have to hold onto right now. I can take that back to the guys on the team. Now we can take that plane to Carolina in good conscience."