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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."