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After Katrina, J.T.'s plan is to get his players refocused on the things they can control: the game, the ball, their effort. For parents, games quickly become a lifeline, a welcome break from their battles with FEMA officials, insurance agents and blighted homes. As one parent puts it, Friday-night football is "what gets me through the week."
Some of Joe's teammates are living in FEMA trailers, others are crammed into relatives' homes or shelters or temporary apartments. At night after practice many Patriots help their parents rip out soggy carpeting and mold-caked Sheetrock, then collapse into the small cubby beds of their 240-square-foot trailers. In class students are tired and distracted. They are desperate to return to their old lives.
For Joe there's no such going back. The friends' and relatives' homes that had been his crash pads are uninhabitable. Joe's mother and brother had been living in the house of Joe's grandmother, which was flooded, and now they're in a one-bedroom apartment.
At J.T.'s house Joe's new life is, at first, complicated and disconcerting. Joe hasn't been accountable to anyone for years. Now J.T. and Lydia are always asking, Where are you going? When will you be back? But after a few weeks Joe begins settling in. One night Joe and Tank are sitting in the Curtis living room, watching TV and waiting for dinner. Joe asks Lydia why J.T. is running late tonight, and she says he's probably still in the coaches' office.
"Well," Joe says, "call him up and tell him his two kids are HON-gry." Joe and Tank burst out laughing. It's one of the first times Lydia has seen Joe laugh.
By november the Patriots have jelled as a team, and their 5-1 record earns them a trip to the playoffs. In their first playoff game Joe scores both times he touches the ball, and John Curtis wins in a 53-13 blowout. In the next game, Joe scores three times, and the Patriots romp again, 50-18. In four playoff games Joe scores a dozen times and his team outscores its opponents 184-38. On Thanksgiving morning Joe is the focus of a gushing Times-Picayune article that calls him "Curtis' do-it-all performer."
"Call it speed," the article says. "Call it a burst. A wiggle. On punts, he has the ability to make the first guy miss. Then he accelerates in a step. Call it a balance most people do not possess. Or call it an indescribable something." The writer quotes a rival coach who declares that Joe is "ready for the NFL now."
After Katrina the Patriots had not expected a normal year. They just wanted a football season. But suddenly they're headed to the Class 2A championship. The Superdome can't host the games anymore, so they'll be played in Shreveport.
DECEMBER 9, 2005
The Patriots gather before their 1 p.m. kickoff. J.T. searches for the right words. Opening a tattered Bible, he says that Psalm 127 was a favorite of his father's. J.T. reads slowly, "Sons are a heritage from the Lord. Children are his reward. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior, sons are born to one's youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of children."