Joe McKnight sits
alone in the front seat of the team bus, listening to a speech from Any Given
Sunday on his headphones. "The six inches in front of your face . . .
that's football, guys," says Al Pacino, who plays a pro football coach.
"That's all it is. Now, whattaya gonna do?"
On this sultry New
Orleans night the Patriots of John Curtis Christian School are crossing Lake
Pontchartrain behind a police escort. They're headed north to their final
preseason game, part of the annual "jamboree" that kicks off southern
Louisiana's football season. The Patriots are coming off yet another undefeated
season, capped by their 19th state championship. But nine offensive starters
graduated, and this year's squad is filled with sophomores and juniors and has
a greenhorn at quarterback. Head coach J.T. Curtis has called it a
"rebuilding year," and the team is counting on Joe, a junior, to lead
have lurked around Joe since he was a freshman. USA Today ranks him among the
nation's best high school prospects, and he's being wooed by USC, Miami and
Notre Dame. Still, Joe takes nothing for granted. "God blessed me with
ability," he once told a reporter, "but I could be a better
Last year the
coaches began transitioning Joe from defense to both sides of the ball, as if
they were afraid to turn him loose all at once. This season he'll play five
roles: defensive back, kick returner, punt returner, wide receiver and his
favorite, running back. Joe spent every morning this summer in the weight room,
every afternoon running laps wearing a weighted vest. Football is his escape
route from his troubled youth.
fight," Pacino says, "it's the guy who's willing to die who's gonna win
that inch. That's what living is." Kickoff is an hour away.
Meanwhile, a storm
is lurking to the south, growing stronger by the hour. It will soon threaten to
destroy not only Joe's season but also his school, his team and his future.
Earlier in the day
the National Hurricane Center warned that the year's 11th hurricane had passed
to the west of the Florida Keys and that New Orleans was its new bull's-eye.
Katrina is still 500 miles away, though, and most New Orleanians have greeted
her approach with a shrug. Hurricane season is annually filled with dire
warnings of monster storms that never quite materialize, so Katrina isn't about
to distract fans from tonight's prelude to the 2005 season.
Playing 30 miles
northeast of the Crescent City, against the Bulldogs of Fontainebleau High, the
Patriots are up 12-0 by halftime. On one play in the second half the Bulldogs
quarterback drops back, is flushed out of the pocket and hurries a throw down
the sideline. Joe times his leap perfectly, reaching above the intended
receiver to snag the ball. He sprints diagonally to the far sideline, turns
upfield and accelerates. Six feet tall and just shy of 200 pounds, Joe is a
beautiful runner with a graceful stride that makes it look as if he's hardly
pushing. Heading toward the end zone some 15 yards ahead of the nearest
defender, Joe saunters across the goal line, casually drops the ball and lopes
to the bench.
depart with a 19-0 win. On the unusually subdued ride home, as they roll past
New Orleans and the glowing spaceship of the Superdome, word trickles down the
aisles that Katrina continues to barrel toward the Big Easy. When the players
arrive at John Curtis, at midnight, they learn that Louisiana governor Kathleen
Babineaux Blanco has declared a state of emergency, and New Orleans mayor C.
Ray Nagin may order the city evacuated as early as tomorrow.