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Backstory: After Katrina, football rallies a town

Pass Christian, Miss., struggles to regain its footing, one touchdown at a time.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 2006


The first strains of the national anthem waver and all eyes turn to the flag hanging limply in the humid air from a striped flagpole. Hands clasped firmly over their hearts, the Pass Christian Pirates stare at the slash of bright blue paint that stops 14 feet above the ground. A water line. You see a lot of those around here these days.

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Hurricane Katrina didn't leave much behind in this rural Mississippi town, making what remains even more poignant for the 6,500 people who called this coastal village home – home being a relative term in "post-K" life.

For the players, the closest thing to home they have is this field. For the few hours they are within its chain-linked environs, everything is normal.

That's exactly what coach Kelly Causey had in mind when he resumed practice after the storm. Five blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, Pass Christian High School was gutted by a 35-foot storm surge that swept six miles inland. The field house was destroyed, their helmets ruined, and their jerseys washed into trees or buried in the fetid mud. Of the 48 players, only 19 returned.

Quarterback Chad Moore, a senior, remembers those dark days. He and his brother, Phillippe, a freshman on the team, went to Atlanta while their father, John Dedeaux, remained in Pass Christian with the rest of the police. They spent a tense week watching the news, hearing about every town but "The Pass," as it is affectionately known. Softly, the 17-year-old recalls what they heard from locals: "Everything is gone. Destroyed." When his father called, he was so relieved he didn't care about anything else. "He said we'd lost everything, but that was OK," Chad says. "We came back and there was nothing."

Coach Causey knew his team needed the lessons football could teach because he was clinging to those same lessons himself, trying to fathom the ups and downs of life in a hurricane-ravaged town.

He turned to local contractor Jerry Caffey, whose son Micah plays on the team. Mr. Caffey allowed them to scratch out a primitive practice field at his home in the country and offered facilities to store whatever equipment could be salvaged. While he and other volunteers worked on the stadium, the players divided their days between storm cleanup and football practice.

"It wasn't about winning or losing at that time," Causey says, watching his players file into their new field house, which was once a cafeteria. "Football means a lot to this community, and it gave the kids an outlet to escape. When you see the lights in the stadium and the field in the middle of it all, it gives you hope."

Beyond the gates lies reality: concrete slabs where homes used to be, salt-burned palm trees snapped off mid-trunk, gnarled live oaks festooned with vivid blue tarps and pieces of clothing. Ninety percent of all homes were destroyed; 85 percent of the town's tax base is gone; most of the town's residents are sandwiched into shoeboxes known as FEMA trailers. Scenic Drive, renowned for stately antebellum mansions facing the Gulf, now seems like a cruel joke – most of the century-old homes have been wiped away. The once pristine white sands remain littered with storm debris, and the once blue waters are dull beige, laden daily with refuse.