Backstory: After Katrina, football rallies a town

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

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.

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.

Friday night's game allows residents a chance to get away, but no one forgets. Approximately 236 people died in Mississippi, 95 in Harrison County. Seventeen of those people were pulled from the muddy waters of this field, where the Pirates are now battling Poplarville. Rather than being sacrilegious, it seems appropriate – football is a fiercely loved pastime here, and there's never been a better place to be, even before Katrina made the Pirates the only show in town.

They only won one game last season, the first. After Katrina, they suffered two cancellations and seven losses. They're headed toward 1-3 Friday night, but no one minds, least of all Sammie Barnes, who has lived here since retiring from the Army 42 years ago. Dressed in the Pirates' traditional red, white, and blue, and with his gold teeth flashing in the stadium lights, Mr. Barnes laughs when asked why a single man without kids spends his Friday nights watching high school football.

"I come to see my friends," he says, gesturing to the thousand or so fans scattered in the stands.

People take pleasure in simple things now, a hot shower at the end of the day, the bright stars newly visible thanks to less light pollution. At the concession stand, Stephen Dupree and his wife Tina sell bottled drinks to an orderly line of students. "They aren't real cold," Mr. Dupree tells a girl asking for a Sprite. She hands her dollar bill to Tina and smiles as she takes the tepid beverage.

"Everybody's so easy to please," he says, wiping sweat from his face. Like the rest of the town, the Duprees and their four children have grown accustomed to doing without. A three-hour wait for a hot meal served in an even hotter tent isn't unusual. Neither is taking a FEMA trailer "military shower," turning the water on just long enough to lather and rinse. Six gallons of hot water doesn't last long – even when there aren't multiple people jockeying for the luxury.

Mrs. Dupree says being able to have the football games at home again means a lot. "The Pass was a beautiful, quaint little community," she recalls. "The kids would walk to school, stop at grandma's for breakfast, walk home, stop at grandma's for an afternoon snack..." Her voice trails off. The elementary school is gone, the middle school is gone, grandma's house is gone, and the high school won't reopen until November. Meanwhile, the cost of living has tripled, and two bedroom "cottages" rent for as much as $1,800 per month. "But we're still here," she says.

Standing with other police officers guarding the entrance to the stadium, Mr. Dedeaux says he plans to stay as well. "We had 20 officers, and now we have eight," he says. "Every department is looking to hire, but nobody wants to come here. I had an opportunity to go to California, but that's not home. I've lived here 38 years. If everybody leaves, there'll be no Pass."

A murmur of excitement washes through the concessions as the Pirates make their first touchdown late in the third quarter. "We got six!" a student says appreciatively. No one mentions the turn-overs or the lackluster defense. When the players limp off the field, the fans reach out to shake hands, pat shoulders, thank them for their effort.

And as the scoreboard goes dim on the 14-44 loss, there's no doubt where everyone will be next Friday. From Bay St. Louis to Biloxi, from Gulfport to Pass Christian, the consensus is loud and clear: Katrina may have knocked Mississippi down, but she will not win. Slowly but surely, life is getting back to normal.

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