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COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE
FIRST PLACE: LOOSE DEADLINE
NEW ORLEANS – Another time, in a different year with a different team, perhaps they would have been mugging with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, petting Shamu the Killer Whale at Sea World or strolling the River Walk in San Antonio.
But these are the Rice Owls, and this is the 2006 New Orleans Bowl. And so the Rice contingent spent an hour Wednesday morning driving through the Lower 9th Ward, ground zero for the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
Three buses filled with players, coaches and family members rolled down St. Claude Avenue, across the Industrial Canal bridge, past Fats Domino's house on Caffin Avenue, along North Prieur and Deslonde and Tennessee streets, past wrecked houses, scattered trailers and concrete slabs where houses once stood, then back to North Claiborne Avenue and across the canal toward the French Quarter.
For some, it might have been nothing more than a hermetically sealed tour through Katrina World, a land all but one or two knew only from television news broadcasts. But for assistant coach Michael Smith, who sat quietly in front of one bus, it was a bitter return to a neighborhood he remembered from his high school days.
Smith, a native of the New Orleans East neighborhood, recalls visiting the Lower 9th as a student at Jesuit High School to play teams from Holy Cross High School, which was inundated along with the rest of the Lower 9th when the New Orleans canals were breached during Hurricane Katrina 16 months ago.
He'll spend part of today, one day before the Owls play Troy University at the Louisiana Superdome, visiting his grandmother, Lorraine Smith, 76, who just moved into a FEMA trailer outside what remains of her house in the Gentilly neighborhood.
"She's a tough woman. She's a stone," Smith said. "She's stubborn in her ways, but she wants to be back in her house."
On the same bus, a few rows back, was senior deep snapper Drew Clardy of Moss Point, Miss. Clardy's family moved two years ago to Ocean Springs, Miss., where Katrina swept 5 feet of water into their home. He spent last Christmas in a FEMA trailer with his family; he'll spend this one, after Friday's game, in their remodeled home.
Smith and Clardy knew what to expect. But for the rest of Rice's student-athletes, Wednesday was, indeed, a day in the classroom.
"Every American should see this," first-year head coach Todd Graham said. "We had some time today, and it was my choice to spend it this way."
The Owls (7-5) have had an up-and-down year, dealing with the preseason death of a teammate, Dale Lloyd, and opening the year with four consecutive losses. But they rebounded to win their last six games and earn the school's first bowl berth since 1961.
In that sense, Graham said, "We're a team of perseverance. And New Orleans is the city of perseverance. And for (the players) not to see this just wouldn't be right."
They traveled in silence, broken only on the middle bus by the voice of tour guide Polly Thomas, a professor at the University of New Orleans, whose narration varied from the clinical to the emotional.
"It's really hard for me to do," she said at one point. "When you see your city that has been devastated, it hurts."
Her voice trailed off. The bus was silent. Smith sat to Thomas' left, looking out the window as block after block rolled by.
"Could you have imagined this without seeing it?" Thomas said.
There are pockets of change in the Lower 9th, including a volunteer center on Deslonde, and occasional workers who waved at the passing buses. But it's still common to see houses bearing the trademark X accompanied by notes on when they were searched, who searched them and how many bodies, if any, were found.
Back in the French Quarter, the buses unloaded at the House of Blues for lunch, followed by a hospital tour, practice and a walk-through today at the renovated Superdome, site of Friday's game and a potent symbol of New Orleans' efforts to return to normal.
After Friday, the Owls will scatter for the rest of the Christmas holidays. Clardy, who spent 14 hours after Katrina not knowing if his parents had survived, will join them in Mississippi.
Smith, whose parents now live in Mandeville, La., will join his family to celebrate the holidays and process what he saw Wednesday.
"We're supposed to be one of the strongest countries in the world," Smith said. "For this to happen on our soil and to see (debris) still there two years later, it's devastating to me.
"But it's great to be here. I'm getting to see lots of friends and family. And I'll remember this day the rest of my life."
Comment of the judge, Gene Duffey: Good writing with an important subject that made you feel you were riding on one of the buses with the Rice players. Interviewing an assistant coach and player with ties to the area made it even better. Good emotional quotes from the tour guide.
• Second place: Christopher Walsh, Tuscaloosa News
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