ST. LOUIS — They vowed to escape New Orleans, but now, a decade later, Marshall Faulk and Kordell Stewart will do just about anything to return.
"I lived close to the Superdome," said Stewart, Pittsburgh's quarterback, who grew up just across the Mississippi river. "It would take you all day to swim it, a half-day to walk, and about 15 minutes driving."
Today, getting to the Superdome is a four-quarter proposition. Stewart will lead the Steelers against New England in the AFC championship game; Faulk, star running back for the St. Louis Rams, will face Philadelphia in the NFC title game.
"It would be like a homecoming for me," Stewart said. "My family is there, all of my friends, my true friends. The stomping grounds where I started as a little buck in Little League, running track, being all-metro, everything.
"It would be a special moment."
Stewart referred to the city as "my crib" but didn't delve into the painful memories of losing his mother to liver cancer when he was 12. Faulk, asked to recall his childhood, was edgy and curt, even brushing off the subject of playing against Stewart in high school.
"When I tell you I don't remember, I don't remember," he said. "You can't make me remember."
Any other memories of New Orleans?
Cecile Faulk remembers. She raised six sons in the Desire public housing complex, among the most destitute projects in the country, a place where they no longer cover broken windows with aluminum because too often it's stolen and sold for scrap.
"If you lived there you'd understand," she said. "If you can make it out of there, that's good. If you see a black boy make it out of there, that's a blessing. You never know when one of those stray bullets is coming."
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Marshall's brother, Raymond, was sentenced to seven years in prison for armed robbery; and his best friend from high school, Mark Bruno, got a one-year sentence for theft.
When Cecile was unable to make ends meet with her jobs as a hotel maid and Woolworth's clerk, she let Marshall, her youngest son, live with the Bruno family.
Even though the Faulks were able to move to a small house when Marshall was 12, money was so tight the family heated the place with the kitchen stove. Marshall worked with the custodial crew, sweeping the halls of Carver High before school. He also sold popcorn at New Orleans Saint games and cut hair for $5 a head.
"Marshall was one of those special kids," said Wayne Reese, his football coach at Carver. "He was well-mannered, a good student. He was a quiet kid that never said much, and he didn't get into anything that was out of the ordinary."
But he wasn't an angel. He and his friends would stir up trouble with the police by making a mad dash every time they saw a squad car, even if they had done nothing wrong. Reese said Faulk had a bit of a "thug" side on the field. Faulk doesn't deny that.
"When it's fourth-and-two, it helps if you have an evil side," he told Sports Illustrated in 1992. "On fourth-and-two, I'm Freddy Krueger."
Faulk has a soft side too. His mother used to rest her head in his lap when she would get home from working one of her many jobs. He would stroke her hair and make promises, sounding as naive as he was earnest.
"Don't worry, Mom," he would tell her. "I'm going to take care of you."
Stewart never got the chance to make those vows. His mother, Florence, a nurse, died just before Christmas in 1983 after battling cancer for 10 years. Earlier that fall, she and her husband, Robert, separated then divorced. Kordell, the youngest of three, lived with his mother until she died.
"She got so small, she got so sick and it hit her so fast, it was incredible," he told the Denver Post in 1994, during his final season at Colorado.
Kordell, along with his older brother and sister, moved in with their father, who grew up in a New Orleans project and made a life for himself as a barber. The family was close, and was drawn even closer by Florence's death.
The family was rocked again four years ago when Kordell's sister, Falisha, died at 29, also of liver cancer.
"We still live with the sadness of that every day," Robert said.
He owned a hair salon called "Second Edition," and it wasn't uncommon for young Kordell to spend an entire day there, honing his skills with a shaver and scissors.
Kordell learned the value of a dollar from his father, whom he still calls "Daddy." When Robert was a kid, he used to collect old newspapers and sell them to the dog pound to line the kennels.
"I usually got a penny a pound, then it went up to two cents. We only lived a half-block from the dog pound, and the other guys lived a couple miles away, so I had a jump on them. I'd go around in the evenings and get the papers, then I'd have it there early in the morning. I'd bring home three or four dollars a day."