MOBILE, Ala. — The football player is older than he looks and younger than he feels. He bent down near the sideline and touched the turf at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. He pressed two fingers onto the spongy, plastic grass.
So this is what home feels like? For the weekend, it was to be Tulane's home field, 150 miles from the school's water-stained campus.
Every Saturday, the players step onto a different field. Two weeks ago was Ladd-Peebles, where the Green Wave faced Marshall. This past weekend it was Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, where Tulane played Navy. By the time this season is finished, the Green Wave will have played 11 games in 11 different stadiums.
The Green Wave wanders the college football landscape like a nomad in the desert, chased out of New Orleans by a storm. Katrina scattered the team all over the map, splashing despair everywhere there had been hope.
Classes at Tulane were canceled. But the Green Wave plays on. You have no idea how important it is to be able to say that -- the Green Wave plays on.
They're 2-5. They won't win the Conference USA championship, won't receive votes in any of the polls and after one more loss won't receive an invitation to a bowl game. Yet they're the most inspirational thing in cleats right now.
One day before the hurricane hit New Orleans, Tulane's football team was evacuated, bused to Jackson, Miss. But Katrina's fingers still reached them, and soon the players found themselves huddled around oil lanterns, sleeping on a gymnasium floor and quietly wondering whether their families survived. Power was out and phones didn't work.
"It's not the type of thing football coaches are trained for, you know?" says Chris Scelfo, Tulane's coach.
They were soon put on a bus for Dallas, while school officials decided the team's fate. Within the next few weeks, the school's 7,500-undergraduate student body was dispersed to more than 100 other college campuses. The athletes remained with their respective teams, though.
They were spread out over five campuses in two states. The football team is in Ruston, La., attending classes at Louisiana Tech University. They're living in a dormitory that had been closed last spring, scheduled for renovation.
"Ruston is no New Orleans," concedes senior linebacker Anthony Cannon. "It`s not exactly what we were all thinking about when we signed scholarship papers, you know? But we understand the situation."
They've bonded like few teams can. Something was born in that dark gym in Jackson and continues to grow every day. That's why many coaches secretly revel in adversity. It's like a rope that wraps itself around a team, strands of worry and fear and uncertainty drawing a group closer and closer together.
There's no normality to the season, so they go through each day with no expectations. On Saturdays, they're the face of a school that's closed for repairs. Every other day of the week, they're navigating without a compass.
Before one game, they sat on a bus for five hours in the morning and played a game that afternoon. Before another, because hotel rooms were scarce in Baton Rouge, they spent the night on tiny air mattresses spread out on a county club floor.
"I think we all just feel very fortunate that we're even able to play right now," says quarterback Lester Ricard, cousin of Ravens fullback Alan Ricard.
As with any inspiring performance, you have to look behind the scenes to see how it all comes together.
Three assistant coaches lost their homes to the flooding. Family and friends were scattered. Those little things you collect over a lifetime -- wedding pictures, children's drawings, grandma's wedding ring -- were lost.
Rick Dickson, the school's director of athletics, lost his home and most of his belongings. He doesn't even own a necktie right now. He returned to New Orleans to find a car stolen. But there's no time to slow down and reflect on what you don't have.
Sports have given people like Dickson some sense of purpose when everything in life can seem absolutely helpless.
The athletics department is just a skeleton, with staff members scattered all over. One man lost his home, his family members lost their homes and his daughter lost her pregnancy. They tell him to take some time, get things together. He calls every morning. "What do you need? What can I do? Where should I go?"
No, this isn't exactly how you plan a football season. School officials have no blueprint to go by. And even if they did, it probably would've been left behind in the school's athletic offices and lost.
Tulane's fields and buildings all suffered some type of flood damage, a couple million dollars worth, they figure. They lost hard drives and paperwork -- schedules, vendor lists, phone numbers, equipment, lists of boosters and season-ticket holders and advertisers.