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Away Becomes Home for College Athletes Displaced by Katrina

October 30, 2005|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Even though she lives in a dorm that had been left empty and targeted for demolition, soccer player Jessica Trauer is grateful.

Even though he has to walk "like, miles, I think" to get to class, basketball player Matt Wheaton said, "I feel blessed to be here."

They are among the 90 or so Tulane University student-athletes attending school and practicing their sports at Texas A&M University since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans two months ago.

They live out of boxes that serve as dresser drawers. They wear clothes bought in haste at Wal-Mart. They get lost going to a sociology course and take long bus rides ... to home games.

But they have been treated with love, respect and all the free food they can eat at a Mexican fast-food restaurant on University Avenue.

Tulane athletes are spread across four college campuses. Texas A&M is playing host to members of the men's basketball, women's swimming and diving, women's soccer, men's and women's tennis and women's volleyball teams. The 15 male and female golfers are at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; 47 baseball and women's basketball players are at Texas Tech in Lubbock; 105 members of the football and women's track and field teams are at Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La.

The football team will play "home" games in five stadiums. Saturday's home game against Marshall, for example, was in Mobile, Ala.

Even though its New Orleans campus buildings are filled with mold, Athletic Director Rick Dickson says Tulane's teams will return to New Orleans next semester.

"We are hoping Tulane sports can be a rallying point for the city," he said.

University of New Orleans players are living, studying and practicing at six campuses: men's and women's basketball at the University of Texas at Tyler; baseball at New Mexico State; women's swimming at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta; men's golf at Louisiana State University at Shreveport; women's tennis, track and field and volleyball at LSU in Baton Rouge; and women's golf at Nicholls (La.) State.

New Orleans Athletic Director Jim Miller said this week that he hoped the Privateer basketball teams would be back playing at home after January, but there have been no decisions regarding where athletes could be housed or where games could be played.

But they are luckier than their counterparts at smaller, historically African American colleges such as Dillard, Loyola University at New Orleans, Southern at New Orleans and Xavier University of New Orleans. Their Gulf Coast Athletic Conference teams aren't playing, and it is uncertain when they will.

For those from Tulane, life as an athletic vagabond is better than having no sports at all.

"We are welcomed here, we have been given rooms, classes, space to practice," said Courtney Krouse, a Green Wave sophomore soccer player from Coto de Caza.

"I think we're all homesick for our college, but we have this opportunity to play. We didn't think we'd have that."

Julie Smekodub, a senior tennis player, was wearing a Texas A&M T-shirt on a hot fall afternoon as she finished a salad and tuna sandwich in the student cafeteria. "Two T-shirts, two pairs of shorts, a pair of gym shoes, my toothbrush, my laptop," she said, counting the possessions she brought from New Orleans on one hand.

"So I'm sad at times here. This is my senior year and you want to have all those senior experiences at the familiar places. But please don't make this sound like I'm complaining. I walk around campus here sometimes and feel like a hero. All people have to hear is that I'm from Tulane and they want to give me things. It's embarrassing."

Players, coaches, trainers and athletic officials said they would not soon forget the welcome they received when they arrived at A&M one night at 10 about a week after the hurricane hit.

"Every athletic official, from the athletic director to the sports information staff, greeted us," said associate athletic director Maria Ochoa. "The Aggies had set up one-stop shopping for us. In one room, at one time, our athletes got dorm assignments, were able to register for the classes they needed. We got office space and practice fields.

"For the rest of my life I'll root for the Aggies."

Tulane coaches, trainers and officials are now burrowed into abandoned offices underneath A&M's Kyle Field.

Pete Maglieri, director of equipment operations, said he misses odd things: extra cleats, coaching apparel, soccer jerseys, basketball shorts. If a jersey rips, he sews it.

"It's unbelievable to me that we've been able to open offices, conduct practices, have an athletic department," said Maglieri, whose home in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner was badly damaged. "It's credit to us, sure, but also to the people at A&M. There are no strangers here. Whatever we need, it's found for us."

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