“I don’t know if this can be accurately described and fully described ever,” Miles said.
For the No. 3 Tigers, Georgia’s opponent on Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, it was awful. Katrina victims were brought to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on campus by helicopter and ambulance one after the other for a week after the flooding in New Orleans. The bodies of those who died were stored in an auxiliary gym below the gym’s main playing floor, and some LSU athletes pitched in by carrying boxes of body bags into the Maravich Center.
“All of our backgrounds in coaching are to eliminate distractions,” Miles said. “That’s the standard rule, but in this particular incident, you could not deny it. There were helicopters going over head. There were volunteer armed forces. There was no denying there was a real life drama going on beside us.”
It’s also been inspiring. LSU is 10-1 overall and 7-1 in the SEC, and the Tigers have impressed fans around the nation with how they’ve pitched in to help victims.
“I think we’ve had a little more riding on our shoulders,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “We’ve had an opportunity to bring back a little more spirit to our state, and we’ve kind of dedicated our season to our state.”
And, finally, it’s been plain weird at times. Rock and roll legend Fats Domino, who was reported missing after the flooding, turned up in the apartment of LSU quarterback Jamarcus Russell, where more than 20 of Russell’s family and friends slept in the days following the tragedy.
“He slept on the couch,” said Russell, whose girlfriend is related to Domino.
The side effects of the disaster that nearly leveled New Orleans, a city 80 miles from LSU’s campus in Baton Rouge, have mostly passed. But the Tigers still are riding an emotional wave from the events and will enter the Georgia Dome as the clear sentimental favorites. The Tigers and No. 13 Bulldogs (9-2, 6-2) play at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“I know they went through a lot of tough times, there is no doubt about it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Those type of things bring a team together. When there’s adversity in a family, usually it brings families together so when something like this hurricane came and displaced so many people, it was something where everyone had to come together to survive and to make things better for the people around them. When that happens, it brings a team together. I’m sure there are a lot of people around the country who have a lot of respect for what they did.”
When the storm first hit the Gulf Coast shores on Aug. 29, none of the Tigers knew how much it would affect their lives.
“It was just a windy day,” Miles said. “We had very little rain. There were some trees laying across the road, but you did not know the magnitude or scope of the damage until you saw what was being reported.”
Then the FEMA agents, and the U.S. Marshals and the National Guard, and the dead and dying started pouring into their town. Normal activities on LSU’s campus were shut down for several days to allow everyone in the area to respond to more pressing needs, and several of the teams players reported losing significant weight simply because they didn’t have easy access to food.
“It really lets you know how much you should enjoy what you get to do and how much you should treasure it and how blessed you are,” offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said.
LSU’s players and coaching staff pitched in wherever they could. They didn’t turn a blind eye toward the tragedy which killed more than 1,300 people and may have caused more than $100 billion in damages, but they didn’t let it control their lives, either. “We allowed ourselves to talk about it,” Miles said. “The one thing we asked our team to do was the one thing they really wanted to do and that was to take a break for those two hours, walk across those lines and play football. We were away from some very harsh and difficult times that were going on around us and allowed ourselves to go chase a ball.”
The Tigers had their scheduled season-opener against North Texas postponed and their second game switched from Baton Rouge to Arizona State’s campus due to Katrina. Then, when Hurricane Rita followed three weeks later, the team braced for the worst. While that storm didn’t get the same publicity as Katrina, it jumbled the Tigers’ lives, and schedule, once again. The Tennessee game, which was scheduled for Sept. 24, was moved to Sept. 26, a Monday night. That turned out to be the Tigers’ only loss of the season.
Still, Miles and his players have yet to blame their hectic schedule this year for that loss or any other misstep this season. And, despite heading into their 11th game in 11 weeks, they aren’t going to start now.
“Certainly, it has had an ongoing effect on all of us,” he said, “but I don’t think it’ll have any effect on us when we get to Atlanta."