An Interview with Jeff Duncan (Part Two)

An Interview with Jeff Duncan (Part Two)

An Interview with Jeff Duncan (Part Two)

Jeff Duncan: Interviewed on March 1, 2007

Position: enterprise sports reporter, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Born: 1964, Louisville

Education: University of Louisville, 1986, communications

Career: Louisville Courier-Journal (part-time), St. Petersburg Times (part-time), Monroe News-Star 1989-96, Florida Today 96-98, Nashville alternative weekly 98-99, Times-Picayune 99 –

Personal: single

Favorite restaurant (home): Jacquimo’s “the quintessential New Orleans restaurant – get the alligator sausage cheesecake – it sounds horrible and if you’re not from here you wouldn’t know to order it – 10,000 calories but worth every one”; Cochon “warehouse district – hottest new restaurant in town – specializes in Louisiana pork”

Favorite restaurant (road): Jake’s Del Mar Restaurant, Del Mar, Ca., “beachfront dining and Del Mar is one of the most beautiful towns in America”

Favorite hotel: Grand Marriott, Point Clear, Ala. “where we stay covering the Senior Bowl – old historic hotel on a bluff – you get the points and you’re in a nice hotel”

Jeff Duncan, “Desire Without End,” excerpted from the Times-Picayune, Dec. 11, 2005, published in “Best American Sports Writing 2006:

NICEVILLE, FLA. — It’s a typical sight on an October night in Louisiana: a group of coaches leading a high school football team into battle.

But nothing is even remotely typical about this night, or these coaches, or their players, or the school they represent.

They are a New Orleans school, but they are driving to the game from their new campus at Camp Timpoochee in Niceville, Fla., five hours away.

To prepare for the game, they have had just one week of class and one full practice in pads, on a potholed, unlined field that is better suited for sack races than football.

En route to the game, the team caravan has to stop at a sporting- goods store to buy helmets for some of the players, and maroon T- shirts for the coaches.

Before heading to Porter Field at St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie to face the Crescent City Christian School Pioneers in their first game of the season, the team makes one more stop: Desire Street Academy, a fledgling New Orleans school for 7th- through 12th- grade boys.

It is their school, an offshoot of the Desire Street Ministry, in the heart of the 9th Ward and founded by Mo Leverett in 1990 to serve the impoverished, crime-ridden Desire-Florida neighborhood. Now it is in ruins.

On this night, on the way to their first game, the members of the Desire Street Academy Lions are seeing their decimated building, and their devastated neighborhood, for the first time since Aug. 29.

After the tour, they board the bus quietly and head to their game across town.

“They had to see it,” said assistant coach Mickey Joseph, a former standout athlete at Archbishop Shaw High School. “I think it helped them start to appreciate this place a little more, knowing they’re not going back anytime soon.

“They know they’re not going back now.”

—-

When Leverett planned the construction of Desire Street Ministry’s new school building five years ago, he did so with its rough 9th Ward neighborhood in mind.

He knew only too well that windows were an invitation for trouble in the crime-ridden Desire-Florida area; a few years back, a bullet crashed through the glass door of his back patio and rattled around the floor just feet from his wife and daughters.

Flying bullets and thrown rocks wouldn’t threaten the students inside Desire Street Academy. Leverett fortified the walls in the new building with stone and concrete and included only a few windows in the 36,000-square-foot fortress.

Figuratively and structurally, Desire Street Academy was built to withstand any hell that impoverished urban life could deliver.

Any hell, that is, except high water.

On the morning of Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge tore a 50-foot-wide breach in the floodwall that stretches from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River and protects the 9th Ward. The force of the current lifted train boxcars and 18-wheeler trailers at the France Street rail yard and deposited them a football field away.

The Desire Street Academy’s plush $3 million complex, two blocks northwest of the breach on the west side of the Industrial Canal, was directly in the path of the onrushing floodwaters.

Water burst through the gym windows, poured over the basketball court and eventually rose past the first seven rows of bleachers.

When Leverett returned to the building to survey the damage a month after the storm, he found a dead crab in the parking lot and half a telephone pole resting on the stage in the gym.

The contents of his office had been tossed on the floor like toys in a kid’s playroom. In the next room, a wooden bookcase had punched through a wall in the office of Danny Wuerffel, the former Heisman Trophy winner and New Orleans Saints quarterback who now serves as the school’s development director.

In half a day, Katrina destroyed what Leverett and his staff worked 15 years to build.

Q. What was the background to “Desire Without End?

A. Being a Saints reporter I was familiar with Danny Wuerffel and his association with Desire even before the storm. Danny felt called to this school and left the NFL – he was a backup quarterback for the Redskins bouncing around and he realized he was going to be a journeyman – and he made the decisions that this was more important to him. He came across Mo Leverett, the founder of the academy, when he played for the Saints – that’s how he was familiar with the ministry.

I was at a Zydeco barbecue after the storm eating with a bunch of journalists. Danny was on TV talking about the school. It was a big story to me. I knew the school was located right in the middle of the flood zone and I knew what they were up against in trying to administer and counsel the students and young of the Ninth Ward – the area Marshall Faulk came out of. How would they get this school back together? It was going to be the first year of organized sport when Katrina hit – it seemed like a no-brainer.

When I reported it I found out they had relocated to Camp Timpoochee on the Florida coast – these tough inner city kids were going to class along the bucolic shoreline on the Gulf and then playing football and driving five hours on a bus to play football games. How Danny and Mo and the rest of the administration used football to get these kids to come to school and to save some kids was one of the most compelling and rewarding stories I’ve written. Lots of factors were in that – Katrina and sports and poverty – you didn’t have to be a sports fan to get it, in fact, it ran in the features section. It drew a widespread response. Hopefully it helped the school get donations.

Q. How did you tell it to maximum effect?

A. You had two different story lines I felt needed to be addressed. One was the students, many of whom were in the floodwaters themselves, and their families who were scattered in the Diaspora, in shelters all over the country. The other part of the story was the school administrators – Mo and Danny and the faculty who had this mission and were seeing their dreams wash away, literally, in the flood. It was a complicated and difficult story to write.

I had to weave a narrative and go back and forth from Katrina and the Ninth Ward to Timpoochee and football. It took me a long time to write it because it was so complicated. Mark Lorando, our features editor, did a tremendous job of helping me maintain focus. It’s always a challenge to write a story of that scale – I spent a lot of time on it. I went to Timpoochee a handful of times and I went to games they played in this area – the reporting spanned months. It was an evolving story, with kids leaving and dropping out of school, and getting homesick to see their parents. It was such a unique situation it needed time to give it context and perspective.

Q. Why did you go back to sports at the Times-Pic?

A. To be honest, it was a grind. If you live this reality – this post-Katrina dynamic – its tentacles reach into every part of your daily life – you work it and live it. While I didn’t have that much damage – I had colleagues who lost everything. Living here is a difficult place to live and is going to be for the next five or ten years. We’ve seen it in the newsroom – it takes its toll. There’s been a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder and a lot of counseling needed in the newsroom.

I got to the point where I didn’t want to keep writing about everything wrong in the city. I found a niche in the sports department as the Katrina sports reporter – it certainly affected sports in the city. I had a unique perspective in that I covered the storm and sports.

Q. Did you write on the Saints this season?

A. Everybody was on the bandwagon. It was a huge story for the city and a huge national story. More colleagues came to town this year than the previous five or six years combined. The Saints were a tremendous story. The relationship between the team and the city was unique before the storm and now it’s more unique. New Orleans is a provincial city – because of its history and background and melting pot it’s different. The relationship to the team is similar to Green Bay but that wasn’t recognized on a national basis – the national reporters found out this year.

The story line initially was how the team lifted the city at a time when the city was looking for something to lift its spirits. Then the dynamic inverted and the city lifted the team. The players would admit that – they did down the stretch – they said they were along for the ride down the stretch – that it was bigger than just blocking and tackling and the team was swept up in it. You could feel the energy in the crowd – it was like a college experience – not the typical NFL experience, which is so managed and corporate these days. People kept coming back because it was different – I’m not sure they can capture it again.

I was brought right into the mix, obviously due to my experience knowing the team and players. I found the story to be less about the team and more about the city and the people and fans, and how they escaped the drudgery of post-Katrina life for four hours every Sunday. It was a unique story you’re not going to get in any other market.

One thing I liked about writing Saints stories this year was keeping in contact with the NFL reporting community. I can’t tell you how many offers of monetary help and assistance came from reporters all over the country. They helped out my colleague, Brian Allee-Walsh, who lost his house in Lakeview. He received assistance from the NFL reporting community – clothes and whatever they could send. People went above and beyond to help out – that said a lot about the character of people in our profession.

Q. Isn’t there a book in this?

A. I’m pitching one now – on the Saints season and everything we talked about. The publishers are a little leery – more of the Katrina stuff because there’s so much out already. I’m trying to convince them it’s not just Katrina – nobody has written a book on what it’s like living here now, enduring this in their daily life and putting this disaster back together, and how this team came along and lifted them up.

Q. Do you miss covering the NFL?

A. I got out at the right time. Access is becoming more limited now that you’ve got nfl.com and NFL TV.

I have all the respect in the world for NFL beat writers – they’re competing with guys like (ESPN’s) Len Pasquarelli and John Clayton and all those pit bulls on the major websites Beat reporters have to cover the team day-to-day without having the luxury of parachuting into town and writing a story. National reporters don’t have the challenge of writing a tough story and going out to practice the next day – that’s one thing I do miss.

The website guys are seasoned reporters with contacts all over the league who work 24 hours a day, and who become de facto reporters for local TV and radio, which can’t get out to Saints practice every day but can read the Internet. Lenny breaks a story on the Saints and it gets into local media – they become your competition as well. It’s a 24-hour work environment – you work in fear.

There are some guys in small markets who own their beats – John McClain (Houston Chronicle), Jim Thomas (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), Bob McGinn and Tom Silverstein (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Paul Kuharsky and Jim Wyatt (The Tennessean). Your job is to own your beat but you’re up against it with everybody coming in. That’s how we felt about the Saints this year – all the top reporters were coming in but we felt we could cover it better. We have the advantage of knowing the whole story – hopefully our readers appreciate it.

Q. Why is it hard to compete with the national website reporters?

A. They operate with different standards – they don’t have to attribute sourced material and they can protect sources that way. Local reporters are handcuffed by attribution standards most newspapers hold. Now people in the NFL have gotten comfortable with that kind of reporting and they don’t want to be identified in their quotes – if they are they get chewed out or worse. There’s so much money at stake that it’s become the normal mode – people aren’t going to go out on a limb and risk losing their job. ESPN can get away with it – we can’t. But our editors are coming around – they understand that if we don’t adapt we’re going to get beat unless we learn to work within the confines of modern pro sports.

Q. Are you a lifer at the Times-Pic?

A. I love it here. I feel like a New Orleanian now. This is by far the best newspaper I’ve ever worked at – there is tremendous talent in the newsroom. I was inspired by our work during the storm. We won two Pulitzers – I was part of that coverage and I feel a bond with a lot of people in the newsroom. I feel compelled to continue to cover the Katrina story. It’s a fascinating story – a great American city was devastated and broken and we’re putting it back together again. I’m not sure another story I’m going to come across is going to be that important and that rich – I want to continue covering it. But if another opportunity comes along I’m open to bettering myself, although I’m not looking for anything. Covering the NFL was a great experience – a great challenge. I had never covered anything of that magnitude – it prepared me to be the journalist I am today. After six years I was ready for another challenge. This role I have now is perfect – I can do in-depth reporting and take my time and sink my teeth in and challenge myself as a writer. That was difficult to do on the NFL beat, which is high intensity and high pressure. We need to expand as journalists or we stagnate.

Q. What should we know about Jacquimo’s?

A. I must have taken dozens of reporters there. If you’re not from here you wouldn’t know to order the alligator sausage cheesecake – it sounds horrible and it’s at least 10,000 calories but worth every one. Jack Leonardi, the owner, knows how to treat customers – they’ll bring you a free dish just to let you sample it. It’s the epicenter of the Jazz Festival – they’ll seat people on the sidewalk and it stretches down to the Maple Leaf. They seat people in the back of the pickup truck out front – I’ve seen two or three marriage proposals take place out there.

During Eagles-Saints playoff week I took Les Carpenter (Washington Post), Jere Longman (NY Times), Sam Farmer (LA Times), Ohm Youngmisuk (NY Daily News), Benjamin Hochman (Times-Picayune), and Ashley Fox (Philadelphia Inquirer). Sam goes with me every time he comes to town. A lot of the NFL reporters who come in on Saturday end up at Jacquimos and the Maple Leaf – it doesn’t get any better than that.

I always urge out-of-towners to get out of the French Quarter. Go uptown to some of the smaller clubs and restaurants.

(SMG thanks Jeff Duncan for his cooperation)

LIVING

Desire without end ; Its school building flooded, its neighborhood destroyed and its student body scattered, a 9th Ward ministry regroups a world away from home and finds hope in a high school football season.

Jeff Duncan Staff writer

4135 words

11 December 2005

Times-Picayune

01

English

© 2005 The Times Picayune. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights reserved.

NICEVILLE, FLA. — It’s a typical sight on an October night in Louisiana: a group of coaches leading a high school football team into battle.

But nothing is even remotely typical about this night, or these coaches, or their players, or the school they represent.

They are a New Orleans school, but they are driving to the game from their new campus at Camp Timpoochee in Niceville, Fla., five hours away.

To prepare for the game, they have had just one week of class and one full practice in pads, on a potholed, unlined field that is better suited for sack races than football.

En route to the game, the team caravan has to stop at a sporting- goods store to buy helmets for some of the players, and maroon T- shirts for the coaches.

Before heading to Porter Field at St. Martin’s Episcopal School in Metairie to face the Crescent City Christian School Pioneers in their first game of the season, the team makes one more stop: Desire Street Academy, a fledgling New Orleans school for 7th- through 12th- grade boys.

It is their school, an offshoot of the Desire Street Ministry, in the heart of the 9th Ward and founded by Mo Leverett in 1990 to serve the impoverished, crime-ridden Desire-Florida neighborhood. Now it is in ruins.

On this night, on the way to their first game, the members of the Desire Street Academy Lions are seeing their decimated building, and their devastated neighborhood, for the first time since Aug. 29.

After the tour, they board the bus quietly and head to their game across town.

“They had to see it,” said assistant coach Mickey Joseph, a former standout athlete at Archbishop Shaw High School. “I think it helped them start to appreciate this place a little more, knowing they’re not going back anytime soon.

“They know they’re not going back now.”

. . . . . . .

When Leverett planned the construction of Desire Street Ministry’s new school building five years ago, he did so with its rough 9th Ward neighborhood in mind.

He knew only too well that windows were an invitation for trouble in the crime-ridden Desire-Florida area; a few years back, a bullet crashed through the glass door of his back patio and rattled around the floor just feet from his wife and daughters.

Flying bullets and thrown rocks wouldn’t threaten the students inside Desire Street Academy. Leverett fortified the walls in the new building with stone and concrete and included only a few windows in the 36,000-square-foot fortress.

Figuratively and structurally, Desire Street Academy was built to withstand any hell that impoverished urban life could deliver.

Any hell, that is, except high water.

On the morning of Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge tore a 50-foot-wide breach in the floodwall that stretches from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River and protects the 9th Ward. The force of the current lifted train boxcars and 18-wheeler trailers at the France Street rail yard and deposited them a football field away.

The Desire Street Academy‘s plush $3 million complex, two blocks northwest of the breach on the west side of the Industrial Canal, was directly in the path of the onrushing floodwaters.

Water burst through the gym windows, poured over the basketball court and eventually rose past the first seven rows of bleachers.

When Leverett returned to the building to survey the damage a month after the storm, he found a dead crab in the parking lot and half a telephone pole resting on the stage in the gym.

The contents of his office had been tossed on the floor like toys in a kid’s playroom. In the next room, a wooden bookcase had punched through a wall in the office of Danny Wuerffel, the former Heisman Trophy winner and New Orleans Saints quarterback who now serves as the school’s development director.

In half a day, Katrina destroyed what Leverett and his staff worked 15 years to build.

. . . . . . .

Katrina scattered Desire’s faculty and students across the country.

Leverett, most of the staff and several students evacuated to a Presbyterian church camp in Jackson, Miss. Wuerffel, wife Jessica and 22-month-old son Jonah, whose Lakeview home was destroyed by the 17th Street Canal breach, worked their way to his parents’ house in Destin, Fla. School Principal Al Jones stayed with family in Baton Rouge.

Most of the students, however, did not have the means to evacuate, and they fought for their lives in the swamped city. Some wound up stranded on rooftops. Some huddled with the masses in the Louisiana Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, or waited for buses on Interstate 10.

Gathered with staff at the camp in Jackson, Leverett anguished each time his cell phone rang.

“I was getting calls from these kids in the Superdome and Convention Center saying, ‘Coach, get me out of here,’ ” Leverett said. “Everybody was fending for themselves and doing as they saw fit. (One student) was scared. He was literally losing his mind and begged me to do something.”

Leverett called Wuerffel and board members to plan a rescue mission. They told him the city was off-limits. The National Guard would not let them in.

“Some of the kids were highly dependent on our ministry,” Leverett said. “Our school had become more than just a place to go to before these kids went home to be with their families. We had become their families.”

Leverett and Wuerffel made a commitment to keep the ministry afloat.

The next morning, Wuerffel woke before sunrise, went to the neighborhood church in Destin, sat at a piano and quietly played an old hymn:

In every high and stormy gale,

My anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, his covenant, his blood

Supports me in the whelming flood.

On Christ the solid rock I stand;

All other ground is sinking sand.

“I must have played that song for an hour straight,” Wuerffel said, “singing and crying.”

. . . . . . .

One of the kids Leverett and Wuerffel worried about was Deangelo Peterson.

Peterson stayed behind with family to ride out the storm at their apartment on Bullard Avenue in eastern New Orleans.

A wiry 6-foot-3, Peterson is built like an NFL wide receiver, with sinewy arms, long legs and massive hands that belie his 16 years.

Peterson’s preternatural frame was vital on the Tuesday after Katrina, when high water surrounded his second-floor unit in the Wind Run apartment complex.

“The water was rising,” Peterson said. “And it kept rising.”

Using every inch of his frame, Peterson propped his nieces, ages 7 months and 3 years, above his head and waded through the chest- high water to the safety of a nearby hotel. He returned to rescue his mother, his sister and an aunt.

“I was a little bit scared, but I knew I could walk through the water,” Peterson said.

The group survived at the hotel for three days, with minimal food and water, before military troops rescued them by boat and took them to the Convention Center.

Three days later, officials took Peterson and his group to Louis Armstrong International Airport, where they slept on the ground for a night before being evacuated to a shelter in San Antonio.

Desire Street officials found Peterson by sending a local pastor to the shelter with a bullhorn to call out his name.

. . . . . . .

Heath Davillier, a bright-eyed eighth-grader with an infectious smile, waded through chest-high water from his home on Bienville Street and headed toward the Superdome. He couldn’t make it.

“The water was nasty, and it was up to my neck,” the pint-sized 14-year-old said. “I had to carry my bag over my head to keep it dry.”

Deeper water blocked their path to the Superdome, so the group of eight found their way to an Interstate 10 ramp and tried to make their way across the Crescent City Connection. Halfway across, an RTA bus picked them up and dropped them at Worley Junior High School in Westwego. They stayed there for three days, sleeping on the gym floor and subsisting on a diet of granola bars, fruit cups and water.

Three days later, a relative picked them up and took them to Baton Rouge, where Heath re-connected with Desire officials.

“I couldn’t wait to get back here,” said Davillier, a point guard on the Desire basketball team. “This is where all my friends are, and I knew I would get a good education here. They try to help you as much as they can here. This is like my family.”

. . . . . . .

Day by day, other students began to surface. The school opened an administrative office in Atlanta. Officials established a “people locator” database on its Web site and sent staffers into shelters with Desire Street Ministries T-shirts to locate evacuees. In other spots, they asked church volunteers to post fliers with the ministry’s phone number and Internet address. Wuerffel used his media connections to make appearances on TV and radio.

“We needed to resuscitate our school,” Leverett said.

One by one, the lost were found. Some were as far away as Kansas City, Mo. Most were in Texas. On a three-day reconnaissance run through east and south Texas, a group of coaches rescued 47 boys, picking them up in passenger vans borrowed from local churches.

Students in more isolated locations were flown in on private jets whose cost was donated by supporters. Some used frequent-flier miles of board members to fly commercial.

In the end, the staff located almost 75 percent of the school’s 192 students. The whereabouts of about 30 are still unknown to the school.

“The way those kids were calling, we knew we had to go get them,” said head football coach Byron Addison, who, along with his coaching staff, helped organize the bus run. “It was all on them. They wanted this.”

. . . . . . .

On Oct. 3, the academy re-opened its doors as a boarding school on a donated patch of peaceful countryside in the Florida Panhandle.

Camp Timpoochee sits at the end of a narrow dirt road on the outskirts of Niceville, hidden among a thicket of oak and pine trees along a bluff overlooking Choctawhatchee Bay. Once a playground of the Euchee tribe of American Indians, the area known as Stake Point is a favorite of artifact collectors, who still find remnants of pottery along its sloping, sandy beach.

First and foremost, Timpoochee is a 4-H camp. Deer roam the woodlands, dolphins play in the bay’s warm, shallow waters and box turtles creep along the forest paths.

“This is not normal for any of us,” said Jones, a native New Orleanian. “But we’re still Desire.”

To function as a school, though, Timpoochee needed work. During a few frantic weeks in late September and early October, a transformation took place.

Desire Street staffers worked with contractors to enclose an outdoor pavilion and create a set of classrooms. They converted log cabins into dorms. They cleaned and reorganized a cafeteria, a recreation hall and a handful of wood-paneled administrative offices.

“I like it so far,” Peterson said. “It’s fun. You get to hang out and sleep with your friends. It’s like college.”

And like college, hijinks are common. Eighth-grader Eric Green said he and his friends are fond of late-night canoe excursions in the bay. On a recent Sunday night, Jones happened upon a midnight pillow battle being waged between cabins. He discovered the sortie when he noticed “a big white blob” moving across the darkened courtyard.

“We’re still learning as we go,” Jones said. “This is new to all of us.”

Still, as idyllic as Timpoochee is, it’s not home. Other than the presence of an outdoor basketball court, it has little in common with the students’ former homes. For all the problems the Desire- Florida neighborhood has, for most of the students, it’s all they’ve ever known. And many are desperate to go back.

“I want to go home, too,” Jones said. “We all want to be in New Orleans. We’re just going to have to tough it out. If we can get through the transition stage, we have the perfect opportunity to train the total kid here.”

. . . . . . .

Desire demands a lot from its students. The school day runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The college preparatory curriculum remains unchanged at Timpoochee. Students are tutored in English, math, science, arts, music, physical education and Bible study. There are also elective courses in construction and culinary arts. Study halls are conducted nightly. Cornrows and braids are prohibited. Students must stay to the right at all times when walking down hallways. Cursing is strictly forbidden. Lights-out is at 10:30 p.m.

The discipline and structure are vital at Desire, where more than two-thirds of the students are raised by single parents or extended family members.

Deep-pocketed donors provide partial sponsorships for the majority of students because few can afford the $6,000 annual tuition. Sponsorships are determined by need (income and family size) and merit (academics, citizenship, athletics and parental participation). Each student’s family is required to pay or work for $500 toward the tuition amount.

Before the storm, Desire’s enrollment was a healthy 192, a nearly 300 percent increase from its original 70 in 2002. The goal was to increase to 240 in 2006.

Katrina derailed those plans. It decimated enrollment and plunged the academy into debt.

The ministry’s board of directors has tapped its national pool of supporters. Assistance has poured in from across the nation.

The University of Florida, where Wuerffel starred in the mid- 1990s, donated $50,000 from pay-per-view proceeds after the Gators’ game against Louisiana Tech.

Larry Arrington, dean for extension at Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, offered the use of Camp Timpoochee.

An Atlanta area church recently donated $66,000 to buy a new bus.

On one October night, a local family dropped off a television set that wasn’t being used at home. A couple of hours later, a truckload of desks arrived.

Three rooms at the facility are overflowing with school supplies, backpacks, clothing and linens.

And yet, it’s not enough.

The demands of operating a boarding school have stretched the ministry’s resources and 50-person staff thin. Staff members’ work schedules had to be re-structured to comply with U.S. wage and labor laws. Counselors were hired to assist the staff and help them cope with the stress. More “dorm dads” were added to supervise the boys overnight and give the beleaguered staff a break.

The school’s expenses have increased four-fold, Leverett said. The demands have forced Leverett and Wuerffel to spend the majority of their time on the road in fund-raising efforts.

“We’ve had to raise a truckload of more money,” Leverett said. “We’ve got a lot of challenges to survive as an organization.”

. . . . . . .

Despite the hurdles, school officials felt it was imperative to revive the District 10-1A football program.

Football is an integral part of the school’s mission, as indicated by its well-pedigreed staff. Leverett was a kicker at Tennessee-Chattanooga and an assistant coach at Carver High School. Wuerffel was the 1996 Heisman Trophy winner while at the University of Florida and a fourth-round draft pick of the Saints in 1997; he played six seasons for the Saints, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins. Principal Jones was a standout defensive end at St. Augustine High School and Tulane University, and coached at Walker High School. Joseph, the offensive coordinator, was a star quarterback at Shaw High School and University of Nebraska standout. Head coach Addison prepped at Carver and played collegiately at Grambling State University.

“After all that they’ve been through, we owed it to them to play,” Joseph said. “These kids have worked so hard to get to this point. This is what they wanted.”

The Lions arranged to play an abbreviated schedule of games back in Louisiana starting Oct. 10, only days after their new equipment arrived.

They made their official LHSAA debut against the Crescent City Pioneers in uniforms that were rescued from high shelves in Addison’s flooded-out home two days earlier. Their nifty helmet decals with the block “D.S.A.” and Lions logo had not arrived yet, so the players played in plain black helmets.

At the opening kickoff, one assistant was still peeling the “XL” sticker off his just-purchased “coach’s shirt.” Water coolers and marker boards would not arrive on the sideline until midway through the first quarter.

On the Lions’ first play from scrimmage, they lost a fumble and one of their best players when running back Byron Weber injured his knee.

On the next play, Crescent City rambled 25 yards for a touchdown. Fourteen seconds into their season, the Lions trailed 7-0.

From there, it only grew worse. Two more quick touchdowns gave the Pioneers a shocking 20-0 first-quarter lead. The margin grew to 35-6 at halftime.

Bankrupt of confidence, the Lions’ play and attitudes devolved in the second half. They played two snaps with 10 players. They jumped offsides and were penalized for delay of game repeatedly. They fumbled twice, threw three interceptions and nearly snapped the ball over the punter’s head and between his legs on consecutive attempts. Players argued with each other and talked back to coaches. One player threw his helmet into the fence behind the team’s bench. Another tried to pull off his shoulder pads and quit on the spot. Another broke down in tears.

It was a startling contrast to the promising start of the Lions’ season. Four days before Katrina, the Lions had defeated Abramson High School in their jamboree. Back in the spring, they had tied St. Bernard (12-12) and Douglass (6-6).

By the time it was over, Crescent City had drubbed the Lions 50- 14. In the hectic rush to schedule the game, school officials forgot to arrange for post-game shower facilities. So the players and coaches boarded the bus for the five-hour ride to Niceville dirty and defeated.

They arrived back at Timpoochee at 5:30 a.m.

. . . . . . .

The season got worse before it got better. Off the field, some students left the program and came back; others left for good. Enrollment, which started at about 80, had decreased to less than 70 by the time the first academic quarter ended in late November, prompting the administration to begin accepting students from its waiting list, which numbered into the hundreds before the storm. The school opened its doors to about a dozen new students for the second quarter.

On the field, Desire lost to St. Charles Catholic 47-12 and then to Fisher 45-6. In their first three games, they were outscored 142- 32 and produced more penalties and turnovers than points.

“There was considerable digression in the four weeks after the storm,” Leverett said. “(The players) have had to deal with so much. The bottom line is emotionally there was a very thin layer of capacity to deal with disappointment. They spun out of control when they had to deal with adversity. It was a more difficult experience than I realized.”

Essentially, the Lions had become sacrificial lambs. Each game required a 10-hour round-trip bus ride. The home crowds grossly outnumbered their smattering of staff and students in the visiting stands.

But the team played on, and in the manner of the best Hollywood movies, its perseverance was rewarded. In its final game of the season, Desire Street defeated Ridgewood 36-8.

“It was one of the best sporting events that I’ve been a part of,” said Wuerffel, who guided Florida to college football’s Division National Championship in 1996 with a 52-20 win against arch- rival Florida State in the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome. “It meant so much more than just winning a football game to these kids.”

. . . . . . .

Leverett hopes to make Desire’s mission more manageable next year. He’s in the process of purchasing a church facility on 24 acres in Baton Rouge, where he plans to run the school next season while the 9th Ward is being rebuilt. Officials hope the Louisiana location will help them attract many of the displaced students who couldn’t make it to Florida.

“Our school is a very important school in our city and in our state,” Leverett said. “I think it’s highly important that we preserve Desire Street Academy. It’s addressing what was at the heart of the problem in New Orleans in many ways. It’s the only one of its kind. It’s desperately needed.”

Environmental contractors have cleaned the old facility in the 9th Ward. The building is structurally sound and salvageable, Leverett said. The Desire-Florida neighborhood, however, faces a more uncertain future. Leverett said he wants to become a catalyst in the area’s redevelopment.

Time is not on Desire’s side. The ministry’s lease at Camp Timpoochee expires May 20.

“I’m not entirely sure how it’s all going to shake out,” Leverett said. “But I remain committed to the goals of our ministry. Hopefully, we can be a launching point for the rest of the neighborhood.

“I miss New Orleans like crazy. I’m in a nice place on the Emerald Coast. I can ride my bike around the neighborhood and not get shot at, but it still don’t feel like home. The 9th Ward of New Orleans, that’s where my heart is. I can’t shake that.”

No one knows for sure when the 9th Ward will be ready for Desire’s return. Like so much else in New Orleans, its future is clouded by uncertainty.

Only one thing is certain: The experience of being away has changed the people at the school.

“It’s been difficult,” Leverett said, “but in the end we’ll look back on it and say it was worth it. We kept something going that is extremely important during one of the worst tragedies the city has ever seen. In the absence of families and resources, we made a difference.”

. . . . . . .

For more information about the Desire Street Ministry or to donate funds and supplies, call (866) 633-0070 or visit www.desirestreet.org
.

Staff writer Jeff Duncan can be reached at jduncan@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3405.

Caption: TOP OF PAGE: Robert Kelly sweeps the porches of his cabin at Desire Academy’s Niceville, Fla., campus. Students are responsible for keeping their cabins clean. [1840901] Biology teacher Daniel Ballard shows off examples of marine life at his new classroom near the beach. ‘The kids love this stuff,’ Ballard said. ‘We talk about guy stuff in here.’ [1840895] The Desire Academy Lions pause to pray after their first game of the season against the Crescent City Christian School Pioneers, delayed five weeks by Hurricane Katrina. [1840888] The Desire Academy Lions practice as the sun sinks into a faint glow over the campground that serves as their temporary school. [1840909] The frustration is apparent on DSA player Jonathan Rochon’s face when the team struggles in its first- game. [1840883] Members of the St. Charles Catholic Comets offer words of encouragement after trouncing Desire in the team’s second game. [1841862] A Desire Academy student walks to practice from his cabin at Camp Timpoochee 4-H Center in Niceville, Fla., a setting very different from the school’s 9th Ward campus. [1840912] In the cabins at night, Rosha Washington checks his cell phone for messages from home as Darwin Pechon, center, and Jarred Micken look on. [1840919] Jeremy Armstrong gets some one-on-one tutoring from his geography teacher, April Vandergriff, while his classmates joke around behind them. [1840910] Six feet of flood water engulfed the Desire Street Ministries and Academy building in the 9th Ward. [1840866] Mo Leverett looks over family photos and mementos inside his flooded home at Desire Street Ministries. [1840850] Desire Street Academy junior Jonah Leavell heads out from the equipment house for afternoon practice at the school’s makeshift Florida campus. ‘We kept something going that is extremel

Born: 1964, lousiville

Ecuaiton: ufnir of louarive, 1986, communicaoins

Favortite restaurant home; jacquimo’s. “I live four or five blcoiks form there – quitnetessineal NO restuarnt – I must hav etaken doens o rfreproter sthere – I nevourge erporetrers to get out of frenc uarter and got to nhd bars – wher eyou get esesne of NO”

Alligator sausuage cheesecake – if youre not from here hyou would ntorder =-sound shofrible – they bring you free dish – it rie dit and fell in over with it – 10k calories – that ciuaght my eye – know how to trea ttheir customrer s- always odi something like that – epicent during jazzfest – seat people along sidewalk – stretches downt o maple leaf – seen two or thre proposals in back of pickup truck out front – they sea tpeople there – Jack Leonardi, the owner

back in sprotrs now july

everybody was news ereroter after storm stayed on until july pereosnl lsoses needed h3elp, good expeiroence

came back as special projects reporet on staff

my whole backgorudn wa ssprots started out, first job was courrerr journal – from lousiveille – part time there – then got part time at stpete times Hillsborough country,

new-star Monroe, sports 1989 – 96

editing stint at flordiay today in sports, 96-98

then back into writing at Nashville sports weekly, had the titans, 98-99alternative weekly sports seciotn, got me back int o writing, big carer gamble, tom squire had hired me at floriday today, then at picayune in 99, LSU beat from august to jan , Saints beat in 2000

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