Ascension remembers high-school football post-Katrina

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
Giants safety Landon Collins excelled at Dutchtown after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Photo by DKMoon Photography.

It's been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, ravaged the Gulf Coast, flooded New Orleans and forced thousands of residents to flee from their homes as horror and uncertainty followed.

The wounds of despair are still very much open a decade later, and Dutchtown head football coach Benny Saia can remember them vividly.

"It was chaos," Saia said. "Our school was being used as a shelter for those that had to evacuate. A lot of them were staying in our gym. There were people everywhere. It was a very unique time."

Those displaced from their homes in the New Orleans area made their way throughout the state. Many went outside of Louisiana.

Ascension Parish ended up being one of the many destinations for those in need of shelter.

Coach Saia said that he remembers more than 20 new kids joining his program after the storm washed away their homes.

It was such a time of doubt. Some players stayed; others left. That uncertainty made things extremely tough on Saia and his coaching staff.

"It was a really tight rope because you have all these kids that have been part of your program all summer and have lifted weights and worked so hard and you don't want to just throw them aside as these new players join your team," Saia said. "We didn't even know if they would be staying or going, so it was a very awkward situation.

"But the kids did a great job of welcoming them. We had to really hustle to get them equipment and get them ready for practice."

Once the kids did get their equipment and began to thrive in a new home, it became quite the reward for their new family.

"It was a really good feeling," Saia said. "There were some kids that had lost their parents in the storm. We had all kinds of kids that had been through so much, and the community did such a great job taking them in and trying to bring back some normalcy. Every day, it was really like a dream; things didn't seem real at times. We were just trying to do our best to help."

There were quite a few standouts that were part of the displaced group that had to leave New Orleans.

Two of those players that came to Ascension Parish and enrolled at Dutchtown were future NFL stars Eddie Lacy and Landon Collins.

"Eddie was a freshman when he came to our program, and we didn't think he was going to stay," Saia said. "He left after that first year and went back to Helen Cox and lived with his coach, but there wasn't really anything there, so he came back."

Elizabeth Merrill detailed this in a great piece she wrote on Lacy in a 2012 ESPN The Magazine article.

She said that after making a trip to Beaumont, Texas, Lacy and his family "moved in with one of Wanda's (Lacy's mother) sisters in Baton Rouge--five families in a three-bedroom house. A few months later, they saw a housing program on the Internet about families willing to share homes.

"They signed up and were dispatched to Geismar, half an hour south of Baton Rouge, to live with Allen and Allison Walker, complete strangers."

Merrill said that Lacy became home sick after the year at Dutchtown and went back to his home in Gretna to live with his coach. But after his grades began to suffer, his parents brought him back to Ascension.

That's when Lacy started to get comfortable at Dutchtown. He quickly asserted himself on the football field.

"Our fullback Evan Laiche had also come from New Orleans at the same time as Eddie, and both of them ended up staying all four years. Of course, everyone knows that Eddie went on to play in the NFL," Saia said.

Lacy is now a Pro Bowler and has become the first Green Bay Packer to ever eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark in each of his first two seasons.

But Lacy wasn't the only New Orleans evacuee that went from Ascension to the NFL. Collins also ended up at Dutchtown in the wake of the storm.

"Landon was in the sixth grade when he came, so I didn't know him until a couple of years down the line. When he did get to us, he made an immediate impact," Saia said. "It took us a while to find out who he was, but once he was here, he walked in as a freshman and played. In his junior and senior years, we went 20-0 during the two regular seasons, so he made a huge impact on our program."

Collins went on to be an All-American at Alabama and was drafted 33rd overall by the New York Giants in the 2015 NFL Draft.

The legacy these two great players left will always be present in the community.

The storm took away their homes, but they found new ones in Ascension. The community welcomed them in with open arms, and the rest is history.