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December 1, 2005

LSU thrives after tragedy



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ATLANTA - JaMarcus Russell couldn't get away from the misery. Certainly not at home, where some 20 hurricane survivors took refuge in his two-bedroom apartment. Fats Domino was among them, the guy who sang "Blueberry Hill" and "Ain't That a Shame" reduced to a homeless man snoozing on Russell's couch.

"I was just trying to make sure everyone had a place to sleep," the LSU quarterback said. "It was kind of hard walking around every now and then."

They're all gone now, scattered in different directions, trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. But for Russell and his teammates, this remains a season that changed their lives forever. And one that could still produce a championship.

On Saturday, No. 3 LSU will go for its third Southeastern Conference title in five years when it takes on 13th-ranked Georgia (9-2) in Atlanta.

The first game under new coach Les Miles was called off with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast.

The following week, as their campus filled with evacuees from the flood-ravaged Big Easy, the Tigers were forced to play a "home" game in Arizona. The next week, with another storm roaring into the Gulf, LSU's actual home opener was played on a Monday night instead of Saturday.

Through it all, LSU ignored the distractions, pulled together as a team and provided a bit of salve to their wounded state with a 10-win season that was an overtime loss away from being perfect.

"It definitely seems like a long, long year," said Andrew Whitworth, the anchor on the offensive line. "This will be one we'll always remember."

In a way, LSU has been an anchor for all of Louisiana, the one thing that provided a sense of hope when everything else seemed hopeless.

The state's two-major league franchises, the NFL Saints and NBA Hornets, fled from flood-ravaged New Orleans and set up shop in neighboring states, with no guarantees on when they might return. The venerable ol' Sugar Bowl looked at the devastated Superdome and had no choice but to move to Atlanta.

The Tigers stayed put, showing a side of college athletics that usually gets brushed aside amid the stories of wayward players, overzealous boosters and win-and-all-cost coaches. The players were a visible part of the recovery effort, from taking in those who needed a home to handing out food to the hungry.

"I don't envy that team at all," Georgia defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. "Housing guys in their dorm rooms, giving back to the community. It just shows the type of student athlete we have in college these days. There are unselfish guys who would give you the shirt off their backs."

Maybe even more important, LSU somehow managed to keep its focus once it put on the pads, strapped up the helmets and trotted on the field. Except for that overtime loss to Tennessee, the Tigers (10-1) fully lived up to the pre-hurricane expectations for their talented team, even when they had every excuse for failure.

Asked if there was anything in particular he'll take from this season, Whitworth couldn't break it down to one moment. The storm was too enormous, the devastation too immense.

"The way the guys handled it. The character the guys showed during that time. All the things we were able to do in our community. The way we represented our state by the way we played. The way the guys took adversity and made something out of it," Whitworth said. "That's what I'll remember most about this season."

Not to mention the lessons that will last a lifetime.

"Before this happened, we always talked about a football team being a big family, which you are. You're together a lot. You have to learn to get along, have fun, hang out," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "Then, with all the things we faced during the hurricane - family missing, houses gone - it really drew the team even closer together. We really did come together to become one big family. We learned to rely on each other."

Georgia knows it's facing a team that won't crack at its first sign of trouble. With all the Tigers have seen, a dropped pass here or a missed tackle there won't seem like the end of the world.

"There a level of respect there," Georgia cornerback DeMario Minter said. "They faced adversity and came through. That says a lot about that team. They rallied around each other, and now they're playing for the SEC championship."

Of course, the Bulldogs will be lot less sympathetic once they step on the field. They have no intention of handing over the SEC title just because LSU has met so much adversity.

The Tigers understand. In some respects, they've already been rewarded with a new outlook on life, the sort of clarity that wouldn't have been possible without the tragedy that was wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

"It almost seems like we can't get away from it," Whitworth said. "We did what we needed to do, and hopefully guys will continue to do what they need for the state and the areas that were affected, do what they need to do as human beings. It's not a big deal to tell people the story of how we lived during that time, to stress to other people how they should help out and give a helping hand."

The kind that Russell gave when Fats Domino and all those other people crowded into one little apartment.

"I'll never forget," the quarterback said, "the way we got through it. We were not going to let other things get us down, no matter what."

For more coverage of the LSU Tigers, check out TigerBait.com.


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