The Salmen High School football team played seven games last year, and lost them all.
By all accounts, it was the most successful season in school history.
Seventeen players suited up for head coach Jerry Leonard’s first practice less than three weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Salmen’s hometown of Slidell, La., 30 miles northeast of New Orleans, on the opposite bank of Lake Pontchartrain.
“This is south Louisiana and football is a big deal around here,” Leonard said. “It gave something for people to rally around. It gave people some hope that the school is going to come back and if the school is going to come back, then the community is going to come back.”
The fifth-year head coach recalled his first post-Katrina visit to the Spartans’ field house, where a water mark more than seven feet above the floor lined the walls.
“It looked like somebody ransacked the place,” Leonard said. “It was like it had been through a big washing machine with things thrown all over the place. It was a total disaster and a total mess, which is probably an understatement.”
The storm surge swept through the field house, leaving behind a six-inch layer of mud, scores of dead fish and snakes, and the school's sports programs devastated. All that was spared was a shelf stacked with football helments.
At the team’s nearby home field, winds exceeding 175 miles per hour toppled stadium fences and the scoreboard, and snapped six of the eight light towers.
The devastation at Salmen mirrored Slidell, as did the despair.
Slidell Schools Superintendent Gayle Sloan, however, knew that bringing athletics back into the community would help unite families linked not only by blood, but also by the black, white and gold colors of the Salmen Spartans uniforms.
“When we put it back in motion (on Sept. 19), we had families making decisions to return that were telling us they probably would have stayed where they were longer had it not been for their children wanting to return and be a part of that team,” Sloan said. “Following Katrina, more than ever, people were looking to connect with those kinds of tight bonds that they had because these kids were traumatized.”
Those bonds reached all the way to Chicago, to one graduate in particular who worried that the storm had stripped senior athletes of the chance to play their final season at Salmen.
“The first thing that I thought about was the seniors,” said Chris Duhon, who enters his third season playing guard for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Duhon, who attended Duke, is a 2000 graduate of Salmen. “This was their last opportunity to play and I just wanted to make sure that was possible.”
Duhon arrived in Slidell three weeks after the storm to help distribute truckloads of clothing, much of which he helped collect. His family had since moved to Baton Rouge, but his aunt remained, living in their former home in Slidell.
Katrina destroyed it.
“It was tough for my mom to look at it because it was really devastating out there,” Duhon said. “I don’t have a house or live there anymore, but that’s home for me.”
Most of the clothing that Duhon donated had numbers on the back. Through his partnership with Adidas, he took on the task of raising funds to replace much of the sporting equipment that was destroyed.
“Chris came through,” Leonard said. “It was a tremendous help.”
Leonard’s team, normally numbering about 80 players, added another 20 as the six-game anything-but-regular season played out. The Spartans qualified for the playoffs by default -- Salmen fielded the only team in the district -- and continued a playoff appearance streak that started in 1988.
Salmen and its supporters drove 300 miles north to play No. 1-ranked Bastrop -- and returned home winners, in spite of being on the short end of a 46-3 score.
"Our morale after that game was that we accomplished something that nobody thought we could do,” Leonard said. “Despite the record and the scores and everything else last year, we did some incredible things … We’d have kids come to practice covered in sheetrock dust because they had spent all morning gutting their homes.”
Mike Leland is Salmen’s athletic director, golf coach and facilities manager. He, too, spent mornings fixing up his home, and the rest of the day helping to rebuild Salmen's athletic program.
“I didn’t really realize how tiring it was until after it was over,” Leland said. “You look back and say, ‘Jeez, how did we do this?’ "
In addition to resurrecting the football program, what Leland and his staff did was help guide two Salmen swimmers to state titles, and lead the baseball team – which played its entire schedule on the road – to the district semifinals.
In some cases, players whose homes were destroyed found temporary shelter with teammates. Today, they all walk the halls of a temporary campus built just across the canal from the old site.
“Everybody uses the word ‘temporary,’ but I’m sure there are a lot of permanent schools throughout the state and everywhere that would love to have this facility,” Leland said.
Classes started two weeks ago, and enrollment is close to normal, Sloan said, following an 18 percent drop immediately following the storm.
Salmen will be rebuilt, this time 14 feet higher above ground, a nod to the Gulf Coast's hurricane vulnerability. Completion is set for the 2008-09 school year, Sloan said.
The Salmen Spartans open the season on Friday night with its first home game in two years against Northshore, a Slidell rival and special opponent.
A year ago, after it was determined that Salmen was damaged beyond repair, school officials came up with a unique plan for Northshore to do double duty: Northshore students would attend classes from 6:55 a.m. to 12:55 p.m.; Salmen students would attend from 1:25 p.m. to 6:55 p.m.
The Spartans practiced in the morning, before classes, and when they finally played the first game of what was to become a nomadic season, it had a profound effect on the neighborhood.
“What we were hearing was that people were desperately seeking some normalcy, and what’s more normal than a Friday night football game?” Sloan said.
On Friday night, Slidell will join Salmen and Northshore in another step toward reclaiming normalcy.
“Ordinarily, we’d see signs (at Salmen) like ‘Kill the Panthers!’ or ‘Crush the Panthers!” but instead, the cheerleaders are making signs like ‘We love you Northshore,’” Sloan said.