Benefield: In echoes of Katrina, words of hope for Middletown
Three pairs of shorts, three shirts and three pairs of underwear.
“That’s all I had,” said Cass Hargis.
Hargis was a 17-year-old high school senior and captain of the Holy Cross High School football team in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina drowned his family home just outside of New Orleans, drowned his school in the Lower Ninth Ward and drowned just about everything he owned in this world.
So when I called Hargis in Gentilly, La., last week and told him about the deadly Valley fire in Lake County and asked if I could talk to him about recovery and rebuilding after tragedy, he paused.
“We know a thing or two about that,” he said.
I asked Hargis, now the baseball coach at his alma mater, if he had any advice for the students at Middletown, scores of whom lost their homes but who made their way back to school last week. He paused again.
“They are not alone. At all,” he said.
And then he said something else.
“It gets better,” he said. “At some point, they’re going to look back at this time in life and almost be grateful. It opens your eyes, shows you what is important and what is really not.”
Hargis and his younger brother played football for Holy Cross, an all-boys Catholic school founded in 1879.
After Katrina, Hargis evacuated from his Meraux home to Bossier City, 340 miles north of New Orleans, then to Dallas, then to Natchitoches, La., then to Loranger, La., where the family moored an RV and called it home for months.
But before that, Hargis had stopped in Natchitoches (think “Steel Magnolias”) and enrolled at St. Mary’s School. He even joined the football team. Then his phone rang.
“When Coach Wilson called, it wasn’t, ‘Are you coming back to school?’ It was, ‘If we get a football team, are you coming?’ ” Hargis said. “If we would not have had a football team, we would not have had school.”
“Football is king down here,” Hargis added. “If you put a football team on the field, it showed everybody else we are still here, we are still alive.”
So for what seemed the millionth time in just weeks, Hargis packed his bags again.
Ask the coach, ask the admissions director, ask the team captain at Holy Cross and they all say the same thing. If the football team had folded that season, a century-old school would have folded right along with it.
“It was just to keep us in existence,” said Barry Wilson, the school’s head football coach in 2005 and now its athletic director. “The kids needed that, the competition, to play, to look forward to something other than the misery that was going on around them.”
It was the same thing I heard from Middletown High principal Bill Roderick. I called him in those frightening early days of the fire to ask him about his destroyed home, about school, about recovery. Roderick, a former football coach, kept turning the conversation to sports. Maybe it’s because I’m a sports writer, but I think it’s more likely because Roderick, like Wilson and Hargis before him, saw the lifeline sports can give kids. The lifeline sports can give a community.
When the Middletown cross country team showed up to the Viking Opener at Spring Lake Regional Park on Sept. 19, seven days after the Valley fire erupted, it was unclear what they would wear, let alone how they would run. But after the tragedy, showing up was more than half the battle.