Benefield: In echoes of Katrina, words of hope for Middletown

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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.

Wilson knows that feeling well.

“It’s tough, but I tell you what, playing football kept me going. It gave me something to look forward to,” he said.

By the time Wilson came up for air after Katrina, his boys — members of a team that was picked to go deep into the state playoffs in Louisiana’s largest division — were scattered to the wind: California, North Carolina, Texas and all parts of Louisiana. So he got on his phone and started to reel them back in.

“I had a lot of families call and cry and say, ‘Hey coach, we’d love to come but we have to see this through,’ ” Wilson recalled. “It was a difficult time. I didn’t blame anybody.”

After all, Wilson, like Roderick, couldn’t go home either. He was staying with his brother-in-law in Baton Rouge.

Wilson couldn’t exactly sugarcoat his sales pitch. Holy Cross as it had been for more than a century no longer existed — six to 10 feet of muddy water had swamped the campus. So officials moved some 80 miles to the north in Baton Rouge and opened up temporary shop on a campus that ran per usual during the day and housed the Holy Cross students at night.

Football players practiced on a playground in the morning and showered at the YMCA. Those two-hour practices felt normal when the rest of the world did not, Hargis said.

The school mascot became the second-string safety. The student body president became the long snapper. Hargis commuted from a loaner RV moored in Loranger, La.

When the Tigers suited up against Ouachita High in Monroe, La., a month to the day after Katrina hit, the stadium was packed. The Tigers lost 27-7.

But Hargis remembers the packed stands, the faces he hadn’t seen since the storm — all there to see the Tigers play.

“I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it,” he said. “We didn’t win the game but just by being there, and showing up and playing people, we won.”

Holy Cross moved yet again that season, this time back to New Orleans in November where they continued to hold classes at night on another school’s campus. In the spring they moved into modular classrooms situated in the shadows of their former school.

Hargis and Wilson and admissions director Brian Kitchen laugh when they talk about the craziness they went through that school year. But there is a sprinkle of awe in their voices, too.

“Everybody that was at the school was going through the exact same thing,” Hargis said. “We kind of knew what everybody was going through.”

And coaches and teachers were in the same situation, facing the same day-to-day challenges.

“Everybody found a way to get it done,” Wilson said. “It all started because football decided to come back.”

Hargis now says the storm and the way his senior season played out were the best things that ever happened to him. The Tigers went 4-2 and lost in the first round of playoffs as a wild-card selection — a far cry from their preseason expectations. And through it all, Hargis had no home to go back to and didn’t even set foot in his old neighborhood until after the season ended.

And still, he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Us bringing football back? Getting everybody back? We knew that we were going to be OK,” he said. “We knew that somehow, because of what we just did, it was going to work out.”

When I talked to Roderick just after the fire, he couldn’t wait to get back to school, to get back to life, to get back to sports. He knew whom the Mustangs played next, when the next home game was scheduled. He couldn’t wait to see the Purple and Gold out on the field, making things normal for a while.

When Middletown suited up last week against Lower Lake, the emotions could have carried the day. The Mustangs won 21-0.

On Friday, they beat previously unbeaten Willits 43-8.

This from a team that started the season, pre-fire, 0-2.

And next Friday, for the first time since the Valley fire torched at least 1,280 homes and killed four people, the Mustangs will play a game on Bill Foltmer Field in the heart of Middletown. Just beyond the stands the scorched hills will be visible, but so too will the line drawn the night of Sept. 12, when flames burned just to the edge of the school’s athletic fields but were battled back by firefighters.

Some things can’t — won’t — be destroyed.

Welcome home, Mustangs.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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