- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

It is a season-long road trip thanks to the most expensive natural disaster in American history. The Tulane football team is in the midst of an odyssey in which it will play its 11 games in 11 cities. All the while, the team is based 250 miles from its New Orleans home.

The Green Wave roll into a game at Navy today carrying emotional and physical scars. Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, they have been housed at Louisiana Tech in Ruston this season. Tulane’s schedule includes a “home” game there and in four other Louisiana cities — Shreveport, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Monroe — as well as one in Mobile, Ala.

“We’re not sure where we are going to play next,” Tulane coach Chris Scelfo said. “We are just taking it one day at a time, and figuring out where we are going to play this week.”

The Green Wave have a 2-5 record and bring a four-game losing streak into Annapolis. However, football has been a pleasant diversion while allowing the players and coaches to temporarily escape their real-life issues. Many of their families’ homes were destroyed and four coaches lost their homes after the levees on Lake Pontchartrain broke.

“The main thing is that everybody’s families came out alive,” said Scelfo, in his seventh season at Tulane. “It has taken a toll on the players. On the other hand, we feel fortunate to have each other. We’re alive. We have a lot of things that a lot of people down there don’t have.”

The Green Wave’s exile began on Aug.28 when they evacuated New Orleans, expecting to leave for a few days and then return to resume preseason on campus.

They are still waiting.

The team initially went to Jackson, Miss., before moving to Dallas and working out at Southern Methodist. It moved to Louisiana Tech the week before its rescheduled season opener on Sept.17. While the fall semester was canceled at Tulane, the administration decided it would not suspend sports. It felt athletes could carry the banner and spirit of the university through the adverse conditions.

“It was very important to play,” said Joe Traina, a center from Coral Gables, Fla. “It was extremely important for all of us seniors and for the future of the program. It would have been really bad if we didn’t play.”

Athletes were sent to five different schools to attend classes and play sports.

And getting back on the field provided a sense of regularity in an anything-but-routine situation. Quarterback Lester Ricard transferred from Louisiana State with hopes of keeping up the tradition of standout quarterbacks at Tulane. His two predecessors — Patrick Ramsey (Washington Redskins) and J.P. Losman (Buffalo Bills) — were first-round draft pick now playing in the NFL. Ricard’s home in Denham Springs, La., west of Baton Rouge, suffered minor damage.

“It was almost a relief,” said Ricard, whose girlfriend, Linda McEachrane, is on Tulane’s swim team, now based at Texas A&M.; “Football was the way some of us used to know that things were getting back to normal. Some guys weren’t as concerned about football because they kind of felt other things were more important. As a whole, people were just happy to be back playing football.”

Not surprisingly, it has been a difficult season. The Green Wave lost the opener 21-14 to Mississippi Sate in Shreveport before putting together a two-game winning streak over SMU and Southeastern Louisiana. The start has been tempered by the four-game losing streak.

Perhaps the most difficult defeat was last week when the Green Wave led 26-12 in the third quarter before losing 27-26 to Marshall in Mobile. It was an all-too-familiar story line for Tulane, which has remained close until late in games.

“We have been on the cusp of having a good season,” said Scelfo, who took over after current Clemson coach Tommy Bowden led the Green Wave to a perfect season in 1998. “I think travel has taken a toll and [so has] all the emotion. At first, we were playing on adrenaline. Now, the reality of the situation has sort of set in.”

Traina, a fifth-year senior who has finished business school and is working on his master’s in accounting, admits the displacement and taxing schedule have been tough to overcome. The NFL hopeful has not returned to his apartment six blocks from Tulane, but a friend sent him pictures where “the first floor was pretty much gone, flooded.”

The center, who plays alongside his twin brother, left guard Matt Traina, will get his master’s degree a little later than expected — after a summer session in June.

“We don’t want to use what happened to us as an excuse,” the six-foot-3, 285-pound lineman said. “We want to prove we can play and win through adversity. We have been through a lot, but we are still focused and have a lot to play for.”

Scelfo said he altered his approach slightly and is more sympathetic, spending more time with players individually. While many coaches get off-kilter at the smallest distractions, Scelfo has thrown most of his timetables away — so long as practice starts on time.

“Let’s control what we can control,” said the coach, repeating his mantra. “And that’s academics, practice and our behavior. They are doing everything right. There is no complaining. No one wants to win more than us. These kids are special.”

Scelfo was in a particularly positive mood earlier this week and plans to leave a pair of tickets for President Bush because “I would love for them to come see the kids as well as Navy.” The commander in chief may have other plans, but there is no place the Green Wave would rather be than another faraway stadium on their wayward journey.

“In the scheme of things, we are a football team and people in New Orleans lost a lot more than we did,” Joe Traina said. “We’re just happy to be able to play football, hopefully provide a little diversion and show that things will go on.”

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