While Ole Miss was playing Memphis down to the wire in a season opening win last Labor Day, a far bigger challenge was confronting several Rebel football players - the safety and welfare of their families and loved ones who were living through the terror of Hurricane Katrina.
Rebel head coach Ed Orgeron hired former New Orleans O.P. Walker head coach Frank Wilson as running backs coach early in 2005, and Wilson successfully recruited several New Orleans players who were on the Rebels' roster when the hurricane violently struck New Orleans last fall.
When the forecast of a hurricane headed to towards the Big Easy was made last September, many long time residents didn't really worry. They had been through several hurricanes throughout the years since hurricane Camille in 1969. But the experience of residents with previous hurricanes provided them with nothing like devastation that Katrina delivered.
While Ole Miss football players were focusing on their Labor Day opener with the Memphis, several Rebels had heavy hearts going into that contest.
"We were all worried all of our relatives and if they got out okay or not," Burnell Wallace said. "I lost all of my personal belongings, but I wasn't even thinking about my stuff. I was just concerned about my family. What was bad is that we couldn't get a hold of each other and I was sitting in Oxford not knowing if they got out of New Orleans or not."
Wallace and his family lived on the West Bank area of New Orleans, an area that fared a lot better that some of the other areas of the city.
"We had some water damage but nothing like some of the other guys on the team," Wallace said. "What was bad is that I didn't have many of my clothes because I just brought what I needed for camp. I was going down the next weekend to get all of my stuff, but it didn't work out that way."
One family that didn't fare so well was BenJarvis Green-Ellis' grandparents, David and DeJoyce Brumfield. The Brumfields have raised BenJarvis since he was a youngster and the closeness of the family is very apparent.
"We didn't miss a ball game when BenJarvis was at Indiana," his grandmother said. "We went everywhere with the team. We are so proud of him and so very thankful he is closer to us now at Ole Miss."
Green-Ellis signed with Indiana out of St. Augustine high school and saw substantial playing time for the Hoosiers as a true freshman and sophomore before transferring to Ole Miss after the 2004 season.
During a tour of the Brumfield home, the devastation that had taken place from the hurricane was apparent.
"We lost all of our personal belongings, the house filled up with water between waist high and knee deep," Mrs. Brumsfield recalled. "Anything that was high enough on the walls was the only things that were saved. That wasn't a whole lot. We got a trailer from FEMA in January and have been living in the front yard ever since."
While many may think the camper-sized trailers are suitable for a temporary residence, what most don't realize is that many residents housed in travel trailers, including the Brumsfields, are without electricity and phone service. Throughout their middle class neighborhood, all grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants remain closed.
"We have to drive five miles to get food and supplies," Mr. Brumsfield said. "We had to buy a generator to have electricity here and with the fuel prices the way they are, its very tough to run it all of the time."
Despite all of the adversity that the Brumsfields have been through, it hasn't stopped them from working on their home from daylight to dark every day, cleaning and gutting their home they were once so proud of.
"We worked hard for everything we had here," Mrs. Brumsfield said. "Now to start over at our age isn't very easy but we aren't giving up. BenJarvis will have a home to come back to whenever he needs it."
Green-Ellis is normally a young man of few words; however; when he talks about the losses he and his grandparents suffered in the hurricane, he his hard pressed to hide his feelings.
"At first, we didn't think it was going to be so bad," Green-Ellis said. "When the levee broke, it was all over. Thank the Lord that my grandparents got out the Saturday before and went and stayed with relatives in Tylertown (Miss.)."
Green-Ellis was another player that only brought the essentials in the way of clothes to fall football camp and was also planning a trip home to get all of his belongings the day after the Memphis game.
"I had very few clothes with me," Green-Ellis said. "Everything was lost - all of my pictures, trophies, clothes. We lost everything, it's hard to explain. I'm just thankful that my grandparents are okay. We can replace everything we lost. I don't know what I would have done if I had lost them."
The Brumsfields had allowed Ben-Jarvus to use the family mini-van to go back and forth to Oxford and that decision saved the van.
"We would have lost the van if it had been sitting in the yard," Mr. Brumsfield said. "It was good that it was in Oxford. We are still working every day to survive. We work on the house everyday, we have replaced the roof and myself and my wife are doing most of the work inside the house ourselves."
Green-Ellis also reflected on how he felt before the Memphis ballgame.
"It was very tough, I was mentally messed up," Green-Ellis explained. "We couldn't reach anyone, there was such a gas shortage. Some people we knew drowned in the flooding, but one thing about it, my grandparents aren't giving up on saving their home. I don't think people realize how bad it is down there."
With all the Brumsfields have been through it's not going to stop them from watching their grandson play for the Rebels.
"We will do everything in our power not to miss a ball game," Mrs. Brumsfield said. "It will be a lot tougher now but we will find a way to make it to the games."
Another Ole Miss player that was affected by the storm was defensive lineman Haywood Howard - an Ole Miss junior college signee in January was was playing at an Arizona junior college last fall. Howard's mother and three sisters lost their home in the new Desire neighborhood.
"A brand new home destroyed is the easiest way to describe our place," Howard said. "We lost everything. My mom and sisters have been living in a trailer and things haven't been easy. They lived without electricity for a while, it hasn't been easy."
Howard was scheduled to leave for an Arizona junior college the day before the storm hit, leaving him with only t-shirts, shorts and flip flops when he arrived on campus.
"I lost everything, we weren't able to save anything," Howard explained. "I spent two or three weeks at college with just the clothes I had on my back and a couple extra changes of clothes. We evacuated the day of the storm and made it to Jackson; we didn't expect everything to be gone when we got back."
Howard boarded a plane from Jackson and went to college leaving his mom and sister with facing what was back in New Orleans.
"That was the toughest thing I have ever had to do in my life," Howard said. "To leave my mom then, but she wouldn't have it any other way. She insisted that my education came first and that she would make it and she knew that I was only a phone call a way."
Howard makes trips as many times as possible on the weekends, working on cleaning up their home and trying to salvage anything possible.
"I go home as much as I can now to help out as much as possible," Howard said. "New Orleans will never be the same, I couldn't believe the amount of destruction that the hurricane left."
Howard's former high school, Carver High School was completely destroyed.
"Do you realize how many great football players that high school has produced," New Orleans parish athletic director Terrance Davis said. "It's unbelievable how many people were affected by this devastating storm."
While the families of Ole Miss players like Wallace, Green-Ellis, and Howard were affected by the hurricane, they are by no means the only players or coaches at Ole Miss that lived out the unkind act of destruction.
Wilson, along with then tight ends coach Matt Luke, who has family on the Mississippi gulf coast, as well as other players, such as Rob Russell, were affected by the storm in one way or another.
And while occasionally network news stories show the recovery progress in New Orleans, few reports show the ongoing re-building efforts by families like the Howards and Brumsfields.
To those families, football as been put in its proper prospective.
Editor's note: A special thanks to Terrance Davis who served as tour guide throughout the city and through ground zero. The tour of the city was eye-opening, the degree and amount of devastation was unimaginable, and was heart breaking to experience. As you look throughout the pictures beware some can be very disturbing. According to David Wells, NCAA Compliance Director for Ole Miss, anyone interested in contributing to a fund for Ole Miss Students affected by the Hurricane can still contact the Ole Miss Loyalty Foundation. More information including contacts for the Loyalty Foundation can be found here
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