The Thunder and the Hurricane

By  |  May 10, 2016
 “Colorful Ball” (2010), by Donald Baechler “Colorful Ball” (2010), by Donald Baechler

In August 2005, when the levees broke and New Orleans filled with water, our family split into uneven halves: my husband, Malcolm, went to live in Baton Rouge and work with the governor’s recovery team, and I took our son, Andrew, to Houston for his fall semester of tenth grade.

Andrew’s friend Blake lived with us those four months. His parents were in the middle of a bitter divorce—in and out of family court—when the storm hit, and Blake and his father were on the outs. Blake’s mom, Wendy, stayed back in New Orleans to work, living with her parents because her house on Porteous Street had water up to the roofline.

I was in a Houston Target returning Blake’s leaky air mattress when Henrik, the coach of their Lakeview soccer team, called me on my cell phone.

Henrik had evacuated to his in-laws’ in Gulfport, to a house they figured was a safe distance from the Gulf, but he’d ended up in water that rose quickly to his shoulders. He’d had to feel his way for the stairs to the attic, where his wife and their children waited.

“I’m glad you’re here to talk to me,” I said.

“Do you think we can put the team back together?” he asked, because I was the manager.

The Lakeview Thunder players were Under-16s, and they came from all over the New Orleans area. Andrew had texted with most of them to see how they’d come through.

Jake lost his home on Flamingo; Andy and Keller lost their homes in Lakeview; four players lived in St. Bernard and their houses had floated off the slabs; Charles’s house on the bayou filled with black mold; the homes of Pierce and another player called Waggy sustained water damage; Colin’s house in Mandeville had been crushed by a spinoff tornado; Will’s house Uptown didn’t flood and neither did ours because we live on a ridge, but three blocks away from us people reported eight feet of water.

Henrik had heard from five players. I could account for Blake and Charles, whose mom had also moved into our apartment complex. With Andrew, that made eight.

“Find three more,” Henrik said, “and we can do this.”

I sent out emails. Some had moved to Dallas, some to Atlanta and Phoenix. The St. Bernard families had relocated across the lake, a forty-minute drive each way to the practice fields, but close enough, I thought. We were all struggling with loss, and it felt good to work on something set in the New Orleans future. By December enough players had been found to field a team, with one sub.

“Only twelve?” Blake said.

“That’s playing every minute,” Andrew said. “You can’t find more?”

“Can you?” I asked.

Players would need replacement uniforms, new shin guards and cleats. Henrik ordered equipment bags and soccer balls and orange cones. The Thunder’s fields hadn’t been soil-tested for lead poisoning, and we didn’t yet have a place to practice.

But Andrew, Blake, Jake, Charles, Andy, Keller, Pierce, and Will were coming home. Also, Waggy. And our tallest player, Colin. We were getting back two players from St. Bernard: Scottie, our wily, street-smart fullback, and Guy, the heart of the defense. And we transferred in a new player named Craig, also from St. Bernard. He came from a large family who homeschooled and was a year younger. With him playing up, we had thirteen.

 

The year before, the Thunder had played for the U-15 state championship against New Orleans Soccer Academy, our archrival. The game was held on a blazing hot day on LSU’s soccer field, an SEC facility with perfect, smooth grass.

Andrew always played attacking right mid. On the field he was rowdy but with a cautious streak. Blake and Colin were strikers. Blake’s nickname was Mighty Mouse, because he was a fierce five-foot-three. Colin was a beanpole, loitering at the post to punch in headers. Jake was our flashiest player, sometimes scoring off a chest volley or a bicycle kick. Will, right mid, was wiry and fluid, a worldly kid from Uptown. Keller, keen but also a loose cannon, played right fullback. Andy was tireless, mild-mannered, and the cigarette smoker on the team, a habit he shared openly with his father. He and Scottie played left and right wing. Guy was our stopper. Pierce was our curly-headed and affable keeper. The team captain was Charles, defending center mid, and the Thunder’s most physical player. It seemed he was laid out once a game and players had to take a knee. He never heard footsteps, or pulled a punch, literally. He was the one who got into the most fights.

The championship match went into two overtimes and was so intense that Charles got carted off on a stretcher, dehydrated, clammy, and the color of limestone. The outcome would be decided by a shoot-out. Normally, Blake would’ve gone first, but he was out with leg cramps so Andy stepped up to the penalty mark.

He was even smaller than Blake, with light blue eyes and olive skin. He made the sign of the cross and drilled the ball into the back of the net. The parents jumped to our feet, cheering. Jake, our leading scorer, went next, but his shot sailed over the crossbar. Then Andrew. His dad and I watched, terrified. But he chose right, the goalie guessed left, and Malcolm and I could breathe again. Pierce blocked NOSA’s first two tries, and their third attempt hit the crossbar. Keller came in and hung the winning goal cleanly in the top corner of the net. Malcolm and I pounded our feet and shook the stands, yelling our heads off, grabbing each other’s arms. “We won! We won!” Henrik bolted across the pitch, but the team got to Keller first, dog piling, and then the boys stripped off sweaty jerseys to celebrate bare-chested. Charles spent the night in the hospital.

The win meant the Thunder would go to regionals, which, in spring 2005, were played in Texas. Our first match was against a powerhouse from Florida, the Boca Juniors, who had their own website with player profiles, stats, and highlight clips. Our players had studied them online, learned their names. The Boca Juniors had two players on the U-16 national team. Another one was six-foot-five, with tattoos. When they took the field in Frisco, our sons looked like they wanted to ask for their autographs. We got beat, mercifully, by only four goals.

 

In December the Houston semester was over, and Malcolm and I rented a U-Haul to bring home the furniture and housewares, the clothes and books we’d collected over those four months. My family felt the relief and guilty discomfort of returning to a perfectly dry house. When we walked back in, Andrew found his t-shirts on top of the washer, folded and clean, where he’d left them. In St. Bernard, Guy had found one of his t-shirts a block from where he lived.

Blake reunited with his mom. He wanted to see what had happened to his house, but Wendy couldn’t bring herself to take him. It was the place she’d rented after leaving his dad: a cozy, yellow cottage on Porteous. I’d been by once, seen the framed photographs of her two sons, the pillows and afghans that made it home.

So Andrew and I drove him there. The front door had been left open by the military.

I had seen the inside of destroyed homes only on the news. Inside Blake’s I felt like a rubbernecker. I wanted to look away, respect his family’s privacy. Dried mud had rendered the inside gray. A wing chair was stuck on the staircase; the kitchen table had floated into the living room. Mold furred the walls, the counters, the family photos.

“Oh, fuck,” is all Blake said. If he’d been with his mom, they could have cried together.

He and Andrew picked their way through the mess, while I waited in the front hall. Our home could’ve looked like this, I thought, and what would I dig for? Same as everyone: the tchotchkes, the photo albums bulging with pictures developed at those olden-days drive-thru places because you were in a rush to have proof of where you’d only just been. How do you let go of what can’t be replaced?

Blake picked up some dirty trophies. “Besides these, the only thing I have left is the stuff I brought when we evacuated.” He wanted to save his older brother’s letterman jacket but it was too grotty. We stayed twenty minutes. The sun was setting and we had to leave. “I never liked that couch anyway,” Blake said, taking one last look.

Outside, his grandparents had parked their Crown Victoria in the driveway because they’d heard we were taking their grandson back in; they knew he’d be hurt and wanted him to ride home with them.

The house’s owner had already scheduled a demolition.

 

In February 2006 we picked up the pieces of our season. Again we were a traveling band of groupies, following our sons. The Thunder parents held every kind of job: Jake’s mom sold cloud beds to patients with open wounds and terrible burns; his dad worked at Baptist Memorial, where forty-five people had died—he’d been stuck there with his eighty-year-old mother for days. Charles’s dad sold lighting; Will’s parents were both lawyers; Andy’s dad was a lawyer, too, and his mom was a nurse—they were divorced but still sat together and treated each other like family. Keller’s mom worked in marketing and his dad moonlighted as an illustrator; Pierce’s parents owned a restaurant downtown that made the best bread pudding in the city; Guy’s dad was a financial advisor and his mom taught elementary school; Scottie’s mom was a banker and his dad was known as a daredevil who could do a standing back flip. Waggy’s father sold flooring; Craig’s dad counseled teenagers, and not long after Katrina he got elected St. Bernard’s parish president. Colin’s mom had started medical school; his dad owned an energy company. That spring, they got divorced and sat away from each other. Malcolm ran a PR and marketing firm and I was working on a short-story collection.

The parents returned to our old soccer duties. Jake’s mom booked motel rooms; I scheduled games; Charles’s mom paid the refs. Pierce’s parents were in charge of calling local restaurants, win or lose, to see if they could take a party of forty.

Our first game was against Pensacola, a team we usually beat, and we played it in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. We took our places. Jake’s mom and dad sat where they always did, on the halfway line. I found a spot beside Wendy, and we talked about Blake and the Houston exile. I tried to describe her son’s poise, considering all he’d lost, and her eyes filled with tears. The St. Bernard families grouped together again like they always had. Keller’s mom, Terry, darted around, hugging everyone. “I got my social life back,” she said.

Almost every one of us was fighting with insurance companies and waiting on grants, living in FEMA trailers or in houses crowded with relatives. Our losses were so profound and equalizing that no one complained, but you could see the strain on faces. Andy and his brothers and his dad had recently taken a crowbar to the walls of their home, knocking it down to the studs. Jake’s parents didn’t trust that the Flamingo lot wouldn’t again flood, and they’d moved to Wren, a different bird street in Lake Vista. The St. Bernard people were clannish, and they’d started a new colony in St. Tammany, far away from the Gulf, that became known as St. Tammanard.

Some of the dads crossed the field to set up the team tent and stake the Thunder banner. Pierce’s dad kept Henrik’s young son busy by showing him how to catch bees in a water bottle. Andy’s dad shared his gargantuan bag of peanuts from Sam’s. Malcolm was the unofficial Thunder team photographer, roaming because it made him less nervous to watch the game through the lens. We parents couldn’t kick a ball straight, but we could line the side of the field and notice every touch, tackle, pass, and fast break, yelling out support.

But the season the Thunder came back together was also the season that players started to get high before practice and played games hungover. We had feared our sons would drink in high school, but not this early, and we lectured them but didn’t know how to turn back the tide. We all drank more after Katrina. As the Pensacola game raged on, Henrik yelled at players to press and cover, but most of them were ragged, green in the gills. Andrew looked half there. When a defender came in hard on a tackle, Andrew, fallen, protested from his butt, jawing with the ref to get the call.

“Get up and play through,” Malcolm shouted from where he stood. He took a seat next to me. “I’m not taking pictures of this.”

Guy wasn’t hungover. When the ball came into his third of the field, he cut off the point of attack. But he could only carry so much of the game. There’s no place to hide in soccer. Honestly, we looked like a rec team. A few shots on goal were taken, but they didn’t go in. The final score was 2–0. The parents were disgusted. “What the hell is wrong with you?” we asked our sons. “You’re state champions who look like bums.” But what they’d really done was kick parents who were already down. And what was Andrew’s excuse? They got their butts kicked by Pensacola because some were still drunk from a sweet-sixteen party the night before.

Henrik didn’t single out the offenders. After the game he made everyone run laps until they puked. He cursed at them in Danish. Something that sounded like “Saa-taan!” Andrew thought it meant “shit.” Pierce thought it meant “goddamn.” Jake thought it meant “fuck,” but fuck in Danish is “kneppe” and the word that sounds something like fuck means “darn it.” “Saa-taan,” it turns out, means “Satan,” plain and simple. It’s the devil’s name the Danish take in vain.

“Who are you?” I asked our son on the ride home. “It’s not like you lost your house.”

From then on, Henrik stepped up fitness at practice. The players could show up high or hungover, but they’d suffer. Henrik made them do ladders for footwork and clamber up and down the ten-foot grass levee. He’d been a national youth player in Denmark and was still in shape. He ran with the boys and set the tempo. They hated fitness, but they lived to scrimmage—to play on the field with Henrik, who ran circles around them. Now, the losers had to sprint box to box, twenty times.

The players saw their parents as adults without answers. They’d seen their fathers cry; they worried about their mothers, who looked tired and depressed. And while it seemed like the teenagers exploited the parents as we put life back together, we wondered what part of their bad behavior was because of Katrina and what was just sixteen-year-old boys growing up in a town that flaunts open containers, daiquiri drive-thrus, bars that never close, all in the name of civic pride? Laissez les bon temps roulez.

 

On an overcast weekend in March, the Thunder played two division games in Jackson, Mississippi. The parents took our seats in a stadium usually used for football, which felt auspicious and more like a performance. Like we’d come to see the show.

The first game was against MS United. We scored early, a goal fired into the net by Blake, and everyone cheered the good beginning. Our sons had shown up clearheaded and ready to go, chafed by the games they knew they shouldn’t have lost. You could see the teamwork, the way they leaned on each other because they were Katrina kids, but when they stepped between the lines, they were also talented soccer players. And that was what we loved: to see ourselves, competitors, represented by our sons—except we could never run continuously for two forty-five-minute halves. We commented that day about how players resembled parents: Blake, short and blond like his mom; Andy, with his mother’s startlingly light eyes; Jake, with the moppy head of hair his bald dad used to have. Andrew held his shoulders back at attention, just like Malcolm, a Vietnam vet.

The Jackson parents were pounding their feet on the bleachers, shaking us all. They cheered our players’ mistakes and pressed their sons to come in harder. The game was chippy from the get-go.

In the second half, we overheard one of their players say to one of ours, “Why don’t y’all swim home?” We couldn’t believe our ears. Who says that? A fight broke out on the field. The refs separated players. Malcolm ran over to the Jackson parents and told them to go fuck themselves.

“At least we have houses,” one of the Jackson moms heckled as he walked away, before the referee kicked her out of the stadium.

We lost that game but won the next one against Jackson FC. The play was even rougher than usual, and we weren’t getting calls. We were all still on edge waiting for more Katrina trash talk. Though this team kept its mouth shut, it seemed like our opponents brought with them a dislike for us, and for New Orleans. And maybe there was an element of privilege we felt, having lost so much. We expected to win, because life needed to balance things out. We expected interest and compassion for what we’d endured, but the Jackson parents left without saying a word.

 

Toward the end of the season, we played a makeup game against Lafreniere, a suburban team. It was a spring night in April, thick with humidity and mosquitoes. Henrik had a scheduling conflict so another Lakeview coach stepped in.

Our two teams had a history. Blake and Pierce had defected to Lakeview from Lafreniere, and their sweeper had once played on our team. The game was tense from the opening kickoff, Charles and the sweeper exchanging insults. Keller was mixing it up with the Lafreniere parents, who thought he played dirty. At some point he told them to get fucked and was served with a red card by the Hispanic ref. Keller got in the ref’s face, called him a spic, and our substitute coach physically pulled Keller off the field.

Meanwhile, Charles had picked the sweeper up and thrown him on his back. Three of their players jumped on Charles. Will and Scottie rushed over, followed by our bench. Andrew ran in, too, but it looked like an afterthought. He got punched in the back of the head. Scottie got in a few licks—three, he remembers. Will got clocked with the goalie glove and needed stitches above his eyebrow. He still has the scar.

The ref and the linesmen couldn’t regain control, and the game was called, with the Thunder forfeiting. Days later, the association assigned red cards and Lafreniere got two when we thought they should have had five. Lakeview received four—for Andrew, Will, Charles, and Scottie—plus Keller’s from earlier in the game.

Malcolm and I had seen our son fight with his mouth, but never with his fists. Why did he jump into it? Maybe he saw a chance to be part of an epic brawl. He’d always been a careful kid who vicariously loved the rough boots, the unruly players, not the primpy Ronaldo ones. As Roy Keane of Manchester United, who would famously lose his rag, once said: “Aggression is what I do. I go to war. You don’t contest football matches in a reasonable state of mind.”

If Henrik had been at the game, would he have allowed things to get so carried away? I think he would’ve screamed “Saa-taan!” at the ref. And he would have removed Charles from the field early, calmed him down, and made sure he was reset before putting him back in, because—without beating their brains in with lectures and groundings like parents do—he was trying to teach our sons how to control themselves.

92 Ehrhardt Baechler1“Two Balls (Diptych)” (2010), by Donald Baechler

 

The prelims and State Cup would be played on consecutive weekends in Lafayette, off the Carencro exit, on wide, bumpy fields we knew well. Henrik had asked the parents to drive in the night before to make sure the boys didn’t go out.

It was late May, clear and hot. The soccer complex was spread out over hundreds of acres, and the fields had not a spot of shade. Like usual, the dads set up the team tent and staked the Thunder flag. Little and big sisters and brothers came along to plump up the cheering section. Andy’s dad brought his peanuts, and his fishing pole because he knew of a bayou close by. Scottie’s dad popped off a standing back flip for posterity.

Our season had been spotty. We parents were never sure which Thunder was going to show up—the addled, hungover team or the clearheaded, well-rested one. At the motel the night before the prelims, Henrik had played the boys a video of themselves winning the 2005 state championship to remind them of who they were. But so much had happened that wasn’t understandable—their hometown, destroyed; their possessions and houses, gone; a tragedy being played out nationally that was local and theirs. Who were they now?

We won the first game against Shreveport, a team we usually beat, and our second game was against Lafayette Arsenal, the team that had recently knocked us out of first place in the state rankings. We wanted this win.

I don’t remember if we were winning or losing the game at the time, but someone on the Lafayette sideline said, “At least we have houses to go home to.” Andrew cupped his ear, goading the person to say it again. He turned to the opposing parents. “Yeah. Trailers,” he said. Not his finest sally, but it’s what he had. One of the parents flipped him off. Jake’s dad, usually quiet, stood up. “Fight with your feet,” he called to our team. And in this game, something changed. Our sons didn’t take the bait; they kept their heads down and played.

We still lost, in the end, but we advanced to State Cup as a wild card, and that night we celebrated at Prejean’s. The boys ate trays of boiled crawfish and pasta for carbs at their end of the table, and at our end the parents ate delicious plates of jambalaya and étouffée and sautéed fish and drank wine and beer. It was my birthday and a cake with candles showed up. All season the parents had never given up, but with our team’s record we hadn’t quite expected to advance.

 

For State Cup the next weekend, the soccer association let us add two players from our pre-Katrina roster who had finally come home. Four of our players served out their first red card from Lafreniere; Colin was serving out a red from the Lafayette game for a hard tackle. I filed paperwork and met the refs to point out the offenders, dressed in street clothes. They had to sit away from the team in a tent, more a pride palace than a penalty box. Malcolm took a photo of Keller, Scottie, Charles, Andrew, and Colin, who is pointing to the RED CARD TENT sign, his legs crossed in a jaunty pose.

We played Mandeville in the semis with nine and won when Blake’s shot squibbed through their keeper’s knees.

For the championship game we would again face NOSA. Charles predictably got into a fight in the first half. Both players were red carded and removed from the field. In the second half, another NOSA player was red carded, and the game finished with their nine players against our ten. Craig, the quiet fourteen-year-old outlier from St. Bernard who was playing up, kicked the winning goal, on an assist from Colin, and our sideline erupted with joy and surprise. Goals are rare and beautiful, a finishing, but assists have their own elegant, selfless poetry—the fed-in ball to the open man.

The Thunder had beaten enough of the competition, and for the second year we were state champions, but this time we’d done it the gnarly way, by winning games, some of them in spite of ourselves. The parents danced and hollered and hugged, because this win was for the ones who’d come back, and also for the ones who couldn’t, for those who still hadn’t come home. Henrik and the players rushed the field to jump on Craig, our unexpected hero.

 

That year, regionals were played in North Little Rock, Arkansas, over seven days in late June and early July. Families took their own cars because many would go on from there to summer vacations. Andrew and I drove up together for the opening ceremony, and Malcolm—busy with clients—planned to fly in the next day. We got lost in northern Mississippi.

“I screwed up,” I said.

“We’re fine, Mom,” Andrew said. “We have time.”

The mistake put us three hours off track, but I’m never in a rush when I’m with Andrew. He’s always where I want to be.

At the North Little Rock fields, the woman who was club manager for the Lakeview soccer program cornered me about disturbing, unsportsmanlike play she felt didn’t represent our club. “They need to show better self-control,” she said. “Easier said than done,” I said. She’d lost her home, too, but she wasn’t an aggrieved teenage boy playing a contact sport. Their behavior concerned me, but I also admired it, how our boys dug themselves a hole, served out their cards, and came back on the field, furious and fired up. I considered them courageous. I should have filed complaints against the out-of-town teams who’d used devastation as a goad, but there wasn’t a form for that.

We took our places. Moms and siblings crowded in under golf umbrellas. Most of the dads paced. Malcolm was across the field, taking photos of the team’s warm-up. Jake’s parents sat where they needed to, on the halfway line. Blake’s grandparents had made the ten-hour drive in their Crown Victoria; they took their places in lawn chairs, wearing sunhats, with Wendy beside them. Though I’d tried to explain it, she couldn’t know how strong Blake had been in Houston. How every day he’d awaken and toast bagel bites, rinse his dish, straighten the sheets on his air mattress, and do his homework, clicking into this alien routine. I teased him, called him my other son, but I knew he missed his mom. Some kids went through the dislocation feeling more alone than others.

Pierce’s father pulled his lawn chair to the far corner at the end of the field where his son was tending goal. Pierce had been a field player the year before and then to his parents’ dismay took to the high-risk, high-gain task of goalkeeping. His dad sat there to shag balls, but I think he wanted his son to know he was, in the immutable scheme of things, his final layer of defense.

Our second set of red cards had to be served in this game, and we played Alabama one man down with no subs. We won 3–2.

In the next game, we played the Arkansas state champions with all of our players available. “Shoot! Shoot!” the parents yelled. “Pull the trigger!” And then, “You waited too long!” Like we could’ve done this with an opponent pressing down, slamming into our legs, kicking at our ankles. Jake and Scottie scored a goal each and Colin scored two. We won that game 4–1. The parents jumped up, ran onto the field, and hugged our sweaty boys.

The last game of pool play would be against South Carolina. We were stunned at how well we were doing. Our postseason felt like a return to the confident, undamaged team we’d been before Katrina. We had only one more game to win and then we would advance to the knockout round. That night Henrik gave the boys a curfew of 10 P.M. and arranged for food to be brought in to the hotel.

I heard, years later from Andrew, that Henrik’s wife went down that night to Pierce and Andy’s room to take an order for pizza. She knocked and they were slow to answer. When they did, she saw that a white towel had been stuffed into the crack at the bottom of the door.

“I can smell what you’re doing in there,” she said.

She left, angry, and the players panicked. Except for Keller and Craig, the whole team was in the room. They had been trying to get Guy to smoke dope. Colin jumped in the shower to wash the smell off, frantically brushing his teeth with Waggy’s toothbrush. “My dad’s going to kill me,” he said. Andy thought chain-smoking would cover up the pot-smoking.

The blunt was cigar-huge, a beauty.

“We can put it out,” one of them said.

“That’s crazy talk,” said another.

The smokers finished smoking, and the watchers watched. Guy held out, and they all slunk back to their rooms and tucked into bed. Henrik and his wife went to dinner that night with the parents. They never said a word about it. To bust the players on the road while they were winning, with their buoyant parents in tow, would have hurt us all to this day.

At warm-ups the next morning the Thunder seemed to be all business, quick to the ball.

Henrik called Pierce over and asked how everything was going.

“We’re ready to play, Coach,” Pierce said.

Henrik pulled the players into a huddle. “You guys are in a serious tournament. You’re representing Lakeview and New Orleans, but, man, you make some bad decisions.”

He knew they’d played a truncated season, with an incomplete team, sometimes with no subs and exhausted. He was tired, too.

But his tyrannical fitness regimen had paid off. The Thunder beat South Carolina 2–0, when South Carolina hadn’t been scored on the whole tournament. The game was an extraordinary event where our sons played out of themselves. The year before, we hadn’t made it past the first game against the Boca Juniors. We’d driven home to New Orleans dejected. But this year the Thunder had advanced out of the bracket.

The next round was win or go home. We would play Andromeda, a powerhouse Dallas team that drew the best soccer players from a population base of millions.

We came out flat. “Come on, men!” Henrik hollered from the sideline. “You got this far!” But our capital had been spent. The Thunder’s season was soon over with a 3–0 defeat, though the parents breathed in the true victory: we’d survived a hurricane. Did our sons know they had been our stand-ins for a recovery that had barely begun?

Malcolm and I shook hands with the Dallas parents, and we thanked them for the kindness Texas had shown us when we lived there after the storm. We said we hoped to never have to return the favor, although next time a hurricane fills the Gulf, we will pray like we always do that it goes somewhere, anywhere, else.

That night at dinner in North Little Rock we toasted Henrik for being there at a time when the players needed him but didn’t know what to ask him for. He’d returned them to what they’d been doing the day before the hurricane: going through the paces of practice on a hot, clear August day. He’d shown them a way back to normal, and in doing this he brought along all of us.

 

In 2014, I contacted the players by email to ask questions about the 2006 season. They were twenty-four and finally ready to talk. Will, a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan, described coming home to fresh-cut grass and moldy soccer boots, and how great it felt to again play a game that was free and chaotic, but that was also precisely formed. Keller, a third-year law student, wrote that his teammates relied on him, and he needed that at a time when he felt hopeless and unable to help his mother through the crisis they were living daily. Guy, an environmental engineer, explained how good soccer players needed to forget mistakes and stay calm and smart.

And then in the spring, a few of them showed up to sit around my dining room table. There were handshakes and bro hugs. Jake now sells surgical equipment, Scottie is in medical school, Pierce works for an oil company, Andy’s pursuing his dream of being an actor, and Andrew was preparing to go off to grad school in London. Henrik and his wife drove in from Gulfport, where he’s a high school soccer coach. We ate pizza and drank iced-down Abita beers.

The room turned somber when we talked about Colin. He had just taken his own life. His family had asked that donations be made toward research on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some of the players had seen him on campus at LSU and knew he was struggling with voices. Even nine years later, they remembered a sick goal he’d made once from beyond the box, ripping it in the upper 90.

Blake has a job with a spirits distributor in Panama City and couldn’t be with us, but Charles Skyped in from Wyoming where he works in a ski rental shop. “So why did you pick that sweeper up in the Lafreniere game?” I asked, and the table burst out laughing. “I hated that fucking kid,” Charles said.

I thought they’d keep a highlight reel in their heads, but they’d gone on to play another three seasons together, and games and goals ran together. They talked about certain wins, and certain losses, and mistakes they’d made that hurt the team.

“Like red cards?” I said.

“We had rage, Mrs. Pia,” Scottie said. “What happened was unjust.”

“That right there,” Henrik said, “was the U-16 team in a nutshell.”

Katrina had sucker punched them, and they used soccer to fight back. The Thunder took pride in being known as bad ass. Inside each of them was a storm of grief, camaraderie, skill, and revenge. 

I asked if Katrina made them smoke and drink sooner, but Andrew said they’d been smoking pot since before Katrina. “Oh-kay,” I said. My question was out of date.

“We felt a responsibility to New Orleans,” Pierce said, “and to everyone who got their lives wiped out.”

Charles said, “Loyalty to each other was loyalty to the city.”

“Did the season feel like a movie?” I asked, and they brightened at the idea of their names in lights, then shook the fuss off.

“Even before Katrina,” Jake said, “we were a really good team.”


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Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, VQR, the Morning News, Guernica, the Nervous Breakdown, and Narrative. She lives in New Orleans, where she's a visiting artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Her website is justlivehere.com.