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Football can give much-needed lift to Gulf Coast

Popular sport can provide opportunity to look forward to something familiar

You stare at the television for hours, days now, transfixed by the images of people being snatched up by helicopters from rooftops, of folks scrawling desperate notes for cameras on news choppers saying that the person trapped on the roof is diabetic and time is of the essence. You see the devastation and despair in Louisiana and Mississippi and figure the last thing in the world you ought to be thinking about is . . . football. But if you listen closely to the people in despair, to the people who have lived in those flooded streets and know intimately what matters down around the Gulf Coast, and you realize football is a good thought, that anything that might bring joy for even four hours to people in for such a long haul is a very good thing.

It is one of those times, political analyst James Carville reminded me yesterday, that sports helps people remain sane, even hopeful, especially when there's no light, no fresh water for drinking or a bath, when there's no food and for some the only clothing they own is what they're wearing. Yes, sports. In Louisiana and Mississippi, sports equals football. There's no Major League Baseball anywhere in the gulf region. Pro basketball reappeared last year, in New Orleans, but it has no cultural foothold. It's about football, about junior varsity games on Monday, junior high games on Thursday night, high school games on Friday night, Pee Wee games on Saturday morning, and of course, big-time college games on Saturday. It's where people commune, where they check on each other's children, where they revel in neighborhood accomplishments and console people when their mamas and daddies pass away.

Carville, who grew up in Carville, La., and graduated from Louisiana State undergrad and law school, said, "Anybody who can't understand what football means to us doesn't understand what the heck goes on down there."

Cancel the games? Please. That's somebody else's notion, the sentiment of folks who think they know everything looking in from afar and revealing that they know nothing. Carville has the LSU schedule memorized, as he always does. Arizona State comes into Baton Rouge on Sept. 10 and Tennessee comes in two weeks later, on the 24th. Carville's voice was flat earlier in the morning when he talked with Tony Kornheiser on the radio, and earlier in the telephone conversation we had in the afternoon. The images on television have worn him out, understandably. Carville has been on the phone since Monday morning, fielding bad news from back home, from his sister in Slidell whose house was completely washed away. The only time he sounded like himself, which is to say animated, was when I asked why football would matter at a time like this.

"It's unbelievable what LSU football does to the psychology of the state," he said. "If they play well on the 24th [against Tennessee] it'll go a long, long way toward building back the morale of the people." Carville believes it could be the most meaningful sports event the state will see in many, many years, maybe ever given the months of despair ahead.

Carville isn't off on some island in his assessment. My next-door neighbors and dear friends, Hans and Sabrina Weger, grew up in Mississippi. They graduated from Southern Mississippi, where Brett Favre played quarterback. Sabrina's family and Favre's family, to the best of my knowledge, worship at the same church. Favre lost the house he grew up in to the hurricane. Sabrina, her family having evacuated, had no idea whether her parents' house survived. Tuesday, she rented a U-Haul and set out to buy as many generators as she could before driving down to Hattiesburg.

Hans, when he's not working, watches television. He was going to the Southern Mississippi-Tulane game Saturday, just as he flies or drives from Bethesda to almost every home game every year. But that's been rescheduled, much to his shock. He lived for more than 2 1/2 years in New Orleans but his heart is in Mississippi, in Hattiesburg and Jackson and along the Gulf Coast; he lived all over the state growing up. "People are in the dark," he said. "They can't watch TV. To get a game on a Friday or a Saturday . . . do you know what it would do for people? The sooner we can get it going again. . . ."

Hans played at Deer Creek High School in Arcola, Miss. In six years, I've never heard him say a kind word about Mississippi State nor Ole Miss. Only Southern Miss. But it's different now. "If Ole Miss or State would win a string of games, it would do so much for the Gulf region," he said yesterday. "And James Carville is so right about LSU and what it would mean to Louisiana if they could have a great season. It's that time of year, and it's in the fabric of the communities there. It's everybody's way of life. It's where we get together.

"Remember," he said, "we're talking about most people having no insurance. They've got little more than a shack with water and electricity. They're working for minimum wage. There's no nest egg. And not everybody is lucky enough to have relatives to live with. It's not Washington, where in far more cases people have the wealth to absorb the loss. Down there . . . How long will it take to build a house? Where's the money going to come from?"

Nobody is suggesting anything will take away the pain of the devastation wreaked by Katrina, not when people who still have homes will be without power for perhaps two months, not when relatives are sleeping six or eight to a room and kids are having to share sandwiches. In times such as these, Carville and Weger are saying, people want at least a little taste of something that makes them feel good for a little bit. And down around the Gulf, that thing more often than not is football. Four of the highest-profile players in the NFL, you could argue, are from the Gulf region: Favre, Peyton Manning (and his brother Eli), Marshall Faulk and Steve McNair. Favre told reporters on Tuesday that McNair was calling him in Wisconsin, hoping Favre had heard good news about the McNair family.

Unquestionably, it's going to be more difficult on the players from Louisiana and Mississippi (and, for that matter, Alabama) than any others players in the NFL, which begins play a week from tonight. But the players from the Gulf region, who have walked those flooded streets and been in those destroyed buildings, know that as August turns to September and as people smell the freshly cut grass at the field down the street, very few things will serve to comfort the region they call home.

The power is off. Theaters could be flooded. The games might even have to be moved from Friday and Saturday nights to afternoon because there's no power for the stadium lights. But afternoon football, even if the joy is short-lived, would be better than no football. In fact, maybe football, or just the opportunity to look forward to something familiar, to something comfortable, is better than anything else coming their way.