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Saints Left in Storm Limbo

Times Staff Writer

Aaron Brooks peeled off his practice jersey, tossed it into a basket and grabbed some water. As far as football practices go, Monday afternoon’s was an unusual one for Brooks, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints.

While Hurricane Katrina pounded parts of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, Brooks and about 130 other members of the Saints’ traveling group practiced in the warm sunshine at San Jose State. They are locales separated by more than 2,000 miles, but it’s a distance much more difficult to measure.

“We’re here, but our hearts are definitely down there with all those people,” Brooks said. “It’s tough, there’s nothing we can do about it. We just have to hope everybody found shelter.”

The Saints arrived Sunday night on one of the last flights to be permitted to leave Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport, but not before the players and coaches made certain that their families had evacuated the area. With an exhibition Thursday night at Oakland against the Raiders, the Saints left two days earlier than planned in order to escape the hurricane.

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But after Thursday night’s game, the Saints’ travel itinerary is blank. They don’t know much about a lot.

They don’t know if they’ll be flying home to practice at their training facility in Metairie; they don’t know where they will prepare for their opener Sept. 11 against Carolina at Charlotte, N.C.; they don’t know if the Superdome, damaged in Monday’s storm, will be ready for their home opener Sept. 18; and they don’t know if they will be playing at an alternate site.

Besides the fact that he brought his wife, Chandra, with him on this trip, cornerback Jimmy Williams was sure of only one other thing:

“We’re all going to just get down on our knees at night and pray.”

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The Saints considered themselves fortunate to have found refuge for their families before being forced to leave New Orleans themselves, only hours before the deadly hurricane struck. The process was not without its taxing moments, such as when Brooks attempted to find a flight to Newport News, Va., for his mother, Catherine, and niece, Jalyn, only to find it canceled.

Instead, Brooks’ family flew from New Orleans to Cleveland to Newport News. But at least they got out of New Orleans, as did Brooks’ brother, Darrin, who drove to Jackson, Miss.

“It’s not a 9/11 deal, but it has the feeling of it,” Brooks said.

Meanwhile, the business of football goes on, even if it’s being conducted in unfamiliar territory, on a foreign field in Northern California instead of southeastern Louisiana. At least the Saints are veterans in the game of traveling practice sites. Last year, they flew to San Antonio for a week of practice when Hurricane Ivan threatened New Orleans.

Wide receiver Joe Horn said everyone on the team knows that what goes on between the lines is vital, even if it’s difficult to conduct business as usual right now.

“If we go to Idaho and practice in a potato field, we still have to be ready. It’s life, a part of this business we understand,” he said. “If I come out here unprepared and unfocused, I’ll drop footballs, so I’ve got to deal with this.”

Horn said his task is easier because his wife, Lacreshia, and his six children are safe in Tupelo, Miss. They left New Orleans on Saturday.

“It’s still a little scary,” he said.

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If the Saints don’t know whether their practice facility is damaged, neither do they know the condition of the Superdome, their 77,000-seat home field, used as a shelter by about 10,000 as the storm raged Sunday night and Monday morning.

Running back Deuce McAllister said seeing a damaged Superdome on TV was unsettling.

“I think it’s hard, not because of football, but because there are people inside,” he said. “You can always play a football game somewhere.”

The hurricane tore two holes in the roof of the complex, in an area of vents about 19 stories above the floor of the Superdome. Inside, surging water damaged elevators and stairwells. The stadium’s power failed at 5 a.m. CDT Monday.

According to a spokesman for the NFL, the league believes that the Superdome will be repaired in time for the Saints’ home opener on Sept. 18 and various options are being studied in the event it’s not ready, but neither the Coliseum nor the Rose Bowl are among them.

Saint Coach Jim Haslett, who sent his family to safety in Pensacola, Fla., said that remaining focused on football is not a simple task.

“We know our guys are concerned about their families, the city, their own property, not knowing when we’re going back, and when we do, what we’re going to see.

“I know it’s hard for them, but there’s one thing about the NFL -- there’s always adversity in this league. This is probably the highest form of adversity, and if we can handle this, we’ll be all right.

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“Our thoughts and our prayers go out to those who are left behind.”

McAllister, who was born in Lena, Miss., and went to college at the University of Mississippi, said his family drove to his hometown Saturday night. But even the knowledge that they were safe didn’t completely insulate him from the effects of the hurricane and its uncertain aftermath.

The Saints’ practice showed that everyone felt that way, McAllister said.

“It was a little slow ... obviously, there’s some anxiety,” he said. “Everybody is wondering what’s going on back home.”

McAllister stayed up until 3 a.m. to watch the developments on television and was back up again at 7 a.m.

In the meantime, there are more practices, then the Raider game, then, well, no one is quite sure. But McAllister said it’s possible that the hurricane might even wind up having a positive effect on the Saints.

“I think it’ll be easy to go out and play,” he said. “Look, some guys are still trying to win places on this football team. Once you’re on the field, you have to play the game. When you’re not, then you can worry about everything else.”

With that, McAllister walked over to a water cooler and tried to get his cellphone to work, but the 504 area code of New Orleans simply wasn’t coming up.

Brooks said the hurricane has taken its toll on the Saints, just like everyone else whose lives have been turned upside down by the storm. He covered his eyes from the sun as his teammates walked past him, out the front gate for a trip back to the hotel. Practice was over, but there was more to think about.

“I can’t say we were completely focused on football. Maybe tomorrow will be better.”

Times staff writer Sam Farmer and Associated Press contributed to this report.


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