Bastrop, La., (pop. 13,000), is one of those gritty little towns burrowed into the Bayou where what you say and hear while sitting in church matters -- and where football, sometimes, matters even more.
That helps explain why it was recently the backdrop for one of the more compelling stories in sports.
"I don't know how many our place can hold," Bastrop High coach Brad Bradshaw said Thursday about the Rams' Class 4A semifinal against Minden, "but we'll have that many -- and plenty more."
That's because in the northeast corner of the state, it's being billed as a battle of good vs. evil -- with the Rams cast in both roles.
A bit of background:
In September 2005, not long after Hurricane Katrina quit churning, a town that was a five-hour drive away opened its arms to four dozen New Orleans-area kids and their families scattered by the storm. Four of those youngsters turned out to be very good football players and one, quarterback Randall Mackey, was exceptional.
Last December, with Mackey earning All-State honors and leading the way, the Rams won their first state championship in nearly 80 years. It was the first feel-good news in a town with a paper mill at its center that had been hemorrhaging jobs for years. The glow lasted until the end of August, when the state high school association ordered Bastrop to hand the trophy back.
Suddenly, what townspeople proudly called a helping hand, was called illegal recruiting by the association. And the punishment cut even deeper: Mackey and running back Jamal Recasner, another transfer student from storm-flattened Port Sulphur High, were ruled ineligible for the 2006 season, though the suspension was subsequently shortened to the first two games.
In front of a hastily arranged town-hall meeting on that sultry August night, Bradshaw stood up in front of the crowd and said defiantly, "They can take away that trophy, but they cannot take away memories of that season and that night."
Now Bastrop has a shot to get that trophy back, too.
"I'm telling the kids the same thing I've been preaching since day one," Bradshaw said over the phone. "Games are won and lost on the field by players, not by adults trying to mess everything up."
And Lord knows those adults tried.
The Rams have been greeted at road games with some not-so-subtle reminders of their recruiting sins, and on at least one occasion, collected more than their fair share of penalty flags. The first time they played rival Ouachita -- the school widely considered to have turned in Bastrop to the state high school association -- the refs called nine penalties against the Rams in the first half. Included was a holding call against Mackey, even though he was holding the ball at the time.
"He's a quiet kid," Bradshaw recalled, "but you could see the frustration level rising to the point where we had to take him out. There was a lot of chirping and stuff going on. I pulled him out, looked him in the eye and told him he had a job to do."
Two plays later, Mackey threw a 67-yard touchdown. His line on the day: 10-of-12 passes completed, five touchdowns.
The team has gone on to become even more of a rallying point this season than last and the games have come close to becoming an economic boon to the region.
"It wouldn't seem like much to big-city folks, but the restaurants fill up and the gas station is hopping for a few hours," Bradshaw said. "The games mean a few hours where people of different races and classes aren't living with real doubts -- their jobs and such -- and they have something to put their faith in."
That faith was tested briefly last week, when the Rams went back to Ouachita for a quarterfinal game and fell behind early, for only the third time all season.
But the Katrina kids repaid their adopted hometown one more time: Recasner broke off a big run, then Mackey started rolling up the passing yards and soon the only question was whether the two bitter rivals would shake hands afterward.
"They turned us in, there was a lot of tension and it already had turned ugly at the end of the game, so it was my decision to pull the team off without one," Bradshaw said. "I'll take the criticism that goes with it. These are 17-year-old kids and there's a hundred on each side. I'm not saying they or us were going to do anything, only that I was not willing to take that chance."
It wasn't the first tough situation Bradshaw and his players have faced.
"They just keep overcoming every obstacle in their way," he said. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given where they came from, but believe me there have been lots and lot of obstacles."