East St. John’s players sit crosslegged on the floor of a mostly empty double-wide trailer, their helmets and shoulder pads shoved out of the way against a locker-less wall.
Their coach, Phil Banko, sits at a plastic table, the only one in the room. The players suit up and head outside to a field that lacks the typical setup of blocking sleds, lineman chute, jugs machine, garbage cans for walkthroughs, goalposts or even ropes for spacing.
You might not know by watching the scene, but the Wilcats are ready for practice.
This has become East St. John’s new normal after Hurricane Isaac buried the high school, which is in Reserve, in water at the start of the football season. The devastation has forced the No. 27 Wildcats, who are playing a first-round playoff game at No. 6 Airline on Friday night, to pull together.
“Before the hurricane we were a team,” East St. John senior quarterback Leonard Davis, a Tulane commitment, said. “Now, after all of that, we are a family. We are a band of brothers. It’s made us stronger.”
Davis isn’t speaking figuratively. Depending on the day, he has three to four teammates staying at his house, which escaped the storm without damage. Many of the Wildcats players aren’t as fortunate.
“We still have so many who leave here to go home to houses that are completely gutted out, without air conditioning,” Banko said. “There are a lot of people being denied by FEMA, and they don’t have the money to just start over right away.”
For days, the Wildcats players didn’t know if they would have a season.
“Guys were wondering if we would be able to go back to school and if we could get this thing started back up,” Davis said. “We really wanted a season, to play for East St. John. This is my senior year, and for us to play means everything to me and my teammates.”
Banko still remembers returning to East St. John High School early in September. The school, in Reserve, was completely flooded, a result of new levees designed to protect New Orleans funneling water into communities that haven’t flooded in the past. Water moccasins had taken over, and an alligator was swimming above the baseball field.
“It’s surreal looking back at it now,” Banko said. “It’s been a struggle.”
The Wildcats’ first game was cancelled, and the team almost didn’t play its second game. With cell towers down and landlines inoperable, Banko and his coaching staff used Twitter and Facebook to reach out to the players, who were scattered from different Louisiana cities to Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and even Tennessee. They arranged a meeting, which turned into a practice. A practice with no equipment at all, not even a football.
“We practiced that first day,” Banko said. “It was murderously hot, some of the kids didn’t have anything but flip-flops, but we practiced. It’s a tribute to our staff and these young men.”
The Wildcats’ journey has been tough. East St. John lost three straight to start the season and was 2-4 entering Week 8. Four starters didn’t return, and Banko’s offensive coordinator quit after Week 4.
The team’s daily routine is still awkward. With the high school unusable, students attend classes in two waves at Leon Godchaux Junior High — the first from 7 a.m. to noon (about 600 students) and the second from noon to 5 p.m. (about 400 students).
The football players all attend the first school platoon so they can practice in the early afternoon. Those who don’t have transportation have to wait until school is out at 5 p.m. to ride buses. With no weight room, the team lifts weights, which they have had for the past several weeks, outside on the field. Last week, the team participated in a film session for the first time this season.
The Wildcats refused to let any of those hindrances become excuses. Instead, they fought to finish the regular season with three straight wins, against Destrehan, L.W. Higgins and Bonnabel, to secure a playoff berth.
“These young men have done a wonderful job of persevering, being steadfast, and showing some true grit,” Banko said. “Now we are going to have to put all of that together to be able to have a chance against a very, very good team in Airline. They are a seasoned team.”
While traveling five hours from Louisiana’s southeast corner to play at Airline, one of the top-ranked 5A teams in the state, might seem like a daunting task, it’s nothing compared to what the Wildcats have already overcome this year.
“I can’t imagine going through that,” Airline coach Bo Meeks said. “It was an unbelievable catastrophe. And logistically, trying to run a program, I can’t imagine how tough that was, just the day-to-day things that we take for granted. It’s tough, because it’s a terrible situation, but we have to prepare to play against a very good football team.”
Meeks expects to see a talented East St. John squad that has fought all year.
“We’ve watched all of their game films, and they have good players,” Meeks said. “They hit a few bumps early with all they went through, but they are playing well now, and they are going to be a good challenge for us. It’s a tough draw, for them to be No. 27 but playing so well right now.”
Banko and his players have received generous donations, from used black uniform pants to underwear and tennis shoes. On Wednesday, Thibodaux Regional Hospital gave the Wildcats all of the training-room equipment the team lost in the storm.
The future of the program is in doubt as well. In January, school officials will decide whether to rebuild East St. John High School in the same place or move to a higher location. Insurance issues, which have kept Banko from replacing equipment, still have to be resolved.
But the Wildcats don’t want people to feel sorry for them. They just want to play football.
“People said we couldn’t make it because of what we had to go through. They counted us out,” Davis said. “We don’t talk about the hurricane. Don’t have pity for us. We are going to come back from it.
“Some of us lost everything. Football has been that one thing we still had. For 48 minutes, we don’t have to worry about what’s going on at home or how we are going to eat the next day. We’re just worried about winning that game. We don’t plan on losing (tonight).”
Connect with Brent Shirley on Twitter at @bshirley08.