Rick Dickson is ready to greet the 308 former Tulane University student-athletes who competed in fall 2005 and are expected to return for homecoming weekend this fall.
The athletics director has waited 10 years for this opportunity. Back then, their student-athlete experience was filled with disillusionment and adversity. So this fall, when they are inducted into the Tulane Athletics Hall of Fame, Dickson can finally deliver a message of healing – one he’s wanted to give since the day Hurricane Katrina forced the athletes, coaches and support staff to evacuate the university Aug. 27, 2005. Their retreat started a long, twisting journey back to their home field – a path that showed sports, like life, can be as much about the losses as about hope and inspiration.
Unprecedented devastation followed both Tulane and its students that day. Those who packed only enough for a three-day evacuation lost dorm rooms’ worth of belongings. The floodwaters delivered more than $800 million in damage to the Tulane campus, wiping out many of its athletics facilities. Days later, while the student-athletes and athletics administrators were huddled in a DoubleTree hotel in Dallas, Tulane announced the school would be closed for the fall.
The athletics department, however, made a bold choice. It decided to play on despite not having any home fields on which to compete.
“We collectively thought, ‘You know what? Let’s play a different role,’” Dickson said. “Just by us being there and carrying on, there will continue to be awareness about Tulane and New Orleans and what’s happened.”
Other schools took them in. Athletes from two of Tulane’s fall programs attended Southern Methodist University; six relocated to Texas A&M University; three others headed to Texas Tech University; three more went to Louisiana Tech University. They bought uniforms from sporting-goods stores and screen-printed “Tulane” onto them. (“It was like Little League,” Dickson said.)
The season, spent entirely on the road, didn’t relieve the tension. While the initial adrenaline fueled their sense of mission, the strain on young people facing unprecedented adversity quickly showed. The football team, once anticipating its best season since the undefeated 1998 squad, finished 2-9. The volleyball team, coming off a 17-12 season, dropped its first seven matches after the storm and finished 5-16. The women’s soccer program finished 1-11.
Then, Katrina delivered another devastating blow, as if its eye were still passing over: The expense of rebuilding led Tulane to suspend eight teams indefinitely. The school honored the 97 scholarships from the rosters, but those Green Wave student-athletes’ careers were finished. “It was almost like going through a train wreck or a tragedy,” Dickson said. “How do you piece your family back together?”
Over 10 years, Tulane has pieced it together sport by sport, facility by facility. A $175 million campaign rebuilt the athletics complex, adding new facilities for football, volleyball, basketball and baseball. The program has returned to 16 sports. Like New Orleans, Tulane is healing.
But one important step remains.
That comes Nov. 7, when the 308, plus the coaches and staff affected by the program suspensions, are inducted into the Tulane Athletics Hall of Fame. For the past decade, the group has provided Dickson constant motivation. When they are back on campus, standing at the football midfield and cheered again as Tulane athletes, he will deliver the message he has rehearsed for 10 years: “Welcome back home.”