ENGSTER: Tiger Stadium

Our world changed on Aug. 29, 2005.

Hurricane Katrina has turned Baton Rouge into Louisiana's largest city where gas lines and traffic jams are constant. New Orleans is now a shattered remnant of history. While looters dominate the storm-ravaged streets of the Crescent City, the Capital City is bursting at the seams with hundreds of thousands of evacuees. This community has become a haven for refugees, who are pleased to be alive but don't know if the city they fled is habitable.

It's challenging to focus on games people play at a time when much of the state is homeless and all citizens are in shock and grief. Those of us who live in Louisiana treasure its beauty and charm, and our people possess a passion for life, love, food and football. The athletic brass at LSU has decided the games must continue.

LSU has had gridiron dates postponed in the past because of natural disasters and in 2001 due to a terrorist attack. But no calamity has hit us so close and so personally as Katrina. As a people, we are crawling on the canvas and trying to get to our feet after a blow to the solar plexus by a powerful heavyweight. We yearn for something to be happy about, to cheer and to unleash a week a fury and pain with our vocal cords.

While Saints owner Tom Benson mulls a move to San Antonio as his hometown floats and fumes, Tiger Stadium stands tall, ready to provide a diversion. LSU will tee it up Saturday against Arizona State, a team from the desert visiting Death Valley. Thousands of victims have perished with the hurricane, and many of them surely shared an affinity for Tiger football.

While the Superdome and the French Quarter and the New Orleans lakefront rebuild from catastrophic devastation, LSU coach Les Miles and Chancellor Sean O'Keefe will make the most unusual of debuts at Tiger Stadium. Miles took over the Oklahoma State program a few years removed from the bombing at the Oklahoma City federal building, and O'Keefe was running NASA when the Columbia exploded and killed seven astronauts. The tragedy in Louisiana eclipses those horrid events.

If Katrina had not turned east in its final approach in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana's Capital might be facing a disaster similar to the one that engulfed metropolitan New Orleans. Amid immense sadness, there is ample cause to thank from a higher power who spared our community from days of death and destruction. A few blocks from the plush skyboxes, abject poverty exited before the hurricane. Many would be trapped if a Katrina-like force enveloped Baton Rouge.

Several LSU players and students have ties to the Crescent City. Legendary blues artist Fats Domino has become a guest of Tiger quarterback Jamarcus Russell. Singer Charmaine Neville is staying with friends in Southdowns after surviving a rape from thugs, who invaded her New Orleans residence after Katrina made the city a lawless playground for criminals and deviants.

Movie theatres in Baton Rouge are reporting brisk business with patrons seeking relief from the killer storm in a cool, controlled environment where fantasy interrupts reality for a few hours. It's appropriate for LSU to play its season opener as ticket holders gather in a chaotic, uncertain environment. The Tigers may perform a public service by giving fans an escape from the worst natural disaster our nation has endured.

The buzz before kickoff will be filled with residents reflecting on how the tragedy has changed their lives. Saturday night, Tiger Stadium will be partly an arena for athletic gladiators to perform and partly a cathedral for confused souls to congregate.

LSU is poised to have a splendid season with a talent-laden team every bit as impressive as the 1965 unit, which rebounded from Hurricane Betsy and gave partisans one of LSU's greatest triumphs-- a 14-7 Cotton Bowl victory over defending national champion Arkansas.

Hurricane Katrina has given us a chance to savor what is wonderful about our state and our culture. It also gives us an opportunity to improve the quality of life for many residents, who had little to appreciate before this devastation. In New Orleans, nearly 30 percent of the people were already living under the poverty line. Eighty-five percent of those citizens are African-American.

LSU has achieved enormous progress in civil rights in the last forty years. At that time, the Tigers athletic teams were exclusively white and off limits for minority students. Today, most of the athletes in the major sports are African-Americans. They often come from impoverished neighborhoods where athletic success is their only way out. Hopefully, all aspects of campus life will someday soon reflect the diversity that makes our state special.

Tiger Stadium is poised to provide a sanctuary for unity and pride for players, students, faculty, alumni and fans of all colors and classes. Let the games begin at Death Valley where one of the loudest places on the planet will suddenly become an oasis of calm amid the storm.


Jim Engster is the station manager for WRKF-FM in Baton Rouge and the host of "The Jim Engster Show." Contact him by e-mail at jim@wrkf.org.

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