Athletes weather the storm, now comes reruiting

GAINESVILLE, Ga., Sept. 15 - Last year at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans, Kendrick Lewis scored 34 touchdowns, led his team to the district championship and was named the district player of the year.

Last Friday, the high school was closed and Kendrick Lewis was in this small town about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, catching 6 passes for 58 yards and helping the Gainesville High School Red Elephants upset their crosstown rival, North Hall, 28-21.

Even though he had practiced only two days with his new team, it was hardly a surprising performance. Lewis has orally committed to accept a football scholarship to the University of Mississippi, and is ranked as one of the nation's best receivers in the class of 2006, according to one recruiting service.

But how dozens of blue-chip football prospects like Lewis from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast landed in high schools and on playing fields from Georgia to northern Louisiana, Texas to Florida, has prompted allegations of unethical recruiting tactics among coaches. It has also spurred passionate debate on high school sports message boards on the Internet over whether some of the region's most valuable exports - its athletes - are being exploited in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Tommy Henry, the commissioner of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, not only has heard the allegations about coaches scouring shelters across the South for players, but has also fielded e-mail messages from boosters and coaches across the nation requesting leads to contact promising athletes. Normally, Louisiana rules strictly prohibit the recruitment of high school students for athletic purposes.

"The way things are so messed up, you're going to have to bring me a videotape of any acts of wrongdoing," Henry said by telephone from the association's office in Baton Rouge. "There's so much confusion about who saw what, but if I do catch someone, the book will be thrown at them.

"I know that I've had several e-mails that say, 'We need a quarterback and receiver, or a couple of basketball players.' Like everything else, this storm has brought out the best and worst in people. I'd like to think mostly the best."

The New Orleans area has a long history of producing standout football players, among them running back Marshall Faulk of the St. Louis Rams and cornerback Patrick Surtain of the Kansas City Chiefs, both Pro Bowlers. With 85 football-playing high schools in the New Orleans area so damaged that they remain unopened, many athletes had to juggle worries about the fate of college scholarships alongside worries about the loss of their homes and the whereabouts of family members.

The Louisiana High School Athletic Association moved quickly, and within days of the hurricane declared that athletes would be eligible immediately at new schools if they met residency and academic requirements. And so far, Henry said, more than 200 have registered with the association in new schools, primarily in northern Louisiana.

But the hurricane created a confusing vacuum in the high-school-football-crazy South, where the line between charity and chicanery has perhaps been blurred.

Jai Eugene, for example, one of the most heavily recruited defensive backs in Louisiana, said that as soon as he had evacuated to Houston, people representing high schools contacted him to play football.

"They were telling me that if my home was damaged, I could go to their school," said Eugene, who has since returned to Destrehan High School, 20 miles west of New Orleans, where he hopes to finish an abbreviated season, then decide among football powers like Miami, Florida and Southern California for his collegiate career.

"My cousin back home was telling me that schools in Arkansas and Florida were calling trying to get me to come down there."

Kendrick Lewis landed in Gainesville, a town of more than 25,000, by circumstance, but not before a circuitous journey that included a workout and near enrollment at a Houston-area high school whose coaching staff helped his uncle find a job.

Two days before Katrina hit, Lewis fled the west bank of New Orleans with his uncle Shelden Briscoe, crawling in traffic for 14 hours en route to Houston. Their plan was merely to escape, but as scenes of the devastation in New Orleans flickered on the television of their hotel room, Briscoe knew immediately he needed to make more permanent plans.

It was easier than he imagined, partly because of the tight-knit network of national high school recruiting gurus who are plugged into coaches across the country, and partly because of the good will of communities eager to help those displaced by Katrina rebuild their lives. Briscoe was given the names of several schools, including Lee High in Baytown, Tex., , a football power east of Houston.

The school's coaches received Briscoe and Lewis warmly. They directed them to a local shelter that, with the help of the Red Cross, found them an apartment. They told Briscoe about job openings at a local dealership selling cars, as he had done in New Orleans.

Baytown Lee Coach Dick Olin said he had no idea who Lewis, and the five other players from the New Orleans area who are now on his team, were before they arrived at the school. He acknowledged providing a contact at the automobile dealership for Briscoe and directing him to the proper authorities to find housing. But, he said, his staff and the whole Baytown community have been offering help to all refugees from New Orleans.

Lewis briefly attended a Baytown Lee practice and started the paperwork to enroll.

"I didn't want Kendrick living in a shelter, and I wanted him in school," Briscoe said in a telephone interview from Baytown. "Ever since he's been playing park ball, I've been to every game and have driven him to camps as far away as Ole Miss and L.S.U. He is a good kid who has worked hard in school and in football, and I wanted him to have a chance to achieve his dream."

But Kendrick's mother, Clarissa Lewis, had other ideas. She lived in the harder-hit east bank of New Orleans and evacuated to Atlanta. With her home and all her possessions washed away, she wanted her family with her.

When Clarissa Lewis was placed in public housing here along with her mother, her two other children and some cousins, she sent for Kendrick.

"He disappeared as suddenly as he appeared," said Olin, whose stepson, Drew Tate, is the starting quarterback at the University of Iowa.

Gainesville High School Coach Bruce Miller also said he did not know that the 6-foot, 188-pound Lewis was a blue-chip recruit when he showed up in his office last week with Dennis Lore, a friend of the Lewis family, who runs New Orleans recreation leagues. While the Red Elephants have an accomplished football program, Gainesville High, a school of more than 1,100 students, has yet to win a state championship in Georgia's midsize AAA class.

When Lewis produced a transcript from O. Perry Walker that said he was ranked 38th in a class of 236, Miller was impressed, but concerned that Lewis was too good to be true.

"I've never coached a Division I prospect, and we only got about five students in the whole school from New Orleans," Miller said. "I wanted to know the real story."

Lore explained to Miller that Clarissa Lewis was placed in public housing a few blocks from the high school and wanted her son with her.

Lewis had his transcript with him, Lore said, only because he happened to be preparing his paperwork for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which has to validate his eligibility before he can sign a letter of intent to attend Ole Miss.

"I had to pinch myself," Miller said, "and wonder if this was really happening - that a kid of Kendrick's talent can show up at Gainesville High. But then the reality sets in, and you realize that here's a kid who thought his senior year was over, who lost everything. We had to make him at home."

Lore, who also coaches freshman football at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans, knows his way around the seamier side of high school recruiting. Ever since Katrina hit, he has been barraged with phone calls from high schools around the country asking about Lewis and his childhood friend Jeremy McGee, a running back at Edna Karr who has committed to U.C.L.A.

College recruiters are trying to reassure potential players that the universities will honor scholarship commitments, but they are limited by N.C.A.A. regulations to contacting the players only once a week. High school regulations, however, are not as stringent and can sometimes be open to self-serving interpretations.

"New Orleans plays good football," Lore said, "and I can understand how coaches want to help their teams by getting a player or two. Before the storm, it would be called 'undue influence.' But it isn't cheating now because these kids need a roof over their head and a place to go to school. They don't have anything else."

Clarissa Lewis was given a job in the high school cafeteria; a bedroom set and clothes were delivered to their cramped home; and Kendrick was embraced by his teachers and teammates. One of them, the sophomore Trevor Bernal, relinquished his jersey so Lewis could wear No. 4, as he had since peewee football.

When Lewis came off the field after Gainesville's victory over North Hall, his mother was there to greet him in a No. 4 jersey - one from O. Perry Walker High.

"It was the first time I had seen him smile in weeks," Clarissa Lewis said.

By the look of the message boards on Louisiana high school Web sites like pelicanpreps.com, high schools across the nation are hoping to give talented players a home and win a few football games as well.

A defensive coordinator for a private school in West Palm Beach, Fla., is looking for players, and boosters from as far away as California have offered invitations.

And perhaps not surprisingly, someone with the screen name HurricaneHelp touts a "tremendous football" program in a community that will "embrace your family and help in any way for you to move forward in your life."

The post is from North Hall High School, right here in Gainesville, Ga.

Thayer Evans contributed reporting from Houston for this article.


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