In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, two high school football players - friends and teammates since fourth grade - turned to their coach for shelter and guidance. Two years later, Joe McKnight and Jonathan English have transformed not just from Katrina survivors, but from boys to men.
English is a freshman defensive tackle for Arizona State; McKnight is a freshman running back for USC. More than likely, they’ll bump into each other when the Sun Devils and Trojans meet Thanksgiving night at Sun Devil Stadium.
“I’ll be watching,” J.T. Curtis said.
English and McKnight were fourth-graders when they first met at John Curtis Christian School, named after J.T.’s father. Sports was their bond. They grew up playing football and basketball together, McKnight always the fastest player on their teams, English always one of the biggest.
(English got his nickname in the fourth grade when he dressed up as a soldier for Halloween and a janitor called him Tank).
English was the happy-go-lucky one, quick with a smile or a laugh. McKnight was quiet and intense. He didn’t trust people easily. He grew up without a father and couldn’t depend on his mother, so he didn’t believe in the kindness of strangers.
By the time they were juniors in high school, McKnight and English were the cornerstones of Curtis’ varsity football team. Curtis believed his Patriots had the talent to win their 20th state championship.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Besides, this story isn’t about football.
It’s about friendship. And faith.
English returned home first.
On Sept. 15, 2005 — 17 days after Hurricane Katrina struck — he and his mother, Althea, drove 200 miles from Alexandria, La., where they had stayed with relatives, to their home in Kenner, La., a suburb of River Ridge they had to evacuate.
The house was uninhabitable, mold growing in every room and on every piece of furniture. The walls were black, discolored by the dirty flood waters that rose to three feet inside the house.
English was able to retrieve a few clothes that were hung up in his closet, but he was dismayed to find Althea’s wedding album, which she had placed on top of the refrigerator, floating in the water. The refrigerator had toppled over from the force of the waves.
“That’s the only thing I wish I was able to get,” English said. “My dad died when I was in the ninth grade (due to complications from kidney failure). “That was the only thing my mom was really hurt about. Everything else was replaceable.”
The next day, J.T. Curtis received a call from Althea. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do or where she was going to live. Curtis suggested English stay with him.
McKnight, meanwhile, already had enrolled at Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., where he stayed as Katrina rolled into New Orleans.
Curtis had offered to take McKnight in, too, but McKnight already had played a game at Evangel, a football power. Plus, he was uncertain how it would look for a black player to live with a white family.
Two weeks later, however, McKnight called Curtis and said he’d like to take him up on his offer to live in his home and play again for John Curtis.“He talked to Tank, and Tank told him he was staying with us,” Curtis said. “He figured it would be OK.”
The plan was for English and McKnight to stay a few weeks.
Those few weeks turned into two years.
Sometimes, it takes that long to change a young man’s life.
In his book, Hurricane Season, author Neal Thompson recounts a scene in November when Althea finds a home to rent and shows English his bedroom.
English, standing in the doorway, says, “Momma, I’m sorry. I love you but I rebuke this room. I rebuke this bed. I rebuke it, Momma. I do. This is not my bedroom.”
Asked about his odd choice of words, English smiles and says he simply didn’t want to live with his mom and her two sisters.
“There’d be too many females in the house,” he said.
But there’s more to it than that.
The Curtises gave English and McKnight some sense of normalcy. They ate meals together. They talked about their day. Lydia cooked for them, took care of them when they were sick and got them out of bed so they wouldn’t be late for school.
And they all laughed when McKnight twice overloaded the washing machine and flooded the living room.
Despair and destruction was all around them, but inside that 3,000-square-foot home there was love and prayer and, in the best sense, family.
“I’m real thankful,” English said. “If he was just a normal coach who didn’t care, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. How many other people would take you in rent free and not ask for anything, just because they love you? Without him, yeah, it would be a different story.”
As the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months and the months into two years, McKnight found himself changing.
His cynicism melted. He began to trust more easily. The Curtis family had opened up their home to him and in that invitation, he discovered himself.
“I was having a bad time before that,” McKnight said. “I looked at things in a negative way. I was in my own little world. But Coach J.T. changed my whole thinking process, the way I look at life and the way I look at people.
“He was a father figure for me. Tank always had his mom there, but when I moved in with J.T. my life became stable. For the first time, I felt like I had a home.”
Had the Curtis family asked English and McKnight to move on after a couple of weeks, it would have been understandable.
After all, these were their empty nest years. The last thing they planned on was a couple of growing 17-year-old boys doubling their grocery bill and filling their house with noise.
But how could they close their doors? J.T. and Lydia believe God has a plan for them, and here were English and McKnight, and they had those empty bedrooms. How strong can their faith be if it is not accompanied by works?
“I don’t think we ever considered not taking them,” J.T. said. “There was a need there. We just accepted it.”
The Patriots, by the way, won their 20th state championship in the fall of 2005. McKnight scored three touchdowns in the championship game.
But this isn’t a story about football.
It’s about a simple act of kindness.
“I can still go to Coach J.T.’s house at any time and sleep there if I want,” English said. “I feel like I’m a part of their family.”