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Vikings' Isame Faciane found healing in football after Hurricane Katrina

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Isame Faciane steps back into a pass-blocking set, and as he extends his left arm into a pass-rusher's chest, the force of the storm that tore his world asunder is there for all to see.

There's the flooded house, etched on Faciane's arm, that he lived in after the storm, keeping warm with a tarp and a couple of space heaters until the FEMA trailer arrived. There's a car sinking in the water -- possibly the van or the Thunderbird that Faciane's grandparents lost to flooding -- and the fallen power lines that Faciane circumnavigated with his grandparents on their three-mile walk back to the house, sloshing through mud and sidestepping snakes as they wondered what violence the storm had levied on their home in Slidell, Lousiana.

And there, next to a man sinking in the water, is the vortex that changed Faciane's life forever.

For many in the Gulf Coast region, the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina might be an occasion to lament civic mismanagement, or recall the resilience of a region that's risen from its knees. For Faciane, who's in his second year with the Minnesota Vikings, it's more personal than that.

He lived with his grandparents in a FEMA trailer for nearly two years, moving in just before doctors found a lemon-sized tumor on his grandfather Ellis' brain and moving out just after his grandpa -- who'd initially been given six months to live -- finally lost his battle with brain cancer. Faciane found a father figure in a high school football coach who put kids up in the days after the hurricane and struck deals with equipment vendors to replace storm-ravaged gear, not knowing when he'd be able to pay them back. And he was the first player from Salmen High School to earn a college football scholarship after Katrina, becoming the emblem of a revival effort they say might have saved the school.

Faciane, who's now 24, will be some 530 miles west of his hometown Saturday morning, preparing for an exhibition game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on the 10-year anniversary of Katrina's landfall in the New Orleans area. It's no occasion for celebration. But when football played such an integral role for so many in the region after Katrina, it's certainly an appropriate venue for Faciane to think about how far he's come.

"[When I got my scholarship], it meant the world to [my grandma]," Faciane said. "She talks about me whenever she can. Everyone in my city, they know me, too. They tell her what a great job she did with me. Whenever someone tells her that, it makes her day."

Katrina, cancer bring chaos

For those who lived in Louisiana, the annual hurricane forecasts typically meant little more than the hope of missing a day or two of school. Vikings linebacker Michael Mauti, who grew up on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville, remembered having "hurricane parties" with friends. Jerry Leonard, Faciane's coach at Salmen High School, grew up in Slidell and had never evacuated for a storm before Katrina. And Faciane's grandmother, Dolores, resisted her husband's pleas to leave town until hours before St. Tammany Parish officials called for a mandatory evacuation on Aug. 27.

With gridlock already preventing Faciane's family from heading far to the west on Interstate 10, they hunkered down at the Deluxe Inn where his uncle worked on the other side of town.

Early on the morning of Aug. 29, the storm wreaked havoc.

Electricity went out at the Deluxe Inn in the middle of the night; Faciane sat in the darkness with his grandparents, his cousin and his sister as wind and rain lashed against the side of the hotel. In the morning, they stood on the balcony of their hotel, watching in shock as the soggy ground across the street gave way and the wind toppled a neighboring hotel.

"By the grace of God, that didn't happen to us," Faciane said.

Two or three days passed before anyone could return to assess damage. Leonard slipped into Salmen High School in the days after the storm, carrying a hand-held video camera to document the damage. Hallways were caked with mud three or four inches deep. The wind had sheared lights off their posts over the football field and toppled Powerade machines in the weight room, where giant fish were trapped. Leonard slipped into an equipment room with a flashlight, trying to find whatever football equipment he could salvage.

"I remembered putting a bunch of blocks and tees on a shelf," Leonard said. "I knew where they were in the cage. As I went to go in the cage and go grab that bag of tees, a snake came off the shelf, right by my feet. It was so muddy, I couldn't get moving. I figured it was time to get out of there."

Faciane and his grandparents borrowed his uncle's car and drove as far as they could, walking the final three miles back to their house past catfish swimming in the streets and trees lying in the streets like hurdles. When they opened the door, they could see a water line seven feet off the ground -- high enough for them to know everything was gone.

They went back and forth between the hotel and their house for two months, clearing out whatever they could, until they were told FEMA workers needed the hotel space. As they tried to keep warm and dry through the late fall in their dilapidated house, doctors finally found Faciane's grandfather was suffering from something far worse than the depression they initially thought he had.

"They operated on him right [then]," Faciane said. "At that time, my grandmother's trying to find a place for us to live. We lived in the FEMA trailer for almost two years [starting in December 2005], and then he started declining again. By the time we found a place to live, my grandfather passed away. ... My grandfather was one of my best friends. That whole process just humbled me, and taught me a lot quicker than I initially thought I would have to [learn]. My coach was like a dad to me."

Healing through football

Leonard had graduated from Salmen in 1984, returning to the proud football school as an assistant coach in 1993 and becoming head coach in 2002. The 2005 Salmen team was projected to contend for a state title, but in the days following Katrina, as the school's Division I prospects left town, Leonard wasn't sure whether it was worth trying to resuscitate the football season.

Then he realized: If no one in Slidell had something to come back to, they might not come back at all.

"Really, if people couldn't get back here, there was no sense to spend millions of dollars to rebuild [the school]," he said. "Fielding a football team was the way we felt like we could get people to come back."

Leonard started calling players in the program, telling one who'd emigrated to Kansas and another in North Alabama they could stay with him. He had 90 kids in the program before Katrina; when Salmen resumed football practice a month after the storm, 17 kids showed up, caked in mud and sheet rock dust from working on their houses. The team practiced without pads or helmets for 10 days; Leonard's wife picked up uniforms the day before Salmen's first of six games after Katrina.

The Spartans lost them all. But as the only school in its district to field a team that season, Salmen qualified for the state playoffs at 0-6. And by the end of the season, 34 kids -- of the 200 or so in the school who had come back -- were playing football.

Faciane arrived in the fall of 2006 as a 175-pound beanpole whose hands and feet were big enough to suggest he'd grow. He played both offensive and defensive tackle for Salmen, as part of a class that grew up dreaming of playing for the Spartans and vowed they weren't leaving. He was a sophomore by the time his grandfather had died, and Faciane began spending more time at Leonard's house as a junior and senior. The two struck a deal; if the budding chef would whip up some of his jambalaya, he could help himself to the food in Leonard's refrigerator and provide some form of payback for the bulge in Leonard's grocery bill.

"He was just an extremely likable kid from Day 1," Leonard said. "I knew he had lost his grandpa. I felt like he needed a strong male figure in his life. If I could fill that void, I would do that."

Salmen reached the state semifinals during Faciane's junior season, losing as time ran out after referees called an aiding-the-runner penalty on a quarterback sneak. "Tell me if you've ever seen that one called," Leonard said, still fuming about the penalty a decade later. "If we'd have won state, they'd have made a movie about us."

Faciane's senior year brought another trip to the state semifinals, along with another realization: If the tackle could get a scholarship, he'd become both the first member of his family to go to college and a clarion call that Salmen was back.

One day in January, just before national signing day, Leonard and principal Byron Williams called Faciane to the school office. His grandmother was there waiting for him.

"I was like, 'What'd I do?'" Faciane said. "Coach gave me a letter; it was from [Florida International University], I'm like, 'It's for me?' Coach says, 'It has your name on it, huh, dummy?'"

Isame and Delores shared a tearful embrace; he then gave Leonard a "big ol' hug," the coach said.

"That right there was one of the turning points for me, actually being happy about something," Faciane said. "It lifted a big load off my shoulders."

Said Leonard: "In that moment, he knew his life had changed. I think his grandmother realized it, too. It's one of those moments you wish you could have more of. For us as a program, it was great -- we finally got somebody signed. It couldn't have happened to a better guy."

Salmen is back to about 55 kids in the football program who now attend classes on a campus that was almost completely rebuilt after Katrina.

Faciane, who started 29 games over four years at FIU before joining the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2014, shifted from defensive tackle back to the offensive line with this spring and is fighting for a roster spot. He still returns to Slidell in the offseasons to live with his grandmother.

Whatever role he and the high school's football program played in saving each other, it's clear one wouldn't be where they are now without the other.

"Isame's group could have gone anywhere and played for anybody else," Leonard said. "They were a group of guys who grew up in this community. I guess, all their lives, they wanted to be part of Salmen High School. That's what kept them here. Thank goodness it did. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them."