1 Patriots’ Game
Friday night, August 26
In the corner of the blue carpeted, concrete-walled room, a giant floor fan whines, pushing around sweat-odored air. The locker room stinks, but at least it’s air-conditioned. Sort of. It’s better than being outside in the late-day, late-August New Orleans sun. So, the Patriots of John Curtis Christian School, more than a hundred of them, hang out in this dank room with missing ceiling tiles and funky smells. It barely contains them all.
The floor is littered with broken shoulder pads, socks, spools of athletic tape, Adidas sneakers, and the bright red or blue rubber Croc moccasins the players wear in the showers. A quote hand-painted on a scrap of plywood that’s duct-taped to the wall reads, WINNERS CONCENTRATE ON WINNING, LOSERS CONCENTRATE ON GETTING BY.
They’re trading gossip, razzing each other about girls, or arguing about what to expect from tonight’s opponent, all fired up for a new season and the start of a new school year on Monday. A multiracial, multicultural gumbo of kids from all over the city and the suburbs, they’re sons of the wealthy and the just scraping by, they’re scrawny ninth-grade third stringers and oversized, muscle-bound starting seniors, and they’re all united in determination to bring the mighty John Curtis Patriots to yet another state championship this year. A few boys sit alone on stools, headphones blocking out the roar.
Others are curled up in a corner trying to nap, while a few enact pregame rituals, getting their heads ready to play.
Offensive guard Andrew Nierman, a bruising six-foot-one, 300-pounder, ties the shoes of his good friend, 325-pound defensive tackle Jonathan “Tank” English. Tank earned his nickname in fourth grade, when he and Andrew dressed as army guys for Halloween. A snarky janitor told Jonathan, nearing two hundred pounds even then, that he looked like an army tank. In grammar school, he developed a bad habit of never tying his laces tight enough, so Andrew always tightens them for him before games.
Tank and Andrew are both the ambitous, determined sons of hard-working single moms. Tank’s father died of a heart attack two years ago, after a decade of battling heart disease, high blood pressure, and kidney problems. He was only forty-nine. Tank and his mom, Althea, who runs a day-care center, live in mostly African-American section of Kenner, a suburb just west of River Ridge, and Tank has attended Curtis since the third grade. Andrew, who has contended with growing up biracial in a still strongly segregated New Orleans, commutes from thirty miles away, where he and his mother live alone. He has no relationship with this father, who left years ago.
Andrew and Tank, both juniors, anchor the Patriots’ front line—Andrew on offense, Tank on defense. They’re both savvy, physical players who run faster than 300-pounders should, and the coaches are relying on each of them to play leadership roles this year. Off the field, their demeanor is more preacher—Tank—and teacher—Andrew—than bone-breaking tacklers. Tank is a warm, happy-go-lucky man-boy with a deep laugh and a melodious voice as smooth and sweet as jelly. He leads his teammates in prayer before games and is a great motivator on the field. Andrew is thoughtful, studious, and serious, with dark, intense eyes; a beefy bookworm in shoulder pads. He’s one of the smartest kids in the school and dreams of attending a top academic college, maybe even Harvard.
Linebacker Mike Walker and quarterback Kyle Collura practice their pregame handshake, a hand dance of high-fives, low-fives, and a fist-to-fist punch. They plan to do it after every touchdown this year. Mike and Kyle are also juniors, getting their first shot at full-time varsity this year. Mike has a linebacker’s stout body but a face
that’s pure teenager, with braces, faint freckles, wisps of facial hair, and spots of acne that look like they’ve been digitally transposed there from a seventh-grade school photo. He’s chatty and a bit of a clown who loves to crack jokes in class. Mike joined Curtis only three years ago, commuting from Metairie, east of River Ridge, so that he could join the Patriots. He’s worked hard to impress the coaches and has just learned that he’s been made a starter this season.
Kyle is lean and loose-limbed, with droopy, Nicolas Cage–like eyes. He always seems half asleep, with slouched shoulders and a laconic, jazzy way of dropping words out of the side of his mouth, as if he couldn’t care less where they land.
Kyle was third-string quarterback last year, but was thrust into the starter’s job five months ago when the Patriots’ rocket-armed quarterback Johnnie Thiel unexpectedly left the school in a huff. Kyle knows he’s no Johnnie Thiel, who was all handsome and slick and funny and stylish, confidently strutting his stuff on the field and off.
Johnnie had attended John Curtis since the third grade, and was the Patriots’ great hope for this season. In 2003, he had started a few games as a freshman, even playing in the state championship game, a 12–7 heartbreaking loss that left him crying on the sidelines of the Superdome, where the state’s high-school championship games are played. Last year, Johnnie split time with a senior quarterback and helped bring the Patriots again to the championship. Johnnie scored twice in that game, leading the Patriots to a 29–14 victory—and their tenth undefeated season—and was named the game’s most outstanding player.
He was in line to take sole possession of quarterback in 2005, but his desire to make dazzling runs and hurl touchdown bombs that made the highlight tapes conflicted with the school’s old-fashioned, grind-it-out offense. What he really wanted was to be a star, and to catch the eyes of college recruiters. But Curtis is no place for that kind of star, favoring only hard-working, obedient, team players. So, he transferred to East St. John High School in the town of Reserve, twenty miles west but closer to his home.
That’s how Kyle, a virtual nobody on the 2004 championship squad, was tapped as the new starter. To make matters worse, shortly after taking over the job, Kyle fell on a tackler in a spring scrimmage and snapped his own collarbone. It has since healed, though still a bit
lumpy, and Kyle returned to practice only a few weeks ago. He still seems protective of his collarbone in practice, and the coaches worry that he may not be ready for tonight’s game, mentally or physically.
Kyle’s well aware that all the fans in the stands tonight will be wondering, This is our new quarterback? This quiet third-stringer? This is who’s going to lead us to the championship? He’s anxious to prove he can carry his team, nervous, but eager to play.
Equally anxious is the team’s speedy, all-purpose playmaker, Joe McKnight, who’s in the trainer’s room getting his ankles taped. Joe has commuted to Curtis from Kenner since he was eight years old. A moody, sometimes stormy young man, he is mad at the world for sticking him with an absentee father and a mom who struggles to put food on the table. Joe and his mother have a complicated relationship and he’s been living in and out of their home, staying with friends and extended family members. Coach J. T. Curtis has offered him a room in his home repeatedly, but Joe always says no; he feels awkward about living with his coach, and about how it would look for an African-American kid to be living with a white family.
Joe is six feet tall, just shy of two hundred pounds, and combines the lightning speed of a Jerry Rice with the explosive power of a Barry Sanders, one of his heroes. Each of his biceps is covered in tattoos, one of which reads JOE above a picture of a tiger.
Joe and Johnnie Thiel were a daunting duo on the field last year, each making weekly headlines on the sports pages of the Times-Picayune. The coaches mainly used Joe as a defensive safety and on special teams, occasionally putting him in at running back, which is where Joe really wants to play. Last year, he made a strong case for that job by returning forty-three punts for 872 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging twenty-plus yards per return. On kickoff returns, he averaged thirty-one yards and scored three touchdowns. In the state championship game, when the Patriots were stalled in a 14–14 second-half tie, Joe broke free for a long punt return, which set up a go-ahead quarterback sneak by Johnnie.
Joe and Johnnie were also close friends, and when Joe decided—not for the first time—to move out of his mom’s house for a few months last year, he moved in with Johnnie’s family. The two boys shared a bedroom, the walls covered with football posters, and
always drove to and from school and practice together. They considered themselves as much brothers as friends, and Joe was looking forward to two more years of Thiel-and-McKnight headlines. Johnnie asked Joe to come with him to East St. John, but Joe wasn’t up for that, and was deeply hurt by Johnnie’s transfer. A few weeks later, he moved out of the Thiels’ home and temporarily back with his mom. He’s since been in and out of her house, spending most of his nights on the couches of friends or relatives.
He hasn’t let any of that affect his playing, though. In fact, Joe worked harder than anyone in practices through the spring and summer. He is the team’s best all-around player, ranked among the nation’s top high-school prospects. Already he’s being wooed by USC, Miami, Notre Dame, and others, whose coaches have gasped at highlight tapes showing Joe accelerating past tacklers on one after another rocket-fast, touchdown-scoring punt or kick return. Joe is a beautiful, graceful runner, but also a bruiser who can make split-second decisions look easy: Should I hurdle this guy or plow into him?
Joe has a handsome face with a dark, intent gaze. Unlike most jumpy teens, who look everywhere but in your eyes, Joe makes hard, unflinching eye contact. He’s quiet, with a surprisingly sly, mischievous wit, but he rarely smiles, not even at his own jokes, not even when he scores.
As the trainer tapes up his ankles, Joe listens to a recording of a speech Al Pacino gives in Any Given Sunday, about how football, like life, is a game of inches, and how fighting and clawing for the extra inch can make the difference “between winning and losing, between living and dying…
“I’ll tell you this, in any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch,” Pacino tells his team. “That is what living is. The six inches in front of your face…That’s football, guys. That’s all it is. Now, whattaya gonna do?”
The 2005 season begins tonight, and game time is just two hours away.
• • •
The Patriots all have their own goals and expectations this year, their own pressures and anxieties. The start of a season is always a time
of nerves, when bluster and cocky talk are masks for insecurities. But everyone knows, no matter how positively they spin it, this year’s Patriots are but a shadow of last year’s championship team.
Graduation took nine offensive starters, including all but one of the offensive linemen, as well as a couple of running backs and receivers, safeties and linebackers. Then there was Johnnie Thiel’s transfer. This team is as young and unproven as any group of Patriots has been in many years, with the first-team offense and defense both comprised mostly of juniors, and even a few sophomores. Many of them are getting their first shot at varsity, and this season will be their chance to prove themselves to the coaches, to secure a spot on the first team, and to show their stuff to college recruiters.
Tonight’s game is the annual jamboree scrimmage, a preseason New Orleans ritual. All across southern Louisiana, schools are pairing off for abbreviated matches—two fifteen-minute halves instead of four twelve-minute quarters. After a summer of grueling weight-lifting sessions, two-a-day practices, and scrimmages, tonight is the real deal, the first chance of the season for players to test themselves in actual play. Sportswriters are in the press box, and parents and girlfriends are in the stands. The stomach butterflies are aflutter.
John Curtis will travel tonight to Salmen High in Slidell, thirty miles northeast of New Orleans, on a night featuring six teams paired off into three games. The Patriots are last on the schedule, facing the Bulldogs of Fontainebleau High. Rather than sit through the first two games, they’ll wait here in the locker room until head coach J. T. Curtis hollers for them to load the buses. J.T. decided long ago never to use an opponent’s locker room or endure the taunts of home-team fans while waiting for the start of play. His psychological strategy is to show up barely on time, thirty to forty minutes before kickoff, sometimes less. The team steps off the bus and finishes dressing right there, pulling on shoulder pads with their game jerseys prestretched over them. They walk right onto the field, ready to go, to the hair-pulling annoyance of opposing coaches.
Across thirty-six years of leading the Patriots, J. T. Curtis has become one of the nation’s most successful high school football coaches, winning more than four hundred games en route to nineteen state championships. No Louisiana school has won even half as
many titles and, in the entire history of high school football in America, only one coach has won more games—seventy-eight-year-old John McKissick, who last year notched his five hundredth win, having coached the Green Wave of South Carolina’s Summerville High for a half-century.
The John Curtis Patriots’ only losing season remains J.T.’s first, in 1969, and they’ve gone undefeated ten times since. His overall record, 417–47–6, represents a winning percentage just shy of .900, a loss in only one of every ten games.
J.T. is as much a counselor as he is a coach to his players, their mentor, guru, and, for some, father figure. During the day, J.T. holds court in his small office, off the high school’s main hallway. Three decades of football memorabilia and family photos cover the walls, along with two clocks that haven’t worked for years. Visitors sink deep into a blue, fake-leather couch whose springs have been mashed by gargantuan football players plopping themselves down. When he’s not lecturing a student about a discipline problem or discussing a personal situation or spiritual matter, or conferring with a teacher or an assistant coach, he might meet with the manager of the Superdome or a college recruiter or some alumni who just stopped by to reminisce.
If he’s not in his office or on the practice field or in the coaches’ room, he’s stalking the halls, barking at students, playfully punching them in the arm, quick with a gibe or tease: That’s the worst haircut I’ve ever seen! When he’s not in coaching gear, he’s smartly dressed in a pressed white shirt and a tie. He has thick, black hair, blue eyes, and the square jaw and bright-white smile of a TV news anchor. One eye appears to be a different shade of blue from the other, but is actually permanently dilated, the result of taking a line drive to the face while coaching the baseball team. He’s sixteen months shy of sixty, but looks a decade younger, despite an aging athlete’s paunch. His presence is looming, physical.
J.T. has the gift of making visitors feel they’re all that matters to him, that he’s got all the time in the world. Among the steady stream of visitors he attends to are a number of college coaches, such as USC’s Pete Carroll, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, and Texas’s Mack Brown, who sometimes stop by to watch a practice. Former
LSU coach Nick Saban was a regular visitor until he left Louisiana to become head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
J.T. could have taken a job at that level. His success has brought lucrative offers, including assistant coaching jobs at Louisiana State and Tulane universities, and the head coaching job at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. When the Saints were looking for a head coach in the 1990s,
an LSU coach suggested they consider J.T. But he’s turned down all suitors.
Rather than scrum for a career in the big leagues, J.T. is content to remain what he’s been his entire adult life: one of the nation’s top high-school coaches. He prefers working with high-school kids, and gets enormous satisfaction from turning raw, untamed talents into players who’ll make Pete Carroll’s jaw drop. Just as his father created the John Curtis Christian School to give every child who walks through the door a chance to succeed, J.T. feels his job—his mission in life, really—is to give every kid he coaches a chance to fulfill his potential. His primary goals: to help players understand their special relationship with God, and to help them to develop confidence and believe in themselves, to learn the value of hard work and team work, to do their best. The championships have followed.
J.T., who recently became the school’s acting headmaster, frequently reminds kids that he wants them to be good football players and to win championships. But, as he once put it, “If you do not leave John Curtis Christian School a better person, prepared to take the next step in your life, then we feel like we have failed.”
After the Patriots won two championships in a row, in 1987 and 1988, they lost in the playoffs in 1989. That night, when the buses got back to the school, J.T. kept his team on the field for a late-night practice, telling them they needed to set a goal for themselves: to get back to the championship in 1990. He also examined his own mistakes, and told his assistants it was up to the entire coaching staff to raise their own expectations and set the tone for the players. The team went 15–0 and won their eleventh state championship that year. After the game, in the Superdome locker room, J.T. gave a speech that epitomized his decades-long philosophy on football and on life. “Any time you set a goal in your life, you don’t always know if you’re gonna make that goal, but what you have to do is
give it your best shot every day…If you give that commitment from now ’til the day you die, you’ll be a successful person, no matter what you do.”
• • •
What makes J.T.’s record of success all the more remarkable is that John Curtis is hardly a sprawling, megarich school with a 20,000 seat stadium and wealthy alumni donors pouring money into the athletic programs. John Curtis is night and day from Texas-style, football-dominated high schools.
John Curtis Christian School sits on a nondescript street in River Ridge, in Jefferson Parish, a suburb ten minutes west of downtown New Orleans, snug up against the Mississippi. An unassuming, middle-class, mostly white community of ranch houses with postage-stamp yards, River Ridge is a place where kids ride their bikes without fear of traffic and play basketball in the street. The main drag, Jefferson Highway, is lined with po’boy shops, a couple of bars, and the popular Dot’s Diner.
At the corner of Jefferson Highway and Manguno Drive squats a modest complex of low-slung white buildings, most with white-painted concrete block walls and aluminum roofs. Unlike the imposing multistory monoliths sitting on vast lawns that personify so many modern American high schools, you could easily drive by John Curtis’s upper school, which caters to grades seven through twelve, and not even know a school was there. The elementary school, which contains pre-K through sixth grade, is a few blocks down Jefferson Highway, an equally unpretentious group of one-story buildings that could pass for a budget motel.
Visitors are often amazed to discover that one of the nation’s best football teams is housed in buildings of corrugated metal and concrete block, where the architectural style is more warehouse than schoolhouse. At the upper school, a combined junior high and high school, students attend physical education classes in a fieldhousestyle gymnasium with a rusty roof and, until recently, no air conditioning. The cafeteria is in a converted barn. The students’ lockers are outside, beneath a makeshift metal overhang. Some improvements have been made in recent years: A new façade and awning
have spruced up the front entrance. And the practice field, which years ago was a lumpy mud pit, is now in pristine shape.
Still, visitors are also shocked to learn that the vaunted John Curtis Patriots don’t have their own athletic stadium. In place of the massive grandstands and klieg lights typical of many high schools, Curtis has two short metal bleachers that can seat about two hundred, and the small parking lot can only fit a couple of dozen cars. The field itself is squeezed, just barely, between two side streets. Early in his career, J.T. considered buying land adjacent to the school to build a stadium. But, after a 1977 flood, property values in River Ridge soared, due to the desirable higher elevation of the land, and he lost his best chance. That’s why all the Patriots’ games are, technically, away. Even their occasional home game is at a borrowed stadium miles from the school.
Monday, the start of the 2005–06 school year, will bring 648 students to John Curtis, 400 of them to the upper school. Parents choose to send kids here not for the impressive facilities or the high-tech equipment or the prestige. It’s always been more about the community, the Christian values, the quality of teaching, and the careful attention to the nurturing of children.
Unlike other private schools, John Curtis isn’t a pressure cooker when it comes to grades. J.T.’s father actually forbade talk of grades at home, preferring to focus on whether his children were well-rounded, happy, and engaged. Likewise, J.T. stresses academic fundamentals over perfect grades, believing it’s better to focus on the drills and the basics and on the execution rather than the results, believing that, if you can perfect the fundamentals, the scholarships—and the championships—will come.
J.T.’s father, John T. Curtis Sr., known to all as “Mr. Curtis,” had always urged students simply to seek the truth.
• • •
Mr. Curtis was born in 1919 in the working-class Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans. His father died when he was a toddler, and his mother worked in a box factory for a dollar a day while raising four children and a niece. Curtis roamed freely along the Mississippi River and the nearby wharfs, among the stevedores and
prostitutes. He loved to box at a nearby gym and worked construction jobs with an uncle.
After that unfettered adolescence, John left New Orleans to stay with an uncle in Memphis, where he bounced from job to job. Liquor, fights, and women were constant distractions. He was always looking for something, never sure what, so he stuck with liquor, fights, and women. Then, while working at a clothing store, two elderly Christian coworkers warned him that his carousing was going to be the death of him. “Go to church,” they’d tell him. “Read your Bible.” He’d just laugh, and they’d shake their heads and say, “We’re praying for you, Johnny.”
One night in the small bedroom of his aunt and uncle’s house, he crashed. He put his head in his hands and wept. He was twenty-two and had achieved nothing with his life. Maybe the old ladies at the store were right, he thought. He cried most of the night. He was lost, and he tried—for the first time in his life—to pray. He said, “God, I don’t know who you are or if you really exist. But I know this. What I’m doing is not enough.”
The next morning, he put on his nicest clothes and told his aunt and uncle he was going to church. Thinking he was being sarcastic, they told him not to make such jokes. He walked down the street, got lost, and ended up in front of a Methodist church. He entered, took a seat, and instantly felt as if the preacher was talking straight at him. When the services were over, he told the preacher he wanted to repent and turn his life over to God. Two years later he enrolled at Louisiana College, a Baptist school in central Louisiana, where he met a brilliant and beautiful student named Merle Manguno, an Italian girl from an upscale New Orleans neighborhood. She was drawn to his gruff intensity and dark good looks, and the two students soon married.
During his final two years of college, he began traveling on weekends to preach at a rural sawmill town with a small makeshift church for workers. After graduating from Louisiana College, he continued to pursue his religious studies at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. In 1946, he and Merle welcomed their first child, John Thomas Curtis Jr., calling him “J.T.” from the start. After finishing at the seminary, Curtis moved his family to Paradise, Louisiana, a scrubby little town that was anything but paradise. So
began a frenetic life as a missionary preacher, his job to establish Baptist churches in the middle of nowhere. He would arrive in some dusty town, seek out Southern Baptist families or others willing to convert, corral them into a congregation, build them a church, preach for awhile, then move on.
Curtis’s salary was meager, and the family was very poor. He had to pick up second jobs to pay the bills. Some nights, he’d come home red as a beet after working all day at a construction site or on a ditch-digging crew. Along the way, four more children were born: another son, Leon, and three daughters, Debbie, Kathy, and Alicia.
In 1956, Curtis moved his family back to his hometown, New Orleans. After a few years teaching at an inner-city high school, he opened his self-named school in 1962.
Drawing on the construction skills he learned during his troubled youth and his cash-poor missionary days, he built many of the school’s buildings with his own hands. Aesthetics were never a priority. For years the gymnasium was half finished, with rain pouring through incomplete walls. Inside the tin-roofed classroom buildings he painted inspirational words in large, block letters—LOYALTY, SPIRIT, PRIDE, UNDERSTANDING, EXCELLENCE, GOODNESS. In the center of each hallway he painted GOD, reflecting his philosophy that God should be at the center of all that his students do and all that they are. He also sprinkled the drab hallways with artwork, sculptures, and a bright color scheme of red, white, and blue.
Generations of students entering the front lobby off Manguno Street have stepped around a seven-foot bronze sculpture of a sea nymph swimming with tropical fishes and a sea turtle, all of them in an underwater dance around a twist of coral. The sculpture is a perfect expression of Mr. Curtis’s whimsical, somewhat eccentric, love of art and of life.
Curtis was hardly a seasoned educator or an experienced administrator. What he had was an ambitious vision of a co-ed, mixed-race school with a nondenominational Christian ethic. The school’s mission was to give all children a chance, and it was far less exclusive than most private schools. The admission policy declared that “students of all nationalities, races, creeds, religions, and ethnic origins are welcome,” glaringly at odds with the trends of greater New Orleans,
where segregation was, and still is, an entrenched way of life. The percentage of New Orleans area students enrolled in mostly white parochial schools still ranks as the
highest in the nation, reaching nearly half in some parishes.
Mr. Curtis’s plan was to cast a wide net and pull in a geographically, religiously, racially, and culturally diverse mix of kids. Tuition was more affordable than at most private schools, and enrollment grew quickly. As he had hoped, students came from the inner city, from bayou and river towns, from farms and suburbs; they were working class, middle class, and upper class alike. Some lived in overcrowded shotgun houses in New Orleans East, while others lived in their own pied-à-terre apartments near the school during the week and commuted home on the weekends. For parents struggling to pay tuition, Mr. Curtis often made special arrangements, allowing them to pay by driving a school bus or working in the cafeteria. The school became something of an eccentric newcomer, offering an attractive alternative to the costlier private schools, which were mostly white, and the underfunded public schools of the city, which were mostly black. The minority population at John Curtis has hovered consistently around twenty percent, and the school remains among the rare examples of voluntary integration in an otherwise de facto segregated system.
One of the first non-Catholic private schools in Jefferson Parish, Curtis offered parents an environment that inculcated moral, ethical, and spiritual values based in Christianity, but not based on any particular church or religion. The school eventually attracted a solid academic team of Christ-centered teachers who shared Mr. Curtis’s passion for working with students and, as he put it, displayed four important qualities: “love, leadership, understanding, and trust.”
In time, the school’s low-pressure academic atmosphere would send nine of ten students to college, many of them to top institutions, including Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Georgetown, Boston College, and West Point.
Mr. Curtis’s passion for the school had a magnetic effect on his family. One after another, his kids made their way back to River Ridge and the family business. J.T. was first. He had been a promising football player in high school and college, and his father lured him into taking over the football team in 1969. Leon, after serving
with the Marines for two years as an accountant in San Diego, joined J.T. on the coaching staff in 1971.
Their three sisters returned not long thereafter, though they didn’t exactly come rushing back. Kathy made it clear throughout her teens that she was never going to be a teacher. She was going to be an actress on Broadway. After graduating from college, she married a Navy man and they moved all over the country to different submarine bases. She came home in her mid-twenties, with a four-month-old baby, having decided she could teach better than the professors she’d had in college. She now teaches speech and English and works as a counselor in the guidance office.
Debbie returned to River Ridge to become a teacher right after college, in 1975. After earning a master’s degree, she was named the elementary school principal. Alicia, the youngest, was as adamant as Kathy about never becoming a teacher, which made it difficult for her to call her father one day and admit that she’d changed her mind. “Baby, there will always be a place for you at school if that’s what you want,” he told her. She now teaches civics and government and also works in the guidance office.
Curtis’s wife, Merle, worked by his side and his brother-in-law, Larry Manguno, became the high-school principal. By the late-1970s, the entire Curtis clan was involved, making his mission theirs. In time, grandchildren became employees, great-grandchildren became students, and John Curtis Christian evolved into the Curtis family school.
A workaholic and control freak, Mr. Curtis constantly schemed to make his school better, and his vigor was both infectious and annoying. He not only built many of the school buildings himself, but was constantly making changes and additions, never satisfied.
He performed so many menial tasks around the school that he’d get his clothes dirty—streaks of black tar on his white pants, paint smears on his shirt. Visitors often mistook him for a janitor. Once, when a fire damaged one of the buildings, while a few of the Curtises met with insurance agents and called contractors, they heard the scrape, scrape, scrape of Mr. Curtis shoveling debris into a wheelbarrow.
The man never slept, staying up late at night watching television, the mental wheels churning. He was the kind of guy who’d wake early one morning and announce that he’d decided to tear down a
wall in his house or retile the school bathrooms or plant some trees or renovate the library. At dawn, he’d be on the phone, calling family members, telling them, “Meet me at the school.” J.T. always felt that his father would have been perfectly capable of walking into school one day to announce they were changing from a Monday-through-Friday schedule to a Thursday-through-Sunday schedule, and after laying out his reasons, he’d convince the others it was a brilliant plan. Mr. Curtis was also a loud, stubborn, iron-willed, and opinionated man, whose pride sometimes boiled over into egotism, and who would always tell everyone just what to do and just how to do it. Some family members dreaded his schemes, which always required an abundance of time and sweat, but his enthusiasm usually won out.
More than two dozen members of the extended Curtis family now live in the modest neighborhood near the school, in simple ranch homes. Their salaries are moderate, but they wouldn’t trade their jobs for anything. They’re proud of what their father created, and also proud that his humble little school came to be known for such a powerhouse of a football team.
Despite having just four hundred kids in the high school, the Patriots will start the 2005 season ranked by USA Today as the ninth-best high-school football team in America.
When asked to explain the Patriot’s success, J.T. says it’s less about calling great plays or outsmarting other coaches and more about teaching his players about the values and life lessons that form the foundation of the school’s ethic. His philosophy of coaching grew out of the culture his dad created at the school.
J.T. often tells his kids to respect the game and to play “like Christian gentlemen.” He’s capable of flying off the handle and screaming at dumb mistakes, but he’s no bully and, as long as a kid is trying, he’s patient. He often shrugs off setbacks, like a fumble or interception, that would give most coaches fits, and he uses those moments to remind players that “things in your life aren’t always gonna go well. You’re gonna have to learn to get up, dust yourself off, and go again.”
He encourages them to move past setbacks by having faith that things will always work out. “God has a plan,” he tells them. However, he also demands that players respect the game, and hurls vein-popping
outbursts at those who commit personal fouls during games. Those players get yanked and benched, sometimes for the rest of the game.
A few years ago, J.T. got a visit from a former New Orleans Saints coach, Wimp Hewgley, who had sent his two sons to John Curtis. His eldest, Troy, graduated a few years back, went to LSU, then became an Air Force fighter pilot, eventually stationed in Afghanistan. When the kid received a big promotion, his superior officer wrote on the promotion letter that Troy displayed the qualities of an “elite warrior.” The kid’s dad, full of pride, brought a copy of the letter to J.T. and thanked him for making his son a better man. That afternoon, J.T. brought the dad to practice, read the “elite warrior” comments, and told his players, “This is what I prepare you for. I prepare you to be elite warriors. Not elite warriors on the football field, but elite warriors in life.”
J.T. has never managed to develop pastimes or hobbies, except for occasionally cooking big batches of gumbo or red beans and rice. When he’s not engaged in football, he gets restless and edgy. In the evenings, he flips through TV channels like a kid in need of Ritalin. Like his father, he’s an insomniac. One of the few exercises in his life not directly related to the school has been cohosting a popular local TV show, Friday Night Football, a weekly wrapup of prep football.
He is comically oblivious to everyday matters. He never knows how much is in his checking account. He doesn’t use e-mail or voice mail, and has a hard time keeping track of keys: He’s lost so many keys to the doors of the school that the others don’t give him keys anymore. He has to call a relative to get into the school. He sometimes even forgets his own wedding anniversary: It’s September 16, fast approaching as the season starts.
He has, however, honed an uncanny ability to pay close attention to the issues affecting kids’ lives, to their problems and aspirations. As with Troy Hewgley, his relationships with players and students transcend the football field. He remembers the smallest details about his students and regularly asks after their families, “How’s your mom’s new job?” and “Is your grandma feeling better?” He’s known many of them since they were toddlers and, these days, finds himself coaching the sons of former players.
Over the years, the lines between J.T.’s home life, work life, church life, coaching life, and family life have become completely blurred.
The front door of his house is rarely locked, and his wife, Lydia, is always ready with a meal for hungry linebackers and tight ends.
If a player is having trouble at home, he might start visiting J.T. and Lydia after school or on weekends. Sometimes, when a kid’s home life has turned especially difficult, J.T. and Lydia have invited him to live with them. One of those tenants was Melvin Hayes, an enormous offensive tackle with a towering Afro haircut that made him look six inches taller than his six-and-a-half-foot frame, who slept on the Curtises’ living-room couch for three years. Hayes played at Mississippi State after graduation and went on to play for the New York Jets.
J.T.’s mission is about more than winning football games. At John Curtis there are no tryouts and no one gets cut. If a kid shows up for practice, he’s on the team. There’s no guarantee he’ll play much, but if he attends each practice and works hard, who knows? J.T. stresses to players that they’re always just one play away from getting called upon.
The no-cut policy leads to unusually large teams: more than a hundred aspiring players most years, at a school with fewer than three hundred males. A team that size requires an unusually large coaching staff, a dozen strong. As Bear Bryant, the godfather of southern football, once said: one of the three golden rules of coaching is “surround yourself with people who can’t live without football.” Fortunately for J.T., the Curtis family is large, and pathologically crazy about the game.
J.T.’s right-hand man is his brother, Leon, the defensive coordinator and linebacker coach. As J.T.’s smirking alter ego, Leon happily cedes the limelight and interviews to his big brother. A jumble of contradictions, Leon appears gruff and unpolished, but he has a master’s degree and is a deeply devout man who, when he can’t sleep, flips through channels in search of religious TV shows. Leon usually responds to small talk with grunts or silence. One college recruiter who frequently visited the school said it took two years before Leon said a single word to him.
With players, Leon is full of goofy jokes one day, acerbic sarcasm the next. “If you can’t play intelligently, you’ll have to switch positions, son,” he’ll say. The kids can’t ever figure him out. He’ll tell a joke, then yell at anyone who laughs. He’s also endearing, and
rarely boring. Leon usually calls his players “son,” but when he’s unhappy, he just calls them the number on their jersey. Worse is when he doesn’t call them anything. Leon’s silence is more unnerving than his jibes.
The rest of the assistant coaches—“the boys,” their wives call them—are an entertaining, devoted group of born-and-bred New Orleanians. Many have been with the school for decades, a few since birth. All but three are named Curtis, or are related to one.
One of the few non-Curtises is Leon’s best friend, Mike Roberson, a 1968 John Curtis graduate and the offensive line coach, whom everyone calls Coach Rob. By day, he wears plaid shirts and khakis and teaches history. As a coach, he’s a workhorse who’s always quietly doing little jobs, like washing uniforms or loading gear onto buses. Normally jovial and easygoing, on gameday, a Jekyll–Hyde thing overcomes him and he’ll get unhinged at the site of a player’s mistake, yelling like a caveman and wildly flapping his arms as if he’s trying to fly.
Coach Rob has coached since the 1970s, as has the coach of the elementary school team, Corey Buttone, a tall, balding man with a reputation for whacking kids in the helmet with the fat championship rings he wears on two fingers. Francis Lanzetta, a parent and teacher aide at the school, also coaches.
The younger generation of coaches includes J.T.’s sons, Jeff and Johnny; his son-in-law, Tommy Fabacher; Leon’s three sons, Preston, Matt, and Steve; J.T. and Leon’s nephew, Lance; and Jeff’s best friend, Jerry Godfrey, an ex-Patriot.
Even with such a big staff, a team of one hundred or more kids is a challenge. J.T. wants to give every kid a chance to prove himself, though. At other schools, anyone less than 150 pounds would be chased off to the track team or chess club. But J.T. likes the potential to be surprised by a scrawny freshman who becomes a two-hundred-pound senior. “I think the greatest ingredient they have is patience,” says Pete Jenkins, a defensive coach for the Philadelphia Eagles who previously coached at LSU, where he had gotten to know J.T. “And his patient approach rubs off on his players.”
Gary Greaves, one of J.T.’s most satisfying surprises, was an extreme example of that patience. Greaves weighed ninety-seven
pounds as a freshman, and got his butt kicked. J.T. worried he might get hurt, and told his parents so. But Gary’s father pleaded with J.T. to keep his son on the team.
“If he can’t play, he’ll run away from home.” J.T. relented. As a sophomore, Gary again came out for the team, a bit heavier, but broke his arm in practice and was out for the season. By his senior year, the kid had packed on fifty pounds but was still just five-foot-eight and still among the team’s pipsqueaks.
During summer camp, Gary played with such surprising ferocity that J.T. took a chance and made him a varsity starter. Greaves went on to lead the defense with nine interceptions that year.
“That’s what makes high school football so special,” J.T. once said about the no-cut policy. “I can’t ever tell what a kid can do until I continue to work with him. I don’t care how tall, fat, skinny, or short they are.” All he expects is a positive attitude and great effort.
Over the years, a handful of J.T.’s players, like Melvin Hayes, have ended up in the NFL, and he’s sent hundreds to top colleges. Most players, though, will see their football careers end the day they graduate from high school, and they know it. That doesn’t stop them from subjecting themselves to excruciating workouts.
J.T. may be patient, but he’s not afraid to push kids very hard.
His time-tested method is to put players through endless drills, relentlessly working on footwork, timing, and strength. Every season begins just weeks after the previous season ends, with meticulous workouts in the weight room, the domain of J.T.’s gravel-voiced son-in-law, Tommy, who could pass for a New York City cop, or a Sopranos Mafioso. Tommy attended John Curtis and was a standout defensive back, playing on two of J.T.’s championship teams. He earned a football scholarship to LSU, and afterward married J.T.’s daughter, Joanna, whom he had been dating since the eighth grade. Tommy coaches the defensive backs and is also the team’s strength and conditioning coach, spending many hours overseeing the action in the team’s modest weight room. Gruff as he is, Tommy treats the weight room as if it’s a holy place. Though holy is probably the last word players would use to describe his winter workouts.
Come spring, players switch from weight-lifting to running, two to four miles a day, depending on their position. Then, for two
awful weeks in late spring they partake in a Patriots’ ritual known as running the levee, a term that even twenty years later players will spit out as if it’s a lemon rind. They absolutely loathe the levee.
Viewed from above, New Orleans looks like the last place humans should live. Often called the Crescent City, it is nestled in between the rounded southern shore of large Lake Pontchartrain looming to the north, and the meandering curves of the Mississippi River to the south, with the city forming a vaguely crescent shape. One of the country’s busiest ports sits in a bend of the river, a central hub in a 14,500 mile inland waterway system.
The swampy, spongy lowlands of the Mississippi Delta stretch out south and east from the city for miles into the gulf, a hardscrabble region dappled with fishing shacks, citrus groves, and oil rigs. Various smaller lakes dot the nearby landscape. The city is surrounded by water.
Ever since the French founded New Orleans in 1718, the city has struggled to hold back those waters on all sides, and is striated by canals and waterways that drain the waters toward the Delta. Omnipresent levee walls border the various waterways and run along the Mississippi and the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, forming the world’s largest levee system. Begun by the French settlers, hundreds of miles of levees now loom above the neighborhoods of the city, many of which sit well below sea level. The city has been likened to a bathtub, a saucer, or half an oyster shell. Making matters worse is that, much like Venice, the city has been sinking.
With so many parts of the city and its suburbs below sea level, the levees are as essential a part of New Orleans as beignets and jazz. Some are concrete, some steel, and some are grass-covered slopes of earth that look more like parks than protective barriers.
Suburban River Ridge and Jefferson Parish, most of which are slightly above sea level, are protected not only by levees but a sophisticated pumping system. The earthen, grass-covered levee running along the southern edge of River Ridge is just two blocks from John Curtis, towering above the residential backyards butting up against its base. On the other side of the levee, giant ships and tankers regularly lumber up river above eye level. A paved walk-way
snakes along the top of the levee, the highest point for miles around.
Soon after the Patriots’ intense winter weight-lifting sessions, spring running begins and, each afternoon, the Patriots jog over to that levee and line up in rows. With each tweet of a coach’s whistle, they scramble forty yards straight up the steep slope. Then they do it sideways, then backwards, then in a zigzag pattern around orange cones. Then on all fours. Over and over and over. Players heave for air, retch their lunch, and sometimes collapse onto the grass. Some wide receivers make it look easy. Out-of-shape freshmen watch with awe and disgust as three-hundred-pound linemen defy physics and outrace them to the top. Coach Leon frequently asks gasping players, “What color’s my shirt?” It’s red—seeing white is a sign of heatstroke.
Coaches bark out, “When you get tired, what’s the first thing to go?” And the Patriots bark back in raspy voices, “Your mind!” Again and again. It sometimes takes until their senior year for players to realize that running the levee isn’t just sadistic. It’s designed to work their minds as much as their bodies, to help them survive mentally and physically when they’re faced with a do-or-die fourth down in the final moments of a do-or-die game.
And yet, as distasteful as running the levee is, J.T.’s summer camp is even worse.
Most high-school players experience the awful pain of practicing twice in the same day, the summer ritual known as two-a-days. But J.T. takes his summer camp session up a notch. After three days of two-a-days, the next four days of camp feature three-a-days. The players arrive at dawn, perform blocking and passing drills for two hours before breakfast, then lie down for a short rest on sleeping bags they’ve laid out in the gym. The seventy-minute midday practice is always the worst, with the temperatures hovering near a hundred and the air a humid soup. After lunch, they review films, then get to rest again until four o’clock, when they’re called back onto the field for another two hours of sun-baked drills. Finally, after dinner, they head home to collapse, returning the next day at dawn. It’s hot, brutal, and dirty; a rite of passage. They’ll forget many things about their high-school days, but none will forget the
bitter aches and the tastes of grass and bile and blood and sweat from their three-a-days.
• • •
After more than six months of painfully honing their bodies, their character, and their fortitude, tonight’s jamboree game will be the players’ first big test of the season and, for the coaches, a glimpse at whether this year’s Patriots are a championship caliber team. J.T. has already told sportswriters he considers this “a rebuilding year.”
But, as with many of J.T.’s public comments, the response from other coaches is, Gimme a break. In a city and state so obsessed with football, the winning record of teeny little John Curtis school has generated an enormous amount of resentment.
Nothing about New Orleans is moderate, certainly not football, which, thanks to the perpetually mediocre Saints, is more about high schools and LSU than the pros.
New Orleans is a city that spends half its life in summer; a city of racial tension and crime; eccentricities and promiscuity; where music, dance, violence, sex, food, and sport are stirred into a primal, cultural gumbo; a city where every day holds the promise of adventure, and every night the steamy scent of danger.
For a city of just under 500,000, outranked in size by such vague metropolises as Columbus and Jacksonville, Charlotte and Phoenix, with just one Fortune 500 company to brag about, it’s incredible how much New Orleans has contributed to American culture. To visitors, New Orleans is the French Quarter and Mardi Gras, restaurants and jazz clubs. Away from the tourist spots, many of the city’s neighborhoods are plagued by extreme poverty, violence, and drugs.
The inner city is carved by racial lines, a mix of African-American communities such as Tremé and the Lower Ninth Ward to the east and, toward the heart of town, whiter, more touristy neighborhoods, such as the Garden District and Uptown. East, west, and south of downtown are suburban neighborhoods where women work in the health-care industry and men in the boom-or-bust oil or shipping industries. Further south, down into the Delta, they are cattlemen, lumbermen, and duck hunters. Greater New Orleans melds Old Europe and Old South, black and white, country clubbers and roughnecks.
Words and inflections from Cajun, French, Spanish, Caribbean, African, and even voodoo infect the region’s dialogue and dialect, so much so that outsiders sometimes can’t understand what locals are saying. Many of them speak a jazzy, Big Easy patois, which sounds a bit Texan, a bit southern, and a bit French, but with a New Yorky edge—like a laid-back Brooklynite faking a southern and a French accent at the same time.
They’ve got names that outsiders can’t pronounce, Cajun-inflected ditties like Arceneaux, Duplessis, Badeaux, Dufrene, LaChute, and Ponce de Leon. Their lexicon is also unique. New Orleans isn’t divided into counties, but parishes. The grassy strip between two lanes of asphalt isn’t the median, but the neutral ground, and sidewalks are still sometimes called banquettes. Like New Yorkers, New Orleanians drop Gs from their ing words or sometimes just lop off the last syllable entirely. This, that, and these become dis, dat, and deze; oil is earl, and boil is berl. Grammar also gets bent, so if Coach Leon agrees with something, he’ll usually say, “Yeah…you right.”
As a popular local newspaper columnist, Chris Rose, once put it, New Orleanians are
“fiercely proud and independent…We talk funny and listen to strange music and eat things you’d probably hire an exterminator to get out of your yard…We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large and, frankly, we’re suspicious of those who don’t.”
New Orleanians also love their sports, especially football, and the proud and stubborn way of doing things affects that devotion as well. Kids grow up dreaming of LSU or Tulane becoming national champs. They’re so committed to the Saints—often derided as the Ain’ts, due to their years of losing—and to their beloved LSU Tigers that, as Rose put it,
“Sometimes we bury our dead in LSU sweatshirts.”
Texas, Ohio, and Alabama are more often thought of as hard-core football states, but polls have ranked Louisiana well ahead of them, propelled largely by the competitive juices of sports-obsessed Greater New Orleans. Based on such statistics as fan interest, percentage of boys who play in high school, and number of players reaching the NFL, Louisiana is
America’s third-most football-crazed state, behind Mississippi and Georgia.
As a local high-school coach once said:
“This is Louisiana. When it’s crawfish season, you catch crawfish. The rest of the time, you play football.”
Some of the John Curtis Patriots grew up playing football in the neutral ground, but the lucky ones had a nearby playground. Not a playground with swings and slides, known locally as shoot-the-chutes. In New Orleans, playgrounds are neighborhood athletic fields, home to Little League teams known as the playground leagues.
The city has 150 playground teams, with hundreds more in the suburban parishes. That entrenched system has produced its share of star athletes, including the Manning boys, Peyton, now the Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback, and brother Eli, the New York Giants’ quarterback. Their dad, Archie was also a star, who stubbornly insisted on playing for his hometown Ain’ts, despite their years of mediocrity.
Most of the 2005 Patriots are products of the playground system.
Critics have accused J.T. of recruiting players right off those playgrounds, right out of grammar school, and of doling out secret scholarships and other perks. The harshest critics have flat out accused John Curtis of being nothing more than a front for a football-obsessed band of academically challenged meatheads, and of sacrificing academics for state championships, all of which leaves J.T. gape-mouthed. The reality is that his players have qualified to attend top universities all over the country.
As J.T. sees it, John Curtis offers a great education and, more than that, a close-knit and nurturing community that grounds kids, morally, spiritually, and academically, for life ahead. But, as with every private school in America, their success is number driven, and he and the other Curtises work hard every day to boost enrollment. “Certainly, we do everything that we can to entice people to come into our school,” J.T. once told a TV interviewer.
“That’s the nature of the business. We’re a private school.”
J.T.’s father never bothered with diplomacy in responding to critics, and was so perpetually proud of his school and his Patriots that he once boasted aloud,
“We’re the Rolls-Royce of athletic factories,” which made big news in a 2000 Times-Picayune story.
J.T. responded to follow-ups from reporters with characteristic directness: “We give our kids the best, and I don’t apologize for that.”
J.T. has battled all kinds of accusations throughout his career. Usually, he steers clear of what he considers petty squabbles. He once attended a meeting of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, or LHSAA, and listened to another high school coach disparage his school: The kids at John Curtis are on steroids, they never go to class, they live in the weight room. J.T. stood up and calmly introduced himself to the coach, then said, “Listen, I don’t know who you are, and I’ve never even seen you in my school. You’ve never walked down my halls or sat in on my classes or even seen my weight room. You don’t know anything about me or my school. Do you?” The guy sheepishly admitted that J.T. was right.
The encounter reminded J.T. that his team might be a powerhouse, but they’re also an underdog, and he’s never going to convince everyone that his success is simply the result of hard work and a deep commitment from his players.
Another battle the school has waged is with the LHSAA itself, which oversees high-school sports programs and determines which teams play which. High schools are broken into five levels, based on enrollment; small schools are Class 1A and big ones are Class 5A. Schools vie for state championships against schools in the same division. John Curtis’s small size had put it in the Class 2A level but, in 1985, enrollment was boosted by a New Orleans–area oil boom and they were bumped up to Class 3A. In 1993 they jumped another level to play in Class 4A. Even after enrollment dropped, the Patriots kept playing at the 4A level and J.T. came to prefer playing bigger teams, playing up, in high school athletics parlance. But the other teams didn’t like getting beaten by little John Curtis Christian School, which reached the 4A state championship game eleven of the next twelve years, and won eight times. Last year, the LHSAA reshuffled its classifications, and they bumped John Curtis all the way back to 2A, restricting the team from playing up. The 2A teams were hardly pleased.
After a group of 2A coaches complained about facing Curtis as their new opponent, the LHSAA shifted Curtis to a different 2A district, whose schools are at least a half hour west of River Ridge, forcing all of the Patriots’ sports teams to travel long distances to and from games. Mr. Curtis, who had had a long-running public feud
with LHSAA president Tommy Henry, resigned in late 2004 as headmaster, in protest of the ruling. J.T. chose not to dwell on the setback, and instead began trying to fill his 2005 schedule with occasional out-of-district games against larger schools.
The first full game of this season, just a week from tonight, is against Cottonwood High, a big 5A team flying in from suburban Salt Lake City, Utah. The week after that, the Patriots are scheduled to play in Alabama against another 5A team.
J.T. does things his way, not worrying about what his competitors gripe about.
“People don’t know what’s inside my heart,” he once told the Times-Picayune. “So I don’t care what some people think of me. As long as I continue to do what I think is right.”
He also doesn’t worry about what anyone thinks of his playbook. He’s maintained a decades-long reliance on an old-fashioned offensive strategy, the simplicity of which doesn’t make him any more popular with rival coaches. His offense may be something of a dinosaur, but in J.T.’s hands, it has become something of a T-Rex.
In 1975, he implemented a triple-option offense known as the Houston Veer, and he’s used it, some would say stubbornly, for three decades. His offense relies less on a vast number of specific plays and more on allowing the quarterback to read the defense and make split-second decisions based on his reads. Triple refers to the quarterback’s three options: hand off to the halfback, pitch out to the other halfback, or run it himself. J.T. likes the old-style running game because it’s unselfish and unpredictable. On three out of four plays, not even the Patriot coaches know who’ll carry the ball.
“The defense doesn’t know what we’re going to do because we don’t know what we’re going to do,” J.T. says.
The veer is less exciting than the West Coast–style passing game most high schools use. It also doesn’t allow running backs to rack up yardage or break records, which is what parents love to see. “A selfish player can’t run my offense,” J.T. once said. “Because a selfish player wants to run the ball.” Indeed, J.T. has never had a back rush for more than two thousand yards in a season, because so many different backs get a chance to carry the ball. Instead of big gains, the Patriots chew up yardage in small bites. Three-and-a-half yards per play is a first down. A string of first downs is a touchdown.
His success with this strategy infuriates competitors, and some Curtises view the football-factory complaints as merely sour grapes from teams the Patriots have beaten with their simple style. Every opponent knows exactly what to expect from the Patriots. They could watch a scouting tape from 1976 or 1986 or 1996, it wouldn’t matter. They’d all look like the same team. Knowing that Curtis runs more or less the same plays year after year is like having a copy of their playbook. And, still, other teams can’t stop the Patriots. It’s like getting whooped by your aunt.
“Love him or hate him, you’ve got to respect him,” Bill Stubbs, the head coach at Salmen High, a long time Curtis rival, once said of J.T. and his methodical offense. J.T. has by now given up on trying to convert his critics. Instead, he lets his record speak for itself, and he’s taught his players to do the same. When opponents taunt them during games, part of the psychological warfare of the sport, he t