PRO BOWL FOOTBALL
Big Easy desperate for some good cheer
Before Hurricane Katrina, the Superdome was a landmark of American sports. In the days following the natural disaster that decimated New Orleans, it became a symbol of divisiveness.
The dome was supposed to be a staging area for people leaving the city. But with evacuation plans gone awry and food and water in short supply, the facility became a house of despair for those without the means to get out -- portrayed in media reports as a place of rapes, robberies and murders, instead of refuge and solace.
Lindsey Williams, in her Baton Rouge condo crowded with New Orleans evacuees, watched it on TV. The LSU senior and New Orleans Saints cheerleader grimaced at the irony.
"It was so weird. We were just in there dancing for a game the Friday before," she said.
The 21-year-old captain of the "Saintsations" spoke yesterday at a news conference promoting the Pro Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 12 at Aloha Stadium. She will perform with other cheerleaders from around the league at the NFL All-Star game.
Williams' family home was in Chalmette, La., a town of around 32,000 just east of New Orleans. Chalmette, with an elevation of 7 feet and near the Gulf of Mexico, was pounded by Katrina. Today, the Williams house, like many others in the area, no longer exists.
"We lost everything," she said. "We were all safe, but we lost everything."
Her family and some friends joined her at Baton Rouge, where she is a senior majoring in kinesiology with a 3.9 grade-point average and medical school aspirations.
Fourteen people crowded into the three-bedroom apartment for nearly 50 days, she said.
"And we knew we were the lucky ones," Williams said. "We're still here. We're still alive."
The hurricane and its aftermath should not be portrayed or perceived as a struggle divided along socioeconomic and racial lines, Williams said. The battered town of Chalmette's population is around 90 percent white with a median income close to $40,000 per year.
"It affected everybody. High, middle, low income. Black and white," Williams said. "Now we're just trying to unify to rebuild our city. It's rebuilding time. We just want our home back."
Some might find it hard to feel sorry for cheerleaders. But the Saintsations, like the rest of the Saints franchise, endured a trying season because of the hurricane. Nine of the 34 members left the pep squad as the club struggled along without a home stadium or a true home city.
"San Antonio and Baton Rouge were great to us, their arms were open," Williams said. "But for us it was always, 'What's going to happen?'"
Recent reports say the Saints might be able to play at the Superdome again as early as next season.
"It will be nice to be back in there," Williams said.
Happy to be here: Tampa Bay's Josh Bidwell also battled adversity to make it to his first Pro Bowl.
The sixth-year punter out of Oregon was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1999, his rookie year at Green Bay.
"I didn't know if I would be playing in the NFL or even be alive," he said yesterday. "If you want a shot of me not smiling it's going to be hard to get."
Conference call: Toss in Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, and all three of yesterday's Pro Bowl participants represent the NFC. Hall, a second-year player who had a tremendous season with 65 tackles and six interceptions, said he will take next Sunday's game seriously.
"This is a real game for me," he said. "I've got my game-face on."
He was asked about the AFC's recent dominance in Super Bowls and Pro Bowls.
"At least we got those pesky Patriots out of the way," Hall said.