I am sitting in the back seat of a Jeep Laredo with a staff photographer and his girlfriend as we speed out of the blasted Midlands tree line and toward sunny Georgia sky.
We are going to see the LSU game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was moved there after the flood hit.
A 10-hour drive away from Columbia, it is supposedly a “home game.” The Louisiana State University band will play our alma mater. Our favorite Finnish pop song, Darude's "Sandstorm," will play before the game starts. (Will the LSU fans bring and swing their own towels, too?)
We are not alone on the road to Baton Rouge. Dozens of cars with garnet-and-black bumper stickers are making their way west to see the Gamecocks play.
It is nearly a week after Columbia flooded. We are leaving a splintered state. Seventeen people are dead. Parts of houses litter what used to be front lawns.
Those who can donate food to distribution centers do so. Those who can’t afford to buy basic necessities take diapers, blankets and fruit cups with a mixture of shame and gratitude.
Volunteering at one of these centers a few days after the flood, I remember seeing a father with three kids waiting in line for supplies.
He looked uncomfortable and said to no one in particular that he usually buys things five-at-a-time at Target. His children’s faces sat fixed forward, staring blankly into middle space.
A little later, a tired woman manning the front table complained that she wasn’t hearing enough “thank you’s” from the people whose houses had just been destroyed.
We drive west — distancing ourselves from these things — to watch a football game.
This has happened before — or at least, something like this.
In 2005, LSU was scheduled to play its first game of the season at home against a then-mediocre Arizona State University.
Then Katrina hit, and Baton Rouge was inundated with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the south of the state.
The powers that were decided to relocate the game to Tempe, Arizona, but keep the “home game” designation. This was the first time such a move had ever happened.
The result? A made-for-TV underdog story. For most of the game LSU trailed the Sun Devils by 10. They managed to score once in first three quarters.
Then, everything happened at once. LSU would put up 28 points in the fourth quarter and edge out a victory, 35-31.
I can only imagine the electricity that those LSU fans must have felt in that dry middle-Arizona heat. They had traveled so far from a tragedy that defied comprehension and saw something spectacular.
Now, ten years later, we're playing them. Are our roles reversed? Will we be afforded the same underdog narrative? That same shock of electricity?
It is after midnight. We have been driving for around 13 hours. We check into a La Quinta Inn just inside the Baton Rouge city limits and fall straight to sleep. Busy day ahead.
The LSU Student Government-sponsored tailgate consists of four aluminum canopies, six wooden tables, three or four plastic bags full of salad and two white industrial cans full of some kind of bean-substance, all spread across a large green field in the middle of campus. It's one of many efforts that LSU has put forth to make “home game” feel less like a comforting lie.
On the roads into Baton Rouge, they’ve put up billboards that read “our home is your home." The Red Cross is collecting donations on campus to help support South Carolina disaster relief. USC Student Body President Jonathan Kaufman will receive a “key to the stadium” before the game begins — whatever that means.
I make small talk with Hannah Knight, the Vice President of LSU’s Student Government. Knight organized the tailgate herself and wants it to make USC fans feel at home. For a moment, it does.
On the field, a portable generator is powering a flat-screen television. Grills and meat-smell abound. Kids in miniature purple-and-yellow jerseys are playing catch with each other.
It's home, more or less. Switch around the colors of the T-shirts and we could be right back in Columbia on any given Saturday.
Of course, we weren’t, and the reality of it rolls on back to me all at once. I’m taken slightly off balance. I shake it off and scan the rest of the field.
Above one of the aluminum canopies, an LSU-themed Confederate Battle Flag flies, purple bars crossing on a yellow field.
I flinch and decide that it’s probably time to get to the game.
I come across a very old man walking towards the stadium. He's chubby, clear-eyed and dressed in a striped garnet polo.
He says that he has gone to every USC game for the last forty years, missing only three. He had never attended USC as a student. He's just a fan.
I ask him if the flooding gave this game special meaning.
“It’s just a game,” he says. “They all mean something.”
Tiger Stadium's stands climb steeply, and the press box is perched at the very top. It has an uncomfortable downward slant. Every so often, the wind blows a sheet of paper out of the box and into the crowd below.
I arrive just as Kaufman receives “the key to the stadium” as a representative of the USC student body. He's standing with another figure in the middle of the field. I squint. He’s handed what looks like a blue-colored plaque. No key that I ever saw.
The stadium is half-full, maybe. There seem to be a good number of people — the noise-level can attest to that — but the sheer number of empty seats can't be ignored.
Tiger Stadium is the ninth largest football stadium in the U.S. and holds a little over 100,000. For this game, LSU managed to sell about 42,000 tickets, the fewest sold in recent memory.
On the “home” side, a small, garnet sliver of maybe 70 people sits near the end zone. Cocky and a small cadre of cheerleaders come out and begin to strut their stuff.
Two large flags, one USC’s and one South Carolina’s, are run out onto the field, followed by the team itself. Familiar music plays. The game begins.
My football knowledge is pathetic. I know about touchdowns and first downs and not much more. I couldn't write a play-by-play to save my life.
So, with that in mind, here are the few things I learned:
USC’s alma mater, when played by the right people and for the right reasons, is a strong expression of human empathy,
Refined empathy is capable of drawing real, shameless tears from the eyes of even the most battle-hardened student journalist,
The sense of unity we’re supposed to feel after a tragedy is selectively applied — it certainly doesn’t come into play when face-masks are being ripped off,
Seventy or so people can make a lot of noise when everyone else is silent,
All it takes to make ~42,000 or so people happy is to put a 6-year-old kid dancing in miniature football padding on the jumbo-tron for a few seconds,
It is a thing of wonder to walk down to the field and watch those who won and those who lost pray together in the hopes that it might bring comfort to someone,
Despite prayers, the state-wide wound half a day to the east exists and will continue to exist for months,
Watching parents of USC football players gather in a stadium backlot and wait for their kids to emerge from the locker room is a quiet, remarkable way to end a long day.
I am once again laying on a bed in a cheap, clean hotel room.
It’s been five hours since the game ended. I’m kept awake by an image.
At the end of the game, USC and LSU players knelt in the middle of the field to pray for those affected by the flooding. Coaches stood resting their hands on the shoulder pads of their players, their heads bent.
It stunned me, the sight of these huge men together, silent and respectful after a heated contest — with a common wish that things were more right with the world than they are now.
Unlike “our home is your home” and various key-giving ceremonies, this was a spontaneous and sincere gesture of unity in the face of death and broken houses. It meant something. It was tangible.
As everyone began to leave the field, a LSU staffer said, to no one in particular and so everyone around him could hear: “We’ve been through Katrina — we know what you’re going through." He repeated it, as if to make sure he was understood.
The alma mater played once more. Then, everyone left for the locker rooms.
My family lives in a Columbia suburb called Forest Acres. It was hit very hard by the flood.
Roads that I have known and traveled across my whole life were destroyed in a day, or made impassable by standing water. Dams broke. Houses unraveled.
My family and my family’s possessions were untouched.
I feel an acute awareness of all that I still possess, and might not have. How insignificant all of this might seem if I had been one of the thousands touched by loss.
It is a luxury to be able to care about a football game after a flood.
It is a luxury to follow a losing team across the country and be able to root for them anyway.
It is a luxury to be one of those who can watch grown men pray for your home state, and know, with some guilt and some relief, that they are not praying for you.