Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette has vivid memories of the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in his hometown of New Orleans. He was 10. And although he said Wednesday he is “not living in the past,” he acknowledged, “it’s a part of my journey.”
A journey that now has taken him to South Florida for the week with the Bucs, who moved their operation to the Miami Dolphins facilities in Miami Gardens, Florida, for at least four days to escape the latest major storm, Hurricane Ianwhich made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s southwest coast, south of Tampa.
“I just know how it was having to walk through that water, pushing over dead bodies for your grandmother and grandfather to pass through,” Fournette said before the Bucs’ practice Wednesday.
“I know how serious it is and how it can turn for the worse. Just stay safe. Protect your family. If you have the choice to evacuate, I feel like that’s what you’re supposed to do especially if you have young kids. “
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Though few have experienced a storm that killed more than 1,800 people and caused $125 billion in damage, or were forced to spend four nights sleeping on a bridge as Fournette did, the inconvenience of having to travel 270 miles to set up camp for a game is put into perspective.
The Tampa Bay area was not in the eye of this storm that packed 155 mph windsbut the wind, rain and storm surges were still enough to make a major impact.
The Bucs were forced to leave town when it was realized Ian’s wrath would be felt up and down Florida’s Gulf Coast. This trip may be about preparing for the Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of the 2021 Super Bowl won by Tampa Bay, but football is not the primary concern.
Family, friends and strangers are as much on their minds as Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Chris Jones. Hurricane plans took precedence over game plans.
“The game of football doesn’t really matter when you’re talking about people’s lives,” Bucs linebacker Devin White said.
Bucs coach Todd Bowles said Wednesday the only way players would focus on their job was if they were sure their families were safe. So plans were made to relocate not just the players and other team personnel but their spouses, children, parents and any other family members, including pets.
“It’s bigger than just the football team … it’s making sure the players’ families are safe and the coaches’ families and everybody on the staff is safe so they can concentrate on football,” Bowles said.
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The games will go on, whether they are moved to another venue (as the NFL is examining for the Bucs-Chiefs game on Sunday night) or another day. Communities will recover. Stadiums will still stand.
But weeks like this, when property — and possibly lives — will be lost and millions of people are fleeing their homes to stay safe, make football, and sports in general, seem inconsequential.
“I know how it is,” said Fournette, who wears No. 7 as a tribute to New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, where he grew up. Most of the Seventh Ward was flooded during Katrina when a canal was breached.
“We’re just praying for the families up there in Tampa.”
Bucs players talked about the preparation of coming to South Florida whether it was packing up the family or guaranteeing the safety of loved ones not traveling. On his podcast, quarterback Tom Brady said he spent Monday morning securing his property and making sure nothing was left loose in the yard.
“I’ve never had to deal with anything like this,” Brady said. “I will say that it’s a scary thing when it really hits your doorstep.”
The week has a family theme. Getting to witness the tender side of men who make a living playing a brutal sport and regularly hurl their bodies into harm’s way has been a bonus.
“It’s cool seeing a lot of our colleagues’ families around,” Fournette said. “Kind of cool seeing them firsthand as fathers, playing with their kids, showing outside of football these guys are great fathers.”
And not just their kids. Linebacker Shaquil Barrett had to figure out the best way to travel with the family’s two dogs, who made the trip.
“I’m glad (for) everybody who made it out and pray for everybody to stay safe who’s still there and hopefully it’s not as bad as it’s supposed to be,” Barrett said. “I know that’s probably not going to happen. Hope everybody stays safe.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism