SPORTS
08/29/2015 09:02 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2015

From 'Katrina Kid' To Nebraska Quarterback: Tommy Armstrong Beats The Odds

A decade ago, Hurricane Katrina forced Nebraska's quarterback from his home. As the nation marks an anniversary, he's only focused on producing his biggest season yet.
Gregory Shamus via Getty Images

Nadine Armstrong took her son to his grandparents’ house as the skies darkened, and left him there as the ocean began to bellow off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Now the starting quarterback at the University of Nebraska, Tommy Armstrong wasn’t even a teenager then, and even as the winds howled and water surged into the streets of Gulfport, Mississippi, he wasn’t scared. His mother had spent the week before telling him not to fear the hurricane they called Katrina.

So Tommy didn’t know that the storm had already pounded Florida, that it had paused to hover over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico long enough to grow from just another hurricane into one of historic strength.

When it finally blew through, the house where Tommy lived with his mother suffered water and roof damage but was still standing. But in a matter of weeks, he’d join hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who flocked to the drier lands of Texas. He remembers now that he was “devastated” to leave his mother. But he was lucky, too. His father and younger brother already lived in San Antonio. He had somewhere to go.

Today, as the nation marks the 10th anniversary of one of the most destructive storms in the Gulf Coast’s history -- the storm that changed Tommy Armstrong's life -- Armstrong is focused on football. The start of his third season as the Cornhuskers’ quarterback is now just a week away. Every year is a big one, he said, but this one needs to be his biggest yet.

Armstrong came to Lincoln as a heralded recruit, a perfect fit to become the next in a line of quarterbacks that have threatened defenses with their legs as much as their arms. He showed signs of that promise early, helping Nebraska to 17 wins in his first two seasons, but now he faces an entirely new challenge: New coach Mike Riley prefers a more traditional passing attack, and Armstrong has to show Husker fans he can thrive in that system too.

Anxious to prove and improve himself, Armstrong spent the last two summers back on the football fields of Mississippi, where he worked under the eyes of Brett Favre, the NFL legend who laid the foundation for a Hall of Fame career while at Hancock North Central High just down the road. Favre lived through Katrina from afar. Still in Green Bay, Wisconsin, at the time, it took him days to make contact with his family in the area. Katrina’s floodwaters washed his boyhood home away.

But even back in Mississippi, Armstrong’s mind stayed trained on his arm angle, his reads, his release point.

“We didn’t really talk about it,” he said of the storm. Favre drilled home the habits and techniques that made him the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards and, when he retired in 2010, passing touchdowns. Katrina didn’t enter the conversation. “We didn’t really talk about the past.”

It wasn't really about football then. It was just about seeing if we could recover. Lindy Callahan, former head coach at Gulfport High School

Gulfport is a football town. In days past, it was the type of place where local businesses shut down on Friday nights. There wasn’t any reason to stay open if everybody was at the game. 

The region has produced its share of collegiate and professional talent, and Tommy Armstrong Jr. was born into that lineage. His father, Tommy Sr., was a standout at Gulfport High in the 1980s -- Armstrong the elder was “one heck of an athlete,” his former coach recalled. Nadine played softball and basketball at the school. Before the storm, everyone thought Tommy Jr. would play at Gulfport one day too.

Katrina blew into the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, and brought with it a 30-foot tidal wave that left parts of Gulfport seven or eight feet underwater. The tides swept over the railroad tracks a mile or so inland. They ripped beachfront homes off their foundations and tore the city’s iconic casinos from their moorings. Rising waters littered the Gulfport streets with barges and shipping containers and everything else they could find to carry.

Gulfport, the state’s second-largest city, is the seat of Harrison County, which suffered the most damage in Mississippi. The city’s fire chief estimated that three-quarters of its buildings suffered major roof damage. The storm gutted the local hospital and hammered the city's elementary schools. The area around Gulfport and neighboring Biloxi lost 41,000 residents, more than any other single area outside New Orleans.

Katrina hit just as students readied to return to school, or, as they measure the calendar in the South, right as football season was about to begin.

Suddenly, football went from the front page of every local paper to an afterthought. 

“Everybody was on their own trying to recover,” said Lindy Callahan, a former athletic director at Gulfport High School, the only secondary school in the city’s school district. “Most people were either hit or had family involved. It wasn’t anything about football or school then. It was just about seeing if we could recover.”

When there actually was time to consider football, it was “just see if we could have a season at all,” he said.

School and the 2005 football season returned in September after a three-week delay. But Katrina had decimated the Gulfport district, which saw enrollment drop by nearly 2,000 -- a third of its pre-storm student body.

“We lost so many students, lost so many athletes,” Callahan said. “It stayed that way for four or five years.”

Gulfport's Grand Casino barge washed ashore onto Highway 90 during Hurricane Katrina before transportation officials demolish
Steve Helber/Associated Press
Gulfport's Grand Casino barge washed ashore onto Highway 90 during Hurricane Katrina before transportation officials demolished it and moved it back to the beach.

Like more than 80 percent of those who left Mississippi in the days and weeks after the storm, Tommy Armstrong eventually came back, returning to Gulfport for middle school a year after Katrina.

He had loved growing up on the beach. But after Katrina, Gulfport’s white sand shorelines were almost useless, swept away in the floods and suffocated by debris and the efforts to clean up. He had always noticed the casinos, too, the hulking structures that line the beaches from Gulfport to Biloxi, a dozen miles up the coast. The water pushed one of them across Highway 90, almost to his mother's house.

In Gulfport, Armstrong helped lead his middle-school football team to two consecutive undefeated seasons. But before high school, he decided to move back to Texas. The opportunity to mentor his younger brother and have his father in his life pulled him back. So, too, did the chance to hone his skills in the hotbed of American high school football.

On the field, at Steele High in Cibolo, 30 miles northeast of San Antonio, Armstrong blossomed into one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks. He led the Knights to two straight appearances in the Class 5A state title game and amassed more than 1,500 all-purpose yards in each of his final two seasons. He caught the eye of college recruiters -- Rivals.com pegged him as the nation’s ninth-best dual-threat quarterback -- and he chose Nebraska, a natural fit for a signal-caller as adept at running as he was throwing, without giving other schools much of a chance.

In Lincoln, injuries to Nebraska’s starting quarterback forced Armstrong onto the field as a redshirt freshman in 2013. The Huskers won eight games, and his ability to beat defenses with his arm showed up in flashes. In the 2014 Gator Bowl, with Nebraska facing 3rd-and-long from their own goalline, Armstrong dropped deep into his own end zone and hit wide receiver Quincy Enunwa in stride 45 yards downfield. Enunwa shoved off a tackle and took it to the end zone. It was the longest play in Nebraska history, and the decisive score in the Huskers' 24-19 win over Georgia.

As a sophomore, Armstrong threw for nearly 2,700 yards and 22 touchdowns and led the Huskers to nine wins. But that’s not good enough in Lincoln, where conference titles and national championship contention are the markers of success. In December, Nebraska fired head coach Bo Pelini, which Armstrong protestations. Riley left Oregon State to take the job three days later. Now that star running back Ameer Abdullah is gone to the NFL, all eyes are on Armstrong as the Huskers try to push their way back to the upper echelons of college football.

Turn the conversation to the gridiron and the pressure he might be facing, and a confident Tommy Armstrong emerges.

“Every season I want to have a big season,” he said. “But I think this year will be one of my best."

They’re watching back on the coast.

“He’s still one of ours,” Callahan, the former Gulfport High coach and athletic director, said. “I rate him to be the star quarterback this year.”

A barge brought ashore by Katrina's floodwaters sits in the middle of a residential street in Gulfport, Mississippi. 
Bloomberg via Getty Images
A barge brought ashore by Katrina's floodwaters sits in the middle of a residential street in Gulfport, Mississippi. 

Forced to hastily relocate into new cities and neighborhoods, thousands of Louisianans and Mississippians who migrated to the Lone Star State’s largest cities met varying degrees of welcome. They were often blamed for crime waves and homicide sprees, despite little evidence to support such claims. School districts in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas did their best to open arms to children who found themselves plopped into new cities, homes and schools, but it wasn’t always a smooth process. Newspapers published anecdotal accounts of Katrina kids fighting with their new classmates as they struggled to fit in.

Mississippi’s schools did not undergo the sweeping changes that took place in New Orleans, where the state took over and closed many public schools and converted others to charters. But Mississippi's children of Katrina faced their own problems. “The story doesn’t end well,” said Dr. Michael Ward, an educational psychology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Two years after Katrina, kids who were displaced in the storm -- meaning they started the 2005 school year in one school and finished it in another -- had lower rates of attendance and academic achievement than those who didn’t have to move, and than they’d had before the storm. They were less likely to move on to the next grade on time and had higher rates of suspension and expulsion than before the storm hit, a study Ward co-authored found.

Katrina’s effects on the children who lived through it persisted long after the floodwaters receded back into the Gulf. Five years later, rates of suspension for displaced students “were the highest yet,” Ward said.

“Some of these things predated the storm,” Ward said. “(Katrina) made them worse.”

The children who faced Katrina’s worst educational and sociological effects were disproportionately poor and minority students, the study found. Though its research was limited to Mississippi, schools in Louisiana have faced even harsher problems -- in 2006, 20 percent of displaced students were not enrolled or missed school regularly. Those problems still linger: No state in America has more people between the ages 16 and 24 who are neither working nor enrolled in school. It is likely, Ward said, that some of the same problems his team found in Mississippi plagued displaced students in Texas and other states too.

Armstrong was remarkably lucky. He knows he faced an “easier transition” than many of his fellow students. He knew the San Antonio area from spending summers with his father there as a child, and living with Tommy Sr. and mentoring his younger brother grounded him in his new home in San Antonio. He missed his mother, but they made a promise to talk at least once a week to keep Nadine up on his schoolwork, his friends, his life -- and his football, too.

Dr. David A. Swanson, a professor at the University of California-Riverside who worked at the University of Mississippi in 2005, went to the Gulf Coast after the storm hit. After assisting with recovery efforts, he and a team of researchers looked into the effects Katrina had on local residents. They found that those with well-established social networks -- through family, church, social organizations, and though they didn’t study it exactly, perhaps football and other sports too -- fared best in the immediate term after the storm.

Still, catastrophic events have immeasurable traumatic effects on children, and studies have shown that when it comes to Katrina, those who were adolescents when the storm hit might have fared worst. Kids like Armstrong who made it to college and beyond, Ward said, “beat the odds.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

It is not hard to find stories of football players who lost homes or had to move, even temporarily, because of Katrina. In the weeks and months after the storm, thousands of them were pushed into different schools in states they had never before visited. The storm interrupted high school seasons, delayed arrivals to college, changed the course of careers forever. Three of San Antonio’s top high school football recruits in Armstrong’s senior class were Katrina kids. In the years before, and in other parts of Texas, the number was even higher. 

For many of them, football was one way to cope, an outlet into which they could channel the frustrations and struggles of old homes lost and new homes Katrina forced them to find. Armstrong echoes the life lessons many of those players say they took away from the storm. Katrina, he said, made him “grow up a little bit” and appreciate what he has -- not materially, but through his family. He returns to Gulfport once or twice a year, and it’s impossible to miss the ways the city is still trying to piece itself all the way back together, and the ways it hasn’t.

It's getting there. You can't really rebuild in five to 10 years. Tommy Armstrong

Displaced residents eventually started to return to Gulfport, and the need to rebuild the city opened up construction jobs that lured new families. Enrollment bounced back, and football started to come with it. The district rebuilt the school and Gulfport High’s stadium. In the weeks and years after Katrina, football grew into a symbol of the region’s resilience, as high schools across Louisiana and Mississippi that had fought just to field teams for the 2005 season slowly rebuilt programs and stadiums and won new championship banners to hang in them.

But Gulfport is still littered with reminders. Concrete slabs line the shoreline where homes that will never return once sat. There are new casinos, shops and stores, but some are still missing. There are opportunities for young men and women who didn’t have enough football talent to carry them somewhere else, but probably fewer than there were a decade ago.

“It’s getting there,” Armstrong said. “You can’t really rebuild ... in five to 10 years. It’s a work in progress.”

Armstrong doesn’t spend much time pondering how life might be different had Katrina not hit, had he not had somewhere to go when it did. When he does, his mind wanders back to football.

“I sometimes wish I’d have gotten to see how that would have turned out,” he said of the possibility of playing at Gulfport High with his middle school teammates, the ones who’d gone twice undefeated. He paused for just a second. “But I don’t have any regrets," he added. "I got myself into a great situation.”

CONVERSATIONS