Every Southeastern Conference town has an old school bar/restaurant that has stayed true to its roots in the face of progress.
There’s something comfortable, re-assuring about these places. New construction comes and goes, but there’s also the one steadfast refuge from daily stress that you bet would be standing even after a nuclear attack.
In Baton Rouge, not far from the gates of LSU, just off Nicholson Drive, tucked under the ramp to the Interstate 10 Mississippi River bridge, is that place.
Officially, it’s called The Pastime Lounge, but the dark cool lounge is the smallest part of the joint that began as a grocery store on the same site in the 1920s. The rest is an extremely informal restaurant, minus waiters. Locals simply call it “The Pastime.”
Write your food order on a slip of paper (the pizza is on my death-row list of foods that I’d request for a last meal), at the counter, leave any name for food pickup and the cashier will call it out, real or make-believe (“Bear Bryant, your pizza is ready, Bear Bryant pickup your pizza”) with a straight face over the crackling public address system.
The Pastime is also where a pictorial history of LSU football hangs on the wall, black and white framed photos of great moments frozen in time. When you’re standing there waiting for your shrimp po-boy (“Jimmy Buffett, your shrimp po-boy is ready, Jimmy Buffett pickup”), you can go get some extra napkins and a straw, look up and see a picture on the wall and say to yourself, “I remember when George Bevan blocked that extra point in the 1969 Auburn game to preserve a one-point win. That was a day game in Tiger Stadium. I hate day games.”
The pictures on The Pastime’s walls sometimes begin heated debates on the subject of the greatest game in LSU history. Your viewpoint often depends on your age.
If you’re 60 years old and over, you’ll vow LSU’s 7-3 win over Ole Miss on Halloween night, 1959, with Billy Cannon’s 89-yard touchdown punt return and game-saving goal line stand, was easily the best.
If you’re 50 and over, it’s the November night in 1971 that traditional college football powerhouse Notre Dame played in Tiger Stadium for the first time and left a 28-8 loser, thanks to quarterback Bert Jones and his cousin Andy Hamilton putting on a pass-catch clinic.
If you’re 30 and over, it was the October 1988 earthquake game, a 7-6 LSU victory over Auburn, with the Tiger Stadium crowd noise so deafening when the Tigers scored that it registered on campus on the school’s Department of Geology seismograph.
And if you’re 20 and over, you’re going to pick LSU’s BCS national championship wins over Oklahoma in 2003 and Ohio State in 2007, both played in New Orleans at the Louisiana Superdome
But the greatest game I’ve ever seen in Tiger Stadium happened five years ago, Sept. 26, 2005, in a game that LSU didn’t even win, a game in which LSU blew a 21-0 halftime lead, a rare occurrence in which a first-year Tiger coach lost in his home debut.
The reason this game, a 30-27 overtime loss to Tennessee – and yes, Tennessee plays at LSU on Saturday for this first time since that ’05 meeting – is the greatest is that it came on the heels of two hurricanes that struck South Louisiana, the first a very nasty lady named Katrina that was the greatest natural disaster in United States history.
Katrina blew ashore on Aug. 29 that year at Buras, Louisiana about 9:45 a.m. and eventually caused the levees to break in New Orleans and change the lives forevermore of hundreds of thousands. The way LSU responded as evacuees poured into Baton Rouge showed the true value of a university to a community in peril. One of Louisiana’s darkest hours was one of LSU’s finest hours.
“Baton Rouge was bursting at the seams with people and traffic, people who didn’t know where they would be one day to the next,” says Jay Dardenne, the current Louisiana Secretary of State who’s a Baton Rouge native and an LSU graduate. “The university’s response was appropriate, but also above and beyond the expected call of duty.
“No other facilities like LSU’s could accommodate the demand at the time of treating the sick and injured. It had the adequate staffing, the adequate space and the accessibility. We showed how resilient we are as a people, and how responsive we are to our fellow Louisianians in need. LSU exemplified that as an institution.”
First-year LSU coach Les Miles had been in the midst of preparing his team for its Sept. 3 home opener against North Texas. Like all coaches in football season, he was oblivious to just about anything in the real world. But even with his tunnelvision, he had heard about a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico named Katrina heading for Louisiana.
For a guy born in Ohio who had never coached anywhere close to the Gulf Coast, Miles wasn’t exactly Danny Doppler when it came to understanding the seriousness of hurricanes. He had no clue until he stopped in for some gas at a Baton Rouge convenience store just before midnight on Sunday, Aug. 28.
"You're looking at somebody who really didn't know what was about to happen," Miles remembers. “The closest I had gotten to a hurricane was a Midwest forecast, where they put that circular thing coming into the Gulf.
"But I was going home that night before and I said to myself, `I better get gas. I don't know why, but I guess I better get gas.' The lines were ridiculous, but there was a guy in there that was going to work until he ran out of gas. I just felt like he was a hero. He felt like that was something he could do. It was midnight, and he was still pumping gas.”
Miles’ orderly and scheduled world got turned upside down when Katrina ripped into the Louisiana-Mississippi border that Monday. By nightfall, water poured through 53 breeches in New Orleans’ broken levees, flooding 80 percent of the city.
Suddenly, the City That Never Sleeps became The City That Couldn’t Stop Weeping. Then-LSU athletic director Skip Bertman was told to re-schedule the season opener against North Texas and the second game the following week on Sept. 10 against Arizona State was moved from Baton Rouge to ASU’s home field in Tempe. Not only did ASU pay for LSU’s travel expenses, but donated the gate to the Red Cross for the Katrina relief fund.
In the immediate days after Katrina came ashore, Baton Rouge became the center for the sick and the fleeing. Right in the middle of it handling the devastated masses were the LSU athletic facilities, such as the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the Carl Maddox Fieldhouse, the Bernie Moore Track Stadium and Alex Box Stadium.
The P-MAC became probably the largest triage center in American history, treating 30,000 sick and injured. The Fieldhouse became a 500-bed hospital.
The track infield was a helipad, an ideal place next to the P-MAC to drop critical patients. The enormous Chinook helicopters rattled the windows of the athletic building, blowing sand out of the long- and triple-jump pits and the gravel out of the shot put and discus area.
The baseball stadium was a drop-off point for evacuees, who were then bused to the Baton Rouge River Center.
"For the first 72 hours, when we didn't have federal or state help, LSU ran the show," recalls Bertman, who retired a couple of years ago. "Everything was done by local doctors, LSU student-athletes, LSU students, faculty and staff.
“Our trainers were there before doctors and nurses were there. There were dentists and pharmacists doing medical work until licensed doctors got there. After two weeks, they were running a first-class hospital with medical people from all over the United States, Virginia, New Mexico. It was great to see people come together. I’ve never been so proud to be at LSU."
With chaos and real-life tragedy invading their pristine world, LSU coaches and athletes responded like champions. Athletes from every sport were among the 3,000 student volunteers, from football players like academic all-American lineman Rudy Niswanger, to the women’s gymnastics team, to basketball stars like Glen 'Big Baby' Davis, who later that year led LSU to the Final Four.
Davis, for example, worked eight hours one of the first nights in the triage center, holding three IVs at once, standing next to a doctor performing a tracheotomy. At the end of the day, he went back to his dorm and started crying uncontrollably.
Ask Davis now about his Katrina experience, and though he has gone on to play in two NBA Finals and win a league title with the Boston Celtics, he’ll quickly tell you the time he spent staring tragedy in the face made him a better man.
"It kind of changed my life, especially in the game of basketball," Davis says. "It showed me what kind of impact I had on people and basically what's my purpose in life. It gave me a purpose to strive for. I'm always going to walk around with a smile.”
Miles had 37 of his players from Katrina-affected areas of New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama. Many of their families fled to Baton Rouge to stay in the apartments of their football-playing sons, like receiver Skyler Green housing 20 people in his two-bedroom apartment for 10 days.
Because of such stress, Miles shut down practice for several days. He gave his team time to grieve and to volunteer for clothes and food drives, and to visit evacuees at the River Center, just two miles from the LSU campus and around the corner and down the block from The Pastime.
The River Center, a downtown arena originally known as the Baton Rouge Centroplex, was misery central. Evacuees were basically dumped there to sleep on cots until they could find their loved ones. . .if they could find their loved ones.
“Some people were there just for a day or two until they could hook up with family and move on, and there were some people who didn’t have any place else to go,” recalls Alan Freeman, then-the River Center general manager who’s now the GM of the Superdome. “They didn’t have family, and they didn’t have any resources to fall back on. After they left us, they went to these mobile home parks set up by FEMA. It was a real eye-opener for a lot of us.”
Especially Freeman. He had been on the job in Baton Rouge for just a couple of months when Katrina hit. He was in Nashville visiting music agents to drum up business when the storm hit, and was summoned back to his arena.
When he got there a couple of days later, he was stunned at the wall-to-wall pain and suffering. He and Randy Phillipson, Freeman’s director of event services at the time, would walk through the arena almost any time of day and see people sobbing with tears pouring down their faces.
At its peak, the River Center held 6,700 evacuees, with a total of about just more than 10,000 after the first four weeks. Freeman knew, figuring restroom and shower usage, that his building would be stretched if it housed more than 1,500 people.
“It was chaotic, because all these arenas really aren’t equipped to function as shelters for that period of time,” Freeman says. “I can tell you precisely the Baton Rouge River Center functioned as a shelter for seven weeks well into October.
“At the end of the day, you look back and say that we performed a service that needed to be performed. And we helped people get back on their feet a bit and helped them get their lives together. From that perspective, we feel pretty good about it.”
LSU football players who visited the River Center, like Niswanger and Kyle Williams, who now play in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills, will never forget the sights and the sounds.
“There were so many kids walking around not knowing where their parents were, and so many parents who didn’t know where their kids were,” Williams said at that time.
Niswanger said back then he'd never forget being greeted by a Red Cross volunteer, who was overjoyed that the LSU players had stopped in for a visit.
"I was thinking that she was thanking me for visiting for maybe 90 minutes," Niswanger said, "and she and people like her were going to be here for 15 to 20 hours for the next 3-to-4 weeks, or more.
"It made me think how thankful I am for people like her. It impressed on me the love of humanity for a tragedy that I didn't know was there. I'd never seen it before."
Eventually, Miles got his team back on the practice field to get ready for the unexpected road trip to Arizona State. Even with the noisy helicopters filled with the sick, injured and dead swooping over the LSU practice fields and ambulance sirens wailing all hours of the day, hitting each other and sweating in the south Louisiana heat and humidity was for once a welcome relief for the players.
“You evaluate what you can do to affect your environment and what you can do to help the people you love the most,” Miles says. “Our team decided the thing it could do best was not to nail shutters on to homes, not to help clean up, but to play football.
“When our players stepped across the line in the practice field, they dropped everything behind them. Did they really leave everything behind them? Probably not. But what they did was donated two hours each day to a complete want to play excellent football. I thought they made great decisions.”
Baton Rouge began perking up again when LSU won its opener at Arizona State, 35-31. The Tigers battled back from a 17-7 deficit at the end of the third quarter, scoring the game-winning TD on a scrambling 39-yard, fourth-down pass by JaMarcus Russell.
It seemed like more of a true game week when LSU finally got set to play its Sept. 24 home opener against Tennessee. But that game got delayed two days to Monday night, still the only Monday night game in Tiger Stadium history, because Hurricane Rita blew into Baton Rouge on that football Saturday.
The delay caused another problem. Tennessee’s football team had no where to stay. FEMA had taken all the hotels.
“The next thing I know,” Bertman says, “that I read in the paper (Tennessee coach) Phil Fulmer is saying, `I’m not going to worry about something like that (no hotel rooms). We’ll come in day of game and leave that night, don’t care if we don’t have a place, we’ll use the locker room to rest, just like we did in high school.’ Fulmer was a real gentleman about it. I'll never forget that.”
All that was left was to play the game. But as kickoff approached, as the LSU band lined up for its pregame show, you could see something unusual in the stands.
Long-time season ticket holders just didn’t greet other with handshakes. There were prolonged hugs, accompanied by backslaps of relief to see their friends had made it through the storm.
And 12 minutes before kickoff, when the band played the familiar opening pregame notes, “Dah, dah, daaaaaaaaaah, dah,” acknowledging all sides of the stadium one by one, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
“It was absolutely electric,” says Dardenne, whose late father John had been a ticket-taker for many years at a northeast Tiger Stadium gate. “There was finally a sense that everything is going to be okay. The Tigers are back in Tiger Stadium, everything is right with the world, even though everything was not right with the world at that point. At least for a few hours, it was a sign that things were going to get back to normal.”
In a Hollywood ending, LSU would have built on its 21-0 halftime lead and celebrated a grand victory over the Vols. Except Tennessee made a furious comeback won, after switching quarterbacks (ironically inserting LSU transfer Rick Clausen) and after making halftime defensive adjustments via coordinator John Chavis, who now is LSU’s D-coordinator.
Despite having to re-schedule the North Texas game to what had been an open date on Oct. 29, which meant LSU had to play 11 straight weeks, the Tigers won nine straight games (including seven straight in the SEC) after the Tennessee loss.
LSU won the Western Division and rose to No. 3 nationally, but had nothing left in its physical and emotional tank, losing to No. 13 Georgia, 34-13, in the SEC championship game. Then with some rest, the Tigers came back strong in the Peach Bowl to hammer Miami, 40-3, finishing the season 11-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC, with that lone league loss to Tennessee.
In the end, LSU had won two overtime games (Auburn and Alabama) and had beaten four teams ranked in the top 15, then a school record for regular season victories over ranked opponents. Miles, as the winningest first year coach in LSU history, also became the only coach in his first year in the SEC to lead his team to the title game. He also became the first coach in LSU history to beat Alabama, Auburn and Florida in the same season.
And even though LSU won the ’07 national title two years, that nine-game win streak in Miles’ first year remains his longest in the regular season. Amazingly, he didn’t win SEC Coach of the Year honors after rallying the team in the face of two hurricanes.
But he was a winner in the eyes of Bertman, who had hired him.
“The way Les Miles handled that season was the most grace under pressure I’ve ever seen from a coach, one of the greatest coaching jobs I’ve ever seen,” Bertman says to this day. “He did a magnificent job of keeping his boys focused.”
A year after Katrina, Miles took his wife Kathy and his children Kathryn, Manny, Ben and Macy Grace on a drive through New Orleans, starting from the West Bank, going as far east as he could, into St. Bernard Parish and back across the bridge.
“To see all the devastation was absolutely amazing," Miles says.
That seems like a long time ago for Miles and most of his current players. But the scars of Katrina are still very real to senior defensive back Dan Graff, who’s from the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. Katrina is a major reason he’s on the LSU team.
Rewind five years and Graff was in his first week as a freshman at Louisiana-Lafayette where he was attending on a partial track scholarship. He had been all-state in track and all-district in football as a senior at Rummel High.
“I’d been at ULL a week when Katrina was about to hit,” Graff says. “I went home to help the family evacuate. We didn’t evacuate the year before when Ivan was supposed to hit, and we dodged a bullet then. I don’t think it even rained.
“So as we were leaving because of Katrina, I kind of figured that everything would be okay again. Come to find out it was a complete disaster. Trees down, flooding, homes destroyed, it was kind of surreal.
“The only communication we had with home was watching CNN. It was weird watching TV. You start to recognize streets and buildings that you grew up near and you couldn’t believe they were underwater.”
Graff stayed a week in Little Rock, made his way back to Alexandria in central Louisiana for a week. When he and his family were allowed by the military to return to their house for a day to salvage anything they could, they were stunned.
“A tree fell on our house, the backyard didn’t look anything like it used to and a lot of grass was dead from the water,” Graff says. “There’s no color to the city, it was all just brown and completely quiet.”
He never returned to school at ULL. Instead, he enrolled as a normal student playing no sports at the University of New Orleans in the fall of 2006. With barely 2,000 students enrolled, it didn’t have the college atmosphere he desired. Plus, he missed playing sports.
“I was always wondering `Why was this happening to me?’,” Graff says. “I had a scholarship to run track (at ULL), to get a good education, basically free and it got thrown away. But I felt taking care of my family was more important at that time.
“Yet, the experience of the hurricane made me miss sports. I took it for granted how much I’d fall back on sports to feel better about myself, I didn’t have that, and I had to get back into it.
“All my friends were at LSU having fun. I was missing sports a lot. In high school, there were a lot of guys I played against that were being recruited by LSU. I was like, `What makes them so special?’ So I decided to walk-on at LSU and give sports one more try. Even if I didn’t make it, I was going to LSU no matter what.”
But Graff did make the team in the fall of 2007. In his very first practice, he intercepted two Ryan Perrilloux passes. And the last two seasons, he became one of LSU’s best special team players, with a combined 18 tackles and a blocked punt.
This past February, after providing the NCAA with documentation and pictures of the damage Katrina did to his house (which his family continues to rebuild) and ultimately his life, Graff was granted a sixth year of eligibility this season.
The last time Tennessee was in Tiger Stadium, Graff was one of many hurricane evacuees was in the crowd.
“I remember that game,” says Graff, who already has five tackles in the Tigers’ first four games this season. “We left the stadium in the third quarter thinking the game was over.
It’s a good bet this Saturday Graff won’t be leaving Tiger Stadium early. He has a better seat. And besides, he might make the play that gets his picture on the wall at The Pastime.