HIGH ISLAND, Texas - Inside the High Island locker room, thick with the residue of sweat and socks and the struggles of countless football games past, there was no pretense, no show of bravado, no empty boasting.
Here, there was only a high school football team - 27 boys in maroon and white, shoulders padded, helmets in hand, eyes fixed forward or darting anxiously around the room. There was only family - a clan scattered by the forces of nature and reunited through sheer will and desire.
Here, against all odds, were the High Island Cardinals, shifting their weight on weathered wooden benches, tapping their toes, checking the clock.
In a few moments, they would play their first home game since Hurricane Ike pummeled the Texas coast, decimating their working-class communities on the Bolivar Peninsula and putting the fate of their team and their school in jeopardy.
Just a few weeks earlier, no one knew if the school would reopen. No one knew how many of the 221 students - among them, 31 football players - or 43 staff members would return. Or if any would have homes to return to.
Most, as it turned out, did not. About 85 percent of the students and half of the staff lost their houses altogether. Many of the homes still standing were unlivable. And the families, once woven so tightly in the beach towns of the peninsula, had been dispersed to far-flung corners of Texas.
Then, Coach Paul Colton put out a call to his players: Anyone who wanted to play ball should come back for practice. Anyone who needed a place to stay could bunk with him.
In a flurry of text messages, online messaging and cell phone activity, the High Island Cardinals brought their team back to life.
These high school boys, who had already lost so much, did not want to lose the season they had just started. They needed that, just like they needed each other, just like the community - so badly wounded by the storm, so much in need of a little hope - needed them.
Now, with the minutes ticking to a Saturday afternoon kickoff, the stands outside were filling with family, friends and faculty, all eager to welcome the Cardinals home.
Inside the field house, fingers rat-a-tatted on helmets, cleats pattered nervously against the floor, and defensive tackle Joey Manuel rapped "The Super Bowl Shuffle" - the Cardinals' pre-game good luck song - softly to himself.
Then quarterback Tiner George strode the perimeter of the locker room, slapping palms with each of his teammates.
"Just do what you do," Tiner counseled. "It's just like practice."
All Coach Colton needed was 13 players - 11 on the field, two on the bench. With that, he would have a team.
At the first practice, two weeks after the Sept. 13 storm, 14 Cardinals stood on the field.
Ike had taken nearly everything from them.
In the towns of Crystal Beach and Gilchrist, where many High Island students live, most of the roads have been erased and are still mired in sand and debris. Abandoned cars lie entrenched in muck. Row after row of houses are splintered and shattered, reduced to twisted pilings or concrete slabs.
These students had lost their homes and their clothes, their family photos and other cherished keepsakes, their four-wheelers and trucks, their iPods and Playstations. All gone.
Their parents, still reeling from the devastation, had moved in with relatives or rented motel rooms in towns an hour or more away.
Yet, the boys had come back to the school most had attended since kindergarten, to the field where they could prove that their dreams had not been dampened by the storm.
Several of the boys had moved in with Colton, and his assistant coach, Justin Charrier, who share a house near campus. A couple of players were rooming with another coach, John Hughes, and his wife, who had also taken in two high school girls. Others found space with friends or family or faculty members.
This was only Colton's second year as High Island athletic director. Yet, the gruff-voiced man with a handlebar mustache had already come to love these kids as he loves his own.
Colton, a 44-year-old father of three, divides his time between his home in Kountze, about an hour north of High Island, and the house he shares with Charrier. In his 23 years coaching at schools around East Texas, Colton had counseled players dealing with the darkest of adolescent traumas - absentee parents, sexual assault, physical abuse.
He had always kept his door open and his sturdy shoulder ready to lean on. But he had never dealt with the kind of destruction Ike had left behind.
And that day, as Colton groped for the right words, he thought of the boys on his roster:
Mason Mounkes, the running back with the easy grace of a natural athlete. Joey Manuel, a solidly built teenager with an impish grin. Holden Sievers, the tight end with a toothy, aw-shucks smile. Tiner George, the quarterback with the perfect posture and team captain's poise.
Beneath their teenage bluster, Colton knew his players were hurting. Their world had collapsed around them, and they needed something to hold onto.
So Colton talked about belief and faith and family. Belief in each other, in what they were trying to do. Faith that the rest of this team - this family - would return.
This story has not been written yet, Colton told the players, you are writing it.
Whose team is this? Colton asked.
Coach, this is our team! the players shouted back.
The next day, 15 players were at practice. By the time school reopened on Oct. 6, 20 players had returned - and the Cardinals had a new slogan, coined by Tiner:
"A Force to be Reckoned With."
In a curve of the road, just before High Island town limits, a tattered sign lies crookedly in a swampy field spotted with small oil wells. It reads: "Welcome to Cardinal Country."
The storm-tossed sign marks the entrance to the Bolivar Peninsula, a narrow strip of land that stretches 27 miles along the Texas Gulf Coast,and encompasses a collection of modest beach towns, fishing resorts, bird sanctuaries and salt marshes.
Along Highway 87, which cuts through the peninsula, the road is lined with the remains of restaurants, shops, and motels that once drew thousands of tourists and weekenders to the communities of Crystal Beach and Gilchrist, and provided jobs for High Island students and their parents.
So much of the peninsula is now gone. High Island, which sits 32 feet above sea level, emerged bloodied by Ike but still standing.
So did High Island School. The main building was mostly unscathed, but the school's bus barn was ripped away by the storm and two of the football field's four light posts toppled over. A blue tarp covers a gash in the ceiling of the athletic department's equipment room. The gear stored inside was ruined.
The school, so small that elementary and middle school students share the cafeteria with high schoolers and kindergartners ask football players for autographs, now seems even smaller.
Only 130 students - about 59 percent of the pre-storm enrollment - have returned. Another 16 transferred from other districts swiped by the storm. The Class of 2009 now numbers only 13.
At first, the students reveled in the joy of being back together. They told evacuation stories and hugged, chatting eagerly to make up for lost time.
Then they noticed which desks were still empty, and who would not be coming back. And they began going back to Crystal Beach and Gilchrist, where they found vacant swatches of land where their homes once stood.
The next day, the students would drag quietly into class, said high school science teacher Maria Skewis.
Skewis' home on Crystal Beach was mangled by the storm, but it is one of the few still left in her neighborhood. Until it can be repaired, Skewis is sharing a room in a High Island church with other staffers and two high school girls.
The girls often talk about what they lost: their possessions and belongings, their family routine and their ruptured friendships.
The boys embroider stories about riding Ike out, rescuing family members from the thrashing winds and encountering alligators on flooded roads. They joke about their prolonged "hurrication" - the three-week break from school - and claim that they shouldn't get homework because they no longer have homes.
"It is getting to the girls first. It will get to the boys later," said Skewis. "Right now, they can rally around football. Sports is keeping them together."
So is their coach.
Since the storm, as many as seven boys have roomed in his small taupe house just down the road from campus. Inside those walls, the rooms burst with youthful chaos. Clothes tumble out of plastic bins and small duffel bags. Twin beds are shoved into tight spaces and covered in a tangle of sheets. A collection of horror movie DVDs and video games crowds the coffee table.
Here Colton, the broad-shouldered commander of the football field, suddenly becomes den mother and homework wrangler.
"You've got homework to do when you get home, all my little children who are staying with me," Colton called out at the end of one practice, as the players plodded to the locker room.
On most nights, he is in the kitchen whipping up chicken fajitas or hot dogs, which the boys sometimes gobble up straight out of the pans.
Colton has made sacrifices for his team. He can't go home as much as he'd like to, and like the other coaches and teachers looking after students, most of the money for food and other expenses comes out of his own pocket.
But Colton knows he is exactly where he should be.
"These kids have taught all of us something about perseverance and overcoming obstacles," said Colton. "Win or lose, they've already done a tremendous thing."
On the practice field, where grunts echo across the gridiron and bodies thud against pads, the scars of Hurricane Ike seem far away. Inside this rectangle of grass, there is no room for grief or introspection, no time to ponder what was lost or the enormity of what lies ahead.
For two hours a day, there are only hits and tackles, gristle and swagger. There is good-natured ribbing and tough-as-nails coaching.
And there is solidarity - not just from wearing the Cardinal colors, but from sharing calamity.
"We're all one! We're family," Holden Sievers yelped during one practice, as he bumped fists with Joey Manuel. "That's what's up. Show love."
Holden's house was battered, but survived the storm. Everyone else in his extended family lost businesses or homes. The 17-year-old junior bunked at the coach's place until his father secured a trailer.
Joey, 18, remembers standing in front of the spot where his house used to be, pretending to twist the now-vanished doorknob and to open the now-vanished door. Only the washing machine and dryer remained. Ike had swallowed the rest.
Then he spent several hours digging through the sand and the debris, trying to find one of the pieces from his mother's treasured collection of bells. He did not find a single bell.
Joey's mother, a single parent of six boys, is staying with relatives until she can regroup.
After Max Reho's family lost their Crystal Beach home, they moved in with his grandmother, about a 45-minute commute from High Island. Like most of his teammates, Max can describe the exact moment he saw the vacant lot that had been his house.
"I felt like someone punched me in stomach, kicked me in the side, poked me in the eye and made me cry," said Max, 16, a compact but muscular junior. "I lived in that house my whole life. Now it's just a memory."
Mason Mounkes, whose family moved to Crystal Beach two years ago after scrimping to buy a beach house, is now living with his parents in a motel room about 20 miles from High Island. Their dream house is gone.
"I thought it was my duty to come back. The way I grew up, I was taught when you start something, you finish it," said Mason, a 17-year-old junior who also found a bed at the Colton's house. "Just because a hurricane came through doesn't mean everything good is gone."
And, every day, at the end of every practice, the Cardinals assemble in a semicircle around their coach and are reminded of how much they still have.
"I believe in you guys. I hope you believe in yourselves," Colton says. "This is your team."
Then the players hoist their helmets high, clicking the hard plastic shields above their heads, and with a shout, remind themselves of their common goal.
"Hard work on three!"
The day of the High Island Cardinals-West Hardin Oilers game, Oct. 18, dawned sunny and bright. Mosquitoes were biting, and dragonflies swirled in clusters across the football field. By game time, the thermometer would reach a temperate 80 degrees - perfect Texas football weather.
Inside the locker room, Colton had gathered his players around him.
"It ain't time for rah rah right stuff now. Good things going to happen today, really good things. We are going to have great plays made on the field today, and some bad plays. You can't have all good and no bad," Colton said. "Remember not to blame anybody, pick up your teammates and always keep your head up. Don't come off the field dejected at any time."
"Stay together as a team. You've been together all year, never been more together than since after the storm. You stay together, and let them know we're a family."
Outside, the rest of their family awaited. Parents and siblings, teachers and long-graduated alumni, displaced homeowners and school boosters. It seemed like all of Bolivar Peninsula was streaming onto the aluminum bleachers for the team's first post-Ike home game.
On the sidelines, the High Island cheerleaders rallied the crowd: "C-A-R-D-I-N-A-L-S! We are the best!" In the stands, maroon-shirted fans whooped and hollered and stamped their feet.
For many, this game was the first community gathering since the hurricane churned through their towns and blew them away. Five weeks to the day since Ike, they were sitting side-by-side in the bleachers, waiting for High Island to take the field.
Rhonda Althauser-Jackson struggled hard to hold back her emotions. Her son, James "Leli" Lupeheke, 15, a sophomore, was on this team. Since the storm, Althauser-Jackson has been living in Texas City, her husband is in Beaumont, and James in High Island with the coach. Their house still stands, but the first floor and James' room were washed away.
"This is a breath of fresh air. We need it. The storm has been tearing families apart ... ," she said, gulping back tears. "It was important for all of us to get the boys back together."
A few weeks ago, this game had seemed like an impossibility. Now, no matter the final score, it already felt like a miracle.
"It doesn't matter who wins," said Althauser-Jackson. "What matters more is that they're playing at home."
And in fact, the Cardinals would lose on this day, 36-22, though they came back from a 28-0 deficit. But there would be other games, other practices, other chances to get back up after being knocked down - on the field and off.
The boys in maroon and white had made sure of that.