It should come as no surprise that The University of South Carolina athletic department jumped at the opportunity to help the people of Baton Rouge in the wake of devastating flooding.
The Louisiana capital became something of a home-away-from-home for the Gamecock football just last year. When faced with a similar situation last October, LSU welcomed South Carolina into Baton Rouge for a designated Gamecock home game, and the Tigers were “accommodating,” according to South Carolina executive associated athletic director Charles Bloom.
“They made every effort possible to try to make it a home game for us,” he said. “The [LSU] band played our fight song and alma mater…There were signs around Baton Rouge welcoming the Gamecocks.”
LSU’s generosity included donating the ticket revenue to recoup the money South Carolina lost by not being able to play at Williams-Brice Stadium. All-American running back Leonard Fournette auctioned his game jersey, netting $101,000 for relief.
When the time came that LSU’s community, Baton Rouge, needed effort, South Carolina collectively came strong. The student group USC Flood Relief helped direct as donation collections were made.
South Carolina joined other college athletic departments in the process, as relief efforts began in August after torrential downpours rocked Louisiana.
Local programs dove in within their own communities: LSU and Southern in Baton Rouge; Louisiana-Lafayette in Lafayette; Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond sent athletes, including football players, to help move property and unload trucks of donations.
Some of those trucks came from places like Columbia, South Carolina. A Shealy Truck Center semi, towing a trailer with Gamecock Football plastered on it, was one of two sent from South Carolina.
Bloom said the original plan was to fill the one truck in three days; response was so overwhelming, a second truck with donated goods was filled by Day 2.
Never mind that they may be in different cities, or jockeying for standings in the SEC football race come fall. Programs and their fan bases come together in times of need.
“In the SEC, you compete like crazy on game day. But the rest of the week, you work together,” Bloom said. “There’s a camaraderie in the SEC that’s just at the highest level.”
Competitors on the field become the fiercest of teammates as circumstances away from it dictate.
Much like South Carolina reaching out to its SEC brethren, South Alabama heeded the call to aid Sun Belt Conference counterpart Louisiana-Lafayette.
“Not only are there rivalries, and great competitions that are spirited – we get after each other pretty well – there’s an inherent, underlying respect for each other,” said South Alabama athletic director Dr. Joel Erdmann. “That respect needs to be there, and if it’s not, we’re in the wrong business.”
Louisiana-Lafayette’s Scott Farmer, who said he has “been friends [with Erdmann] for a long time,” received text messages from the South Alabama athletic director “during the flooding, and immediately thereafter.”
Not long after, South Alabama athletics got to work in Mobile.
“We emptied out our football semi-trailer, and started to advertise and use social media to bring our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, everybody helped out from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 at night,” Erdmann said.
The university’s efforts filled a semi-trailer, emblazoned with a Jaguar football logo on the side, and four box trucks. The fleet of donated goods stopped in Hammond on its way to Lafayette.
Donations and aid have come not only from universities, but the Red Cross and others. Such a huge effort is needed, because so much was lost.
Farmer summarized the impact in plain terms that brings gravity for anyone fortunate enough to have never faced flooding.
“Look at your wall at the four-foot mark. Now, take out everything below it,” he said. “Take the sheet rock out, take the insulation out, take the baseboard out, take the flooring out. If you’re in the kitchen, take the countertop out, your sink, your dishwasher, your pantry. Take the vanity in your bathroom.
“Everything on the first floor of the house, four-feet down,” he continued. “Tile floor, wood floor, carpet: It all came out. The only thing left is the cement slab the house was built on, and the studs.”
All material possessions destroyed need to be thrown out, which constituted a huge part of the effort.
In the immediate aftermath, Ragin’ Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth took a day off from practice as about 140 players, coaches and support staff helped with clean-up.
“It was overwhelming to see everyone literally roll their sleeves up and help out,” Farmer said, referencing the strength that comes with being a football player playing a role in the community. “Big guys pulling insulation up, pulling drywall out, pulling couches and La-Z-Boys and just helping people they didn’t know.
The desperation in the eyes of some of the people in these households,” he added. “Then, to see this big football player they don’t even know come? You could see in their eyes it meant a lot.”
Farmer said Louisiana-Lafayette athletes across all sports proactively sought to help in that effort, joining with local high school teams.
“This generation has grown up, and is service-minded, and wants to help,” Farmer said. “They don’t need to be told.”
He referenced 3,500 hours of community service put in last academic year by Louisiana-Lafayette student-athletes, independent of the flood-relief contributions made Aug. 25 – the first day of classes for the 2016-’17 academic calendar.
Football programs and athletic departments have a unique place within their communities to help – and even go beyond their communities.
“Sports takes on a meaning larger than the game,” Bloom said. “Football means a lot to a lot of people of people, and you use that for goodwill, you use that to show how great a community you have, and we were able to do that in this situation.”