One would be hard-pressed to find a team that has had a rougher start to the season than East St. John (Reserve, La.)
The Wildcats have only lost one game this season and it was by four points. Their next game is against MaxPreps No. 3
ranked team Curtis (River Ridge, La.)
. But what's happening on the field is far from the reason that perhaps no coach in the nation would want to switch places with East St. John coach Phil Banko.
When Hurricane Isaac slowly made its way through southeast Louisiana two weeks ago, St. John Parish was one of the hardest-hit areas. For Banko and the Wildcats, the season-opening game against Carencro became a distance thought. They couldn't play their opening game because … well they didn't have the equipment to do so.
Helmets. Shoulder pads. Mouthpieces. Game pants. Socks. Cleats. Computers. Dry-erase boards. Coaches' polo shirts. Everything in the Wildcats field house was under water. Everything was ruined.
"I'd say about half of my players have been displaced from their homes taking on water damage," Banko said. "And just about all of them at least have a family member whose house suffered damage."
The only things that survived were East St. John's black jerseys and that was only because Banko took those home to wash them the Monday before the hurricane hit.
Joe Keller Stadium, where the Wildcats play, had just played host to a coming together for St. John residents the Friday before the hurricane hit. During the jamboree on Aug. 24, before the Wildcats played St. Charles Catholic and after Riverside played West St. John, the schools gathered and held a small ceremony in honor of two St. John Parish deputies who died on duty in early August.
As St. John Parish came together that night, others have been coming through for Banko and the Wildcats ever since.
One of the first calls Banko received the following week after it had been made known that all the equipment had been lost was from Destrehan (La.)
coach Steve Robicheaux, who offered his facilities to Banko and his staff for as long as they needed.
Another call came from the New Orleans Saints, who donated used black game pants, T-shirts for all the kids, boxes of dri-fit protection as well as more than 380 pairs of shoes and cleats. Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens, who graduated from Destrehan, called as well. The NFL Players Association and NFL Youth Programs contacted Banko about helping as well.
Offensive lineman Darren Davis
spent the hurricane with family in one house that held "four households" worth. He said the days without power were rough and the heat was unbearable but his family was able to come together, much the way the community has since last week. When Davis saw that the Saints were there to help him and his fellow players, it caught the returning All-District performer off-guard.
"It was surreal for me," Davis said. "I never knew that people like that knew about us out in Laplace. It touched our hearts that the Saints were willing to help out."
Riddell and Nike had already agreed to send new equipment so the Wildcats would be able to travel to play St. Louis (Lake Charles, La.)
. Both sent the equipment under the agreement that East St. John wouldn't have to pay anything until next year, long after insurance money to cover the losses had come in. The Nike cleats came in the Tuesday before the game.
However, the shipment of shoulder pads and helmets from Riddell threw Banko another curveball.
Despite specific orders from Riddell to keep the order together, somehow the shipment of shoulder pads was split and only 30 showed up on Friday, just hours before the team was to get on a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride. Banko was able to secure seven more sets of pads on the way to the game but only 37 players were able to dress for what would be the season opener, which meant about half of the roster wasn't able to play.
The Wildcats dropped that game 24-20 to St. Louis but Banko refused to hang the loss on what his team had dealt with throughout the week.
"Every day is a new challenge for us. Just (Monday) we were able to get into a classroom and look at film," Banko said. "We fought hard for four quarters and (St. Louis) was just a few plays better than us. We only gave up 6 yards in the second half, which is pretty good since we hadn't tackled anyone in two weeks."
Through it all, Banko still found a silver lining in the trip and it came in the way St. Louis treated his players and his fans.
"What they did brought tears to my eyes," Banko said. "St. Louis gave us bag with little toiletries and things and also gave each kid a $10 gift card to Wal-Mart. They didn't charge any of our fans that made the trip and fed everybody after the game. They also gave us about $5,300 that they had raised for us. It really did bring tears to my eyes."
That wasn't the only things that brought tears to Banko's eyes that night.
"I see my kids in these brand new cleats that just came in and I already see marks on them and I'm thinking ‘How did you guys scuff these already?' but then I looked closer," Banko said. "The kids had written the names of all their family members whose houses had flooded on their shoes."
Now Banko and his team have shifted their focus to the Patriots, who defeated then-No. 10 ranked Plant (Tampa, Fla.) 33-3 at the Louisiana Superdome and are widely considered one of the best teams in the nation.
"You know, I won't name them, but I have coaches telling me that I should forfeit this game," Banko said. "But this is going to make us a better team. It'll get us ready for district and that's all I'm worried about. We can only take this one day at a time."
Besides being an elite team, Curtis too is very generous.
Legendary Curtis Coach J.T. Curtis said that the first $1,000
from the gate from Friday night's game will be donated to East St.
John's athletic department. As of Wednesday, Banko or the Wildcats don't even know about the gift.
Generosity and support can't solve everyone's hardships however.
Banko said that two kids have left the program because of the circumstances and transferred elsewhere but he isn't angry at them and told his players not to be either. He just reminded them of one thing.
"I told them, tough times come and go but tough people don't," Banko said. "We're going to help each other through this. We're going to be fine. We're Wildcats."
MaxPreps correspondent Andrew Lopez is a contributing writer for