BATON ROUGE, La. — Rising floodwaters forced the University of South Carolina football team to relocate its home game on Saturday to Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
In turn, the south Louisiana Catholic community went above and beyond typical Southern hospitality as they welcomed the refugees to town.
“As soon as we heard the game was moved here, our team huddled and said, ‘What can we do to help?’” said Sean Reilly, chief executive of Lamar Advertising Corp., an outdoor advertising firm based in Louisiana, with 200 locations across the country.
There wasn’t much time. The game was officially relocated three days before kickoff, with LSU officials announcing that ticket sales would benefit USC Athletics. Within 24 hours, eight digital billboards along Interstates 10 and 12 and near the metro airport flashed special greetings for USC fans.
“Geaux Gamecocks,” the signs read, using a Cajun-French spelling of the word “go” popular with Tiger fans. The welcome was followed by “Make yourself at home!” or “We stand strong with you!”
“We’ve been through this before,” added Reilly, a member of St. Aloysius Catholic Church, referring to the havoc wreaked on his hometown 10 years ago by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, during which the Tigers relocated one game to Tempe, Ariz., and rescheduled another to a Monday night. “We’ve had our lives disrupted. We’ve lost our homes and lives to flooding.”
Other Good Samaritan gestures went viral. The owners of Ruffino’s Restaurant, who create spirit stickers for each game to hand out to patrons, decided to use the Palmetto State flag painted purple and gold with the message “Tiger Proud, South Carolina Strong” to promote a “Round It Up” dinner-ticket fundraiser for relief efforts. The Baton Rouge tourist promotion office asked to share the image on social media, ultimately getting 1,565 likes, 848 shares and 67 comments.
“It just took off,” said Ruffino’s co-owner and executive chef Peter Sclafani, a member of St. George Catholic Church. “The more I thought about it, the more I realized how perfect it was. So many people helped us out during Katrina. It was natural to pay it back.”
Ruffino’s management team added to $600 in “Round It Up” customer donations to present a $2,500 check to the South Carolina Red Cross before kickoff.
Even before the game was rescheduled, financial adviser and LSU fan James Bayard found himself musing with business partner Ryan Gisclair about how specifically to help South Carolina flood victims. Gisclair had a friend working directly with relief efforts who sent a list of specific needs, from baby bottles to brushes and combs. The two businessmen emailed family and friends asking for donations and then watched as those emails were forwarded exponentially; investment business took a backseat to coordinating a massive relief effort, including devising drop locations and transportation for collections donated by Federal Express.
“We thought we’d gather a couple of boxes,” said Bayard, “but we’ll probably send four or five pallets of supplies later this week. “
Bayard chalks up the overwhelming response to compassion borne of experience, “that sense of helplessness we’ve all felt here after storms.” But he says it also shows how much life in south Louisiana revolves around football and faith. “South Carolina was on people’s minds with the upcoming game. And a whole lot of good Christians stood up to help others,” he added, noting that his K-12 Catholic schooling drilled into him an others-focused life ethic.
Marty Chabert, a resident of Chauvin, La., whose home has flooded four times, also sprang into action once the game was moved, tweeting an offer of four sideline tickets to USC fans, plus a 20% discount to all Carolinians in either of his two locations of Marty J’s Seafood, Burgers & Po-Boys. Chabert also offered to donate 10% of weekend sales to flood-relief efforts and later presented a $2,500 check to the Red Cross.
“It’s the Cajun way,” Chabert said in a thick accent. “I attribute it to my Catholic upbringing. You have people loading up jambalaya pots like they’re going tailgating to take food to people in need.”
Pre- and post-game activities continued the theme. Tiger tailgaters posted chalkboard signs welcoming Gamecocks and the LSU Athletics department flew the South Carolina state flag in the stadium. The LSU Tiger Marching Band played their rival’s alma mater and fight song since UCS’s band was unable to travel on such short notice. LSU Student Government Vice President Hannah Knight presented a ceremonial key to Tiger Stadium to USC Student Government President Jonathan Kaufman.
And mere moments after the game clock ran out on LSU’s 45-24 win, Tiger sophomore running back Leonard Fournette offered his game jersey to the highest bidder to help fund relief efforts. (The NCAA initially said an auction of the jersey was not allowed, but quickly reversed its decision.)
Reporters crowded around the Heisman contender with questions about game stats and strategies, but the characteristically humble Fournette shifted attention to the Gamecocks, pulling out a prepared statement that put the win in perspective.
“I want to send my prayers, condolences and empathy to the people of South Carolina,” said Fournette, a New Orleans native and St. Augustine High School graduate who was a young boy when Katrina ravaged his hometown. “We played a game today. Right now, the people of South Carolina are in need.”
Indeed, the focus of all of the hospitality was not reward or recognition.
Reilly, the Lamar executive, declined to put a monetary value on billboard space donated to welcoming USC fans. “We just wanted to do the right thing and welcome them,” said Reilly. “A football game can be an opportunity to bring people together. It’s hard for everybody to leave happy, but, hopefully, everybody can leave friends.”
Kelly King Alexander writes from Prairieville, Louisiana.