Weather the Storm

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As I looked over the edge of the Sarto Old Iron Bridge into the Bayou des Glaises, I was scared as hell. I was just 15. It was a drop of more than 30 feet to the water below. My palms were sweaty and my legs were trembling. The more I stared into the water trying to gauge how deep it was, the more I kept thinking about killing myself.

Just jump off the bridge, Damon.

I don’t know how to swim, but that was the least of my worries. I was so lost and distraught that ending my life actually seemed preferable to what I was currently facing.   

My family is gone.

I have nowhere to go.

Still, I controlled my own destiny. I had a choice to make. And what occurred next defines me more than anything that’s happened to me before or since — more than making it to the NFL, more than signing a big contract with the Giants, and surprisingly, even more than reuniting with my family. 

Apostrophe_Break

 

I’m from Lake Charles, La., where I grew up the youngest of three children. When you’re from Southern Louisiana, there are two things you learn at a young age.

Damon_collage_colorFirst, the word creole involves more than just food. It’s a culture. It’s our way of living. It’s the way we speak. It’s everything.

Second, hurricanes are a part of life. The threat of devastation is always hanging over you — especially in Lake Charles.

Unfortunately, my family couldn’t afford to leave every time a storm was on the way. So we usually did what most people in our projects did when we got news that a hurricane was coming.

We boarded up the windows.

Every time, it was the same routine —measure the windows, buy five-by-eight sheets of plywood, cut half an inch on all sides so they would fit, and then drill holes for nails. We had it down to a science with how precise we were when we nailed the plywood over the windows of our house.

But what happened in September of 2005 was different. Boards weren’t going to be enough. To people outside of Louisiana, Hurricane Rita is considered the “forgotten storm” because it hit the coast in September 2005, less than a month after Hurricane Katrina. But we could tell from the start that Rita was going to be bad.

Hurricane Rita Anniversary

I can still hear the knocks on our apartment door when local officials were telling us to evacuate.

“Get out now!”

After a few minutes of confusion, my family began to scramble. I can remember my mom going from room to room gathering photo albums, birth certificates and other forms of identification. In her mind, making sure we had our I.D.’s was important, especially if she had to identify a missing child. But to me, that wasn’t what I cared about most. There was one thing I couldn’t leave St. Edwards Subdivision without.

My Nokia phone.

When my mother and father divorced, my dad left me two things: a King James Bible and a Nokia phone. Not just any Nokia phone, but a gray Nokia 6610. The phone didn’t have any minutes on it, but I always held it to my ear like I had an unlimited talk plan. I used to keep it charged so I could play Pong and Snake, and there was no way I was leaving without that phone. To me that phone was an extension of my right hand, and if I had to leave home, it was coming with me.  

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After we packed and got on the road, everything seemed fine. There weren’t any signs yet of wind or extreme weather. But the farther we drove on LA 106, the more the rain and wind picked up. The only thing you could make out was the blurry taillights in front of you. As I slouched under a tarp in the back of my uncle’s flatbed truck, I split my time between playing on my phone and keeping an eye on my grandfather. He was in his car following us, but as the weather became more severe, his high beams became dimmer.

It wasn’t long before he called my mother to say that he was heading back to his home in Lafayette to wait out the storm.  My grandfather was a strong man — the cornerstone of our family. Despite being worried about him turning back, I was sure that I was going to see him again. After driving for hours, we finally made it to our evacuation location, Bunkie High School, about 80 miles away from Lake Charles.

From the moment we walked into the gym, it was a madhouse. As we settled in, we scouted high and low for a place to put our things, but there were only two spots available.

The gym floor and the bleachers.

The adults slept on the floor, while my sisters and I squeezed into the spaces between the seats of the retractable bleachers. It felt like we were sardines in a can, but that was our only option, so we made due.  

Our first night there, I couldn’t sleep. Images from Hurricane Katrina kept popping up in my head — the homes submerged underwater, the crying babies, the dead bodies floating in the water. I would wake up about every hour and pinch myself, just to make sure I was still alive and that I had only been dreaming.

Images from Hurricane Katrina kept popping up in my head — the homes submerged underwater, the crying babies, the dead bodies floating in the water.

Nights were tough, but as the days passed I began to look forward to the mornings. Mornings were the highlight of everyone’s day because it was the only time people were not concerned about the storm. I loved waking up to the sounds of hymns being sung by church members, and children playing outside on the football field. It was like everyone could forget for a moment that a hurricane was approaching. But the thing that I most looked forward to every morning wasn’t the church hymns or playing outside. It was something edible.

Specifically, the military rations served at breakfast.

These weren’t regular military rations. These were special — the jambalaya and Skittles packs. If you were fortunate enough to get your hands on the jambalaya rations with the Skittles, you were treated like a king in the Bunkie High gym. But in order to snag these rations, you had to be one of the first in line.

So I devised a plan.

I would wake up at the crack of dawn — when everyone else was still asleep — and tiptoe over all the folks splayed out on the bleachers. I had to be light on my feet. One false step would result in eye contact, and once eye contact was made, your cover was blown. With every step I took, I had to take a peek below to make sure that I wasn’t stepping on anybody’s leg or hand. It felt like I was Indiana Jones and the jambalaya and Skittles pack was the Golden Idol in the Temple of Warriors.  

 It felt like I was Indiana Jones and the jambalaya and Skittles pack was the Golden Idol in the Temple of Warriors.

On some days, living in the gymnasium wasn’t that bad. Aside from the long bathroom lines and the occasional petty theft, it was manageable. But other days were truly horrible, especially as the storm got closer.

Conditions were worsening. The wind and the rain were picking up, and their impact was starting to take a toll on the building. It seemed like with every rush of wind the screws and bolts that were holding the roof together would get looser and looser. On September, 24, 2005, the wind ripped the roof right off the gym. Almost instantly the rain started to pour in. It was mayhem.

Emergency officials directed us to take shelter in the hallways of the school. We spent almost the entire night there. It was dark. There were no lights except for some flashlights and candles. I just lay awake on the bare floor until morning while the storm raged outside.

The next day was hot and sunny. I went outside with my family. We were being directed to a new evacuation location.

I was the last person to reach my uncle’s truck as my family packed it up to head to the new facility. When I got to the front passenger seat, I was immediately told by my uncle, “Damon, get your ass in the back of the flatbed.”

I’ll never forget it. I thought it was a joke — there was plenty of room in the front seat. But I realized that he was serious. He was actually trying to make me sit in the back seat. And for no good reason, from what I could tell. I didn’t want to back down and be embarrassed in front of the new friends I had made at the gym, so I refused. I wasn’t willing to sit in the back seat. I was 15 — old enough to sit in the front. So I stood my ground.

With my chest puffed out, I yelled back, “I’m not getting in the back of the truck when there is space in the front!”

My mother and sisters were already in the truck — Mom was in the front seat with my uncle, and my sisters were in the flatbed. They were pleading with me to just sit in the back. But I wasn’t hearing it. My pride was at stake. As the argument continued, my uncle revved the engine of his truck and pointed in the direction of the Greyhound buses in the front of the school.

“If you are not going to get in the truck and abide by my rules, those buses can take you,” he told me.

I thought he was crazy. If I wasn’t comfortable with getting in the flatbed of his truck, I definitely wasn’t going to cram myself on a crowded bus. But before I could reply with a smart-ass comment, it happened.

They left me.

I waited there in the scorching heat for about 20 minutes — waited for them to turn around and tell me they were only trying to teach me a lesson, but they never came back. I eventually raced to the front of the school where the emergency buses were located. I knew there were four Greyhound buses taking people to the next evacuation spot, but to my surprise, they had already departed.

Angry and pissed, I began to walk. I trudged down about 30 miles down the road in the sweltering heat and eventually came to the Sarto Old Iron Bridge. My mind was made up, I had reached my crossroads.

Initially, the only thought in my mind was to go to the edge of the bridge and take a plunge into the water. Everything that had led up to that point made me think that jumping would be the answer to my problems. There were so many emotions running through my mind.

I’m lost.

My family is gone.

I have nowhere to go.

As I closed my eyes and the temptation to jump grew stronger, I imagined how I would feel once I hit the water. Was it really going to solve my problems?

As I closed my eyes and the temptation to jump grew stronger, I imagined how I would feel once I hit the water. Was it really going to solve my problems?

And that’s when I realized something.

I’m better than this.

This isn’t how my story will end.

I got myself off the bridge. I walked for about five more miles, squinting every so often at the horizon in hopes of seeing a gas station or mini-mart. And then a small, red Jeep pulled up next to me, and the driver said, “Do you need a ride?”

I locked eyes with the man. He was elderly. I wasn’t familiar with him, but he knew exactly who I was. He had been at Bunkie High and had seen my family drive away. He told me that he was on his way to Lafayette to reunite with his family. A few miles before he met me he had come to a fork in the road. He said that his GPS was telling him to go one way, but that something inside was telling him to go the other. Thirty miles into his trip he spotted me walking.

It was a lucky break. I couldn’t believe what was happening, but I couldn’t spend too much time thinking about it. I needed to go. I needed to see the one person in my family who, at that moment, I was sure I could count on.

The man in the Jeep drove me to Lafayette, where I planned to reunite with my grandfather. Because the storm had knocked out the telephone lines, I couldn’t get in contact with him before I arrived. But luckily he was home when I got to Lafayette.

I stayed with him for a few weeks — and made him swear not to reveal to the rest of the family that I was alive and safe. My family was looking for me. They had even filled out a missing child report. But I didn’t care. I was still upset. I didn’t understand why they had left me, but I knew I couldn’t keep holding on to my anger forever. I didn’t want a grudge to get in the way of me making the most of my life.

So about a month later, I reconnected with my family in Lake Charles. When we reunited, it felt like the whole incident got swept under the rug. There was no apology. Nothing. It was almost like nothing had ever happened.

If it had been a few years earlier, I could have looked to my older brother, Joshua, for advice. But he had been in jail for theft since 2002. There was only me.

When I was standing on that bridge, I realized that there was only one person who was going to make something happen in my life.

Me.

The experience lit a match under my ass and made me appreciate my opportunities. But more importantly, it made me realize that if you want something, you go get it.

Period.

My senior year of high school, I was a lightly recruited kid who was working the overnight shift at Walmart. No one, at that point, would have given me a shot in hell of making it to a D-I program. But I was driven. I would get on my old HP computer for hours and send emails to every school I could think of, just to show my interest and to let them know that all I wanted was a shot.

I didn’t have much tape, but I never doubted myself. When I wasn’t stocking shelves for $14 an hour, I was on the field working on my craft. Every day it was the same schedule: Wake up, work out, go to school, go to practice, go to Walmart, repeat.

 Every day it was the same schedule: Wake up, work out, go to school, go to practice, go to Walmart, repeat.

The grind eventually landed me at William Penn, a small NAIA school in Oskaloosa, Iowa. When I tell people where I went to college, they don’t recognize the name at all. They expect to hear Florida, Alabama or even LSU. But I just tell them everyone’s road is different. Whether I was playing in snowy conditions in middle of Iowa, or back home in Louisiana, I gave the game of football my all.

I wasn’t drafted in 2012, and I became a free agent. I remember watching the draft and memorizing specific players who were selected instead me. When the Jets gave me a chance to try out, I went to work. Every time I got on the field, I was all business. When I came to the line of scrimmage, I would go back to that moment on the bridge — when I felt like I didn’t have a friend in the world. I never wanted to feel that low again in my life. So anybody that was in my way, they were facing somebody who was hungry.

Hurricane Rita shaped the man I am today, the one that the sports world knows as Damon (Snacks) Harrison. Sometimes when I look back on my journey, I think of that boy who was stubborn as hell. What that boy had to do was put his pride aside and get in the back of the truck. It was that simple.

The moment on the bridge was my lowest. From that day, the only direction I could go was up. For anybody who is reading this and going through similar struggles, always remember that you can make it through. You can change your destiny.

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And if you ever need a pep talk, let me know.

I have an unlimited talk plan now.

Damon Harrison 1

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