At 6-foot-4, 249 pounds, Alvarado High graduate Justin Kessler was no shrinking violet when he enrolled at Tulane University in New Orleans for the spring semester of 2005.

He began his education before the remainder of the class of 2009 arrived.

He prepared all summer for his freshman football season with the Green Wave.

One practice into fall drills, his world was turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of New Orleans and hamlets within its reach on the Gulf Coast.

Kessler reflects on Katrina, and other nuisances, with a smile these days.

He was among some 2,200 graduates receiving diplomas this spring as a proud member of the historic “Katrina Class.”

They were the students on campus when orders came to evacuate ahead of the deadly storm.

“I’ve had some adversities,” he said by phone from New Orleans. “It’s all part of life.”

Life’s spice, to be sure.

“I graduated early at Alvarado, so I got to New Orleans in January [’05],” said Kessler, the son of Michael and Rhonda Kessler. “So I was here for six or seven months before the hurricane. We had already started fall [football] camp. We practiced on Saturday in the Superdome. Then Sunday they packed us all up and told us we were leaving. We rolled out on buses the next day for Jackson State in Mississippi. We were creeping down the highway because of all the evacuation. We were at Jackson for four or five days when the storm hit there. It had followed us up the road.

“We slept on air mattresses in the Jackson State gymnasium. A church was being built across the street. We looked out one morning, and it had blown away. The gym lost electricity.”

From Jackson, Miss., the football team, accompanied by the Tulane girls soccer team, traveled to Dallas. The athletes and coaches stayed at the Doubletree Inn. Workouts took place at SMU. The Green Wave played two games in Dallas before packing up again and heading for Louisiana Tech in Ruston.

“We went from staying in a hotel in Dallas to staying in a condemned dorm in Ruston,” Kessler said. “The football players were on the second and third floors. Other displaced people were on the first floor, including an 80- or 90-year-old man. We played one game in Ruston, I think against UT-El Paso. We played 11 games in 11 different places that year. We never played in the same place twice. Well, that’s not really conducive to winning.”

The Green Wave beat Mississippi State and SMU that season. Football seemed insignificant to the players, who knew what was happening at home.

“Everyone watched it on television,” Kessler said. “They could see canoes in front of dorm rooms. New Orleans was devastated. One player hadn’t been able to contact his uncle or the rest of his family. I already felt some connection with the rest of the guys because I’d gone through spring training and summer school with them.

“When we got back, everybody signed up for community service to help rebuild homes. We painted an entire school.”

Already a mature young man, his mother Rhonda said, Justin grew quickly.

“You can’t go through challenges like that without growing up,” she said. “It’s pretty hard after all that for things to rattle you. Justin worked really hard to overcome a number of setbacks.”

One in particular was not publicized, the great flood of ’06.

Kessler was on an end-of-spring, mini-vacation trip to South Padre Island when he received a call from a dorm official.

A fire had broken out on the 12th floor of the building, Kessler was told.

The automatic sprinklers worked wonderfully well — too well. They flooded everything below the 12th floor, and Kessler lived on the 10th.

“The water was a foot deep in the rooms,” Kessler said. “The dorm rep said he was going to box up my stuff so I could move to another dorm. I’ve moved so many times that I’m getting pretty good at it.”

Yet another move highlighted his ’08 football season.

To avoid another hurricane, the Green Wave departed two weeks early from New Orleans for a season-opening game against Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

“We lived in a hotel,” Kessler said. “The older guys were pretty experienced with that. We told the young guys, ‘This isn’t that bad. You don’t have to worry about making your beds.’ After the game, we came back to New Orleans. That storm didn’t affect us that much.”

There are times, Kessler said, when he wonders why he went off to college in the storm capital of the United States.

“But I wouldn’t take for the experience. I’d do it again,” he said. “The city is unique, and I got an outstanding education. I’d like to stay in New Orleans. I always said I’d come home to Texas at the first opportunity. Now, I’m hoping to stay another year or so.”

He wasn’t tempted to pursue a pro football career, Kessler said.

“I had a lot of fun. I got to travel around the country and play in the Superdome. But I’m ready to move on. If I look to the right, I get a stinger down my right arm. That’s there every day to remind me of football.”

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