'Home is home'

BenJarvus Green-Ellis

Seven years ago Wednesday with nine feet of random rage, Hurricane Katrina took everything BenJarvus Green-Ellis had ever earned or won or kept in East New Orleans.

"The water was nine feet high," Green-Ellis is saying Monday in the Bengals locker room, sizing a man up and down like one of those footballs he has famously never fumbled.

"Nine feet. That's taller than you and me."

But just like then, no one is home on Ligustrum Drive. Like some ghostly long lost relative, Isaac retraced Katrina's steps to New Orleans this week and is supposed to hit land Wednesday.

"August 29," he says. "Crazy, isn't it?"

But The Law Firm's grandparents are here, safe and sound, in his Northern Kentucky home while making their monthly visit.

Seven years ago, his grandmother was in Minneapolis visiting his mother. His grandfather heeded the warning and fled to family in Tylertown, Miss., a two-hour drive that turned into 14 hours. Their grandson, freshly transferred from Indiana, spent the day lining up at running back at Ole Miss training camp.

"All I had with me is what I had left," he is saying. "Socks, drawers and tights, stuff like that. That's it."

With the Bengals in the midst of preparing for their final preseason game Thursday in Indianapolis (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and Green-Ellis dealing with a foot problem that has kept him out of the last two but won't keep him from making his Bengals debut in the Sept. 10 opener, he didn't start paying attention to the weather reports until Sunday night.

That's when a friend called and said people were saying, "Joyce really knows when to get out of town when the storm is coming. Last time she was visiting 'Tonia in Minnesota and now she's in Cincinnati visiting Bennie."

"She's getting more calls than me," says The Firm of his grandmother, DeJoyce Green. "I heard from my dad in Miami and he said, 'We're dodging hurricanes down here, too.' It's something you live with. I've been dodging hurricanes ever since I was an itty bitty little boy."

DeJoyce Green and her husband, Dave Hilton, helped raise the itty bitty to all caps. BJGE. The kid from the Upper Ninth Ward who bounced it outside and went from undrafted free agent to fantasy football rock star to Super Bowl starter and one of Bill Belichick's reliable, steady Minutemen that have become the backbone of The Patriot Way.

Belichick will tell you how much he admires Green-Ellis as a person and player.

And Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who became emotional in the locker room after the Patriots won the AFC title back in January when told Green-Ellis saluted his late wife after he scored a touchdown, feels the same way.

"I'm so sorry he left us; you're getting a gem," Kraft said a few days after BJGE signed in Cincinnati back in March. "He's one of the finest players to come through our system. He never fumbled once in four years. I think over (500) carries. He's a gentleman and a hard worker and I'm just sorry you paid him more ($9 million for three years according to reports) than we were willing to pay him."

That's another thing about The Patriot Way. It's frugal. But Green-Ellis fit while he was there and fits here because he likes the idea of tight-knit family. That's was a big reason why they decided to rebuild on Ligustrum Drive.

"Home is home," DeJoyce is saying, checking the weather all day Monday and relieved Isaac had been reduced to a Category 2 and not the Category 3 that caused the levee to break seven years ago and turn an American city into a Third World country.

"There's nowhere I've ever been like New Orleans. We've been there all our lives. I grew up in the Seventh Ward, but as far as I know my family in New Orleans goes all the way back to my great grandmother. It was a blessing that we worked on the house together. We taught him that family comes first and that it has to be tight knit."

Katrina sent Green-Ellis to Miami because of family. A year after the storm he visited family members that had settled in south Florida after being driven out by the elements and he ended up buying his home there once he got into the NFL.

"I was amazed by the blue water," The Law Firm is saying. "The only water I had ever seen was the Mississippi River and it was brown. But this was amazing. The blue water was so beautiful. I felt like I hadn't seen anything like that in 22 years and it's something I felt like where I wanted to live."

That puts him close to his dad. His mom lives in Minneapolis, where she is city budget manager, and where he didn't want to move when he was in elementary school. It turns out New Orleans has a hold on DeJoyce Green's descendants, too.

"It's hard to explain," DeJoyce says. "There is just something about the city. (The weather reports are) an awful feeling in the pit of the stomach. All you can do is say a prayer. There's nothing we can do."

Seven years ago, Green-Ellis couldn't get into the city to see his home until after Ole Miss's season. The police wouldn't let anyone in until then, and when they did there were times he'd be in the only car on the interstate. While others on the block hired companies to rebuild, he and his grandparents gutted the place themselves.

"We could save money that way," says Green-Ellis, then still three years removed from the pros. "The foundation was still intact, but everything in the house was gone or damaged and you had to pull everything out. Sheet rock. All the base boards. All the 2 by 4s. There was just a slab.

"When I finally got to go into my house, the beds were still made," he says. "Crazy. After all the water and wind damage. The pillows were intact. Not a crease in them."

Reliability runs in the family. Dave drove 18-wheelers and still works security at The Times-Picayune at age 73. DeJoyce is retired as a family babysitter.

And if The Firm has never fumbled, his mom has missed just one game since he was in high school. He and his grandparents attacked the rebuilding project with the same lunch pail.

"You'd be in there with a little mask," he says. "They gave us a little FEMA trailer. It was small. One bedroom. And the shower, you could barely stand up in it and I'm not all that tall."

They know they came out of it better than many. Insurance covered it. Everything is back together, but it is the little things they miss.

"He drew pictures when he was little in school," DeJoyce said of the things she regrets losing in the nine feet of water. "He made hand prints. Things like that we saved."

There is nothing from his first 20 years. 1985-2005.

"The things I miss are the sentimental stuff," he is saying. "Baby pictures. Pictures of me and my grandmother. Pictures of me and my grandfather. My certificates. My football trophies. That's something I think I found. I matured. I realized the material things didn't matter. It was having your family safe."

Green-Ellis has had seven years to find some other stuff. And he has. Two years of college ball and four more years with America's Team. He's got a Super Bowl jersey and an AFC championship ring and they stay at Ligustrum Drive.

"It's the only place they should be," he says. "I live in Miami and I stay here, but all my stuff is there; in the house in New Orleans. They have people stop by and people want to see that stuff and they should be able to show it to them. To me, that's a thank you to them for helping to raise me."

As of yet, there is no ball or jersey or helmet from the Bengals in the house.

"Haven't played a game yet," he says. "I want that to change. I hope I can get something in there soon."

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