NEW ORLEANS — BenJarvus Green-Ellis pulls up in front of the NFL's swank headquarters for Sunday's Super Bowl in a Ford 150 truck wearing a Reds ballcap, T-shirt and shorts, and proceeds to take you to the 'other' New Orleans.
"No, it's not the Hyatt," Green-Ellis says as he heads to his old stomping grounds in the Seventh and Ninth wards. "The city is made like a bowl. We're at the top of the bowl right now. The more you go down into the Ninth Ward, it's at the bottom of that bowl, so that made it susceptible to getting a lot of water."
Green-Ellis, the running back who lugged the Bengals through a playoff run in his first season in Cincinnati with his crusty Crescent City toughness, counts the years since Hurricane Katrina wiped out his home and virtually everything else at the bottom of the bowl.
"Let's see, 2005, so that's eight years out," Green-Ellis says. "It's on its way back … ."
"But look that way. What do you see?" asks Green-Ellis after he has navigated the canal that bridges his home of East New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward. "You see two, three houses on the whole block. And this house right here, you can see the water line on top of the house and an 'X' in the window with the body count. Zero and zero. That means they found no humans or animals."
Green-Ellis says nobody would be down here if not with him and he's not sure if people are still doing it, but some were charging a thousand bucks for tours like this in the aftermath of the storm.
He shakes his head because on some blocks there can be homes with roofs caved in huddled next to pretty, refurbished ranches. It depends on who lived, who died, who was covered, who got out and who came back.
"It's hit or miss," he says.
But Green-Ellis is bullish of his city. Home, he says, to 10 other active NFL players. Even though he splits his time now between Cincinnati and Miami and his career at Ole Miss just began when Katrina plunged New Orleans into one of the greatest disasters in American history, he's keeping track of the comeback trail.
"There's no better place to have a Super Bowl," BJGE says. "Just look at all the history and all the monuments we have here. "I actually think they're making improvements in the right direction. A lot of things that needed to get fixed are getting fixed."
TOUR DE FORCE
You're lucky you've got Green-Ellis out for this tour. Before he got here a few days ago, he'd come out of his Cincinnati home exactly three times since the Bengals lost the Wild Card playoff.
"Once to go to the dentist," he says. "And twice to take out the trash.
"We went to Houston and did things uncharacteristic of ourselves. It's disappointing. It's all I can do to sum it up and that's not strong enough. Especially when you feel like your team … I mean, if you felt inferior, then it would be over and you just move on to the next season. But if you don't feel that way, there's plenty of disappointment."
Green-Ellis ended up in Miami because when he went to meet family in the aftermath of the storm, he fell in love with the blue water.
"I never saw blue water my whole life. The Mississippi River is muddy and brown. I thought blue water was just on TV," he says. "I thought they had to go someplace special. I'll just sit and look at the water for hours."
But Green-Ellis doesn't mind driving up here. Especially around the neighborhood where he lived with his grandparents. Driving, not stopping, is what he does.
"I'm not a big go-out person," he says. "All I do is go to work, go home, study, read my Bible. I believe in God and like everything else in life, you want to be good at it. You have to work hard at it. You've got to study, got to work, so I treat my (Bible) like my playbook. I study it. You develop better character because you're filling your mind with good things."
Green-Ellis hasn't exactly graduated to room service this week. He hasn't been anywhere near the Super Bowl festivities, staying in the house where he grew up and sticking around the neighborhood. Of course, he wasn't around the extra gala stuff last year, either, when he rushed for 44 yards on 10 carries during for the Patriots in their loss to the Giants.
"I'm not into all of that," he says of the parties and interviews. "Talk on a radio show, advertise for some company? I'm a homebody."
Going to the game simply isn't an option.
"It would be a slap in the face to go and not be playing in it," he says.
But when he was sitting at home at about 1 in the morning Thursday, Green-Ellis realized he could take some kids down to the NFL Experience this weekend.
"I started rounding up some kids today. I've got about five right now and I'm still looking," Green-Ellis says. "Cousins. Friends. Kids they know. Anybody who wants to go. A lot of these kids can't make it to something like that. It's like 20 bucks. If you've got two kids, that's 40. Two parents, throw in parking and it's close to 100 bucks. That's a lot of money to these kids."
BJGE grew up hard but not poor in East New Orleans. Both his grandparents worked while his mother went to school in Minnesota before joining the city of Minneapolis's budget department and his father became CEO of Cash Money Records.
He turns down his street and its nicer than most. Nearly all the houses have been rebuilt. His grandparents' home, a pretty brick three bedroom ranch with a small statue of the Virgin Mary in the front yard, looks decades away from the nine feet of water that washed over it and the wind that ripped off the roof all those years ago.
ON THE WAY BACK
No one was home when it hit with Benny practicing at Ole Miss, his grandmother visiting her daughter in Minneapolis, and his grandfather racing to family two hours away in Tylertown, Miss. So the numbers next to the 'X' on the house said, 'Zero and Zero.'
When the family was finally let into the area weeks later, Green-Ellis was amazed the beds were still made with the creases still in the pillows.
"Everybody on this street pretty much rebuilt," Green-Ellis says. "A lot of people had companies come in and gut their houses. My grandparents and me did it ourselves. Pulling out the sheet rock. All of it.
"They weren't bad looking homes, but now you can make them really nice because when you redo your house you try to do it how you want to do it. People are coming back slowly, surely. One year. Two years. Eventually they'll be back in all the houses."
But there are still grim reminders even on his block. Just a few homes down there is no one home at a boarded-up house where a friend lived with his mother. The X is still there. Green-Ellis doesn't know what happened to them and that's not uncommon.
"That happened all over the city. You knew people and you just don't know what happened to them," he says. "They could have died, or left for Houston or Arkansas or Atlanta, or ended up here or someplace else."
The confetti may fall Sunday night in the Superdome and the game is probably going to be back here in 2018, but the images flashing across Green-Ellis's windshield during the hour tour offers snatches of the devastation that still linger like war.
As he guides the Ford around the nooks and crannies of the Ninth, Lake Pontchartrain looms big, beautiful and terrifying. His explanation of what happened is as good as any Google search about levee failures and storm surges.
"The reason water rises is you've got the canal and Lake Pontchartrain and the water moves up to the Mississippi River and they'll empty out into one spot. But when all the water is coming upstream, then this is what you get."
He pulls up to a corner where another grandmother once lived. She died before Katrina hit and the home is still vacant, but what jars Green-Ellis is that across the street where he used to run errands at a grocery is nothing. It was next to a liquor store and now both are gone. Covered by brush.
"Look at all this grass," Green-Ellis says as he heads over the canal into the Lower Ninth, one of the most notorious areas in the nation as he grew up. "Those used to be houses. All gone. All grass.
"Cut Throat City. Because you could get your throat cut. CTC. It's also for Crossing The Canal," he says.
He points to a deserted lot. "Used to be a mall. The movie theater was supposed to come back. It never did. Look at the barbed wire around it."
MEMORIES, NO TROPHIES
Green-Ellis spent his early childhood in the Seventh Ward and he drives past a field where he first started to play football shoved below the whizzing cars on Interstate 10. He notices the Circle K grocery is still boarded up.
"Every kid in New Orleans went shopping for school clothes at a Circle K," he says. "It's supposed to reopen, but it hasn't yet."
The tour also includes some BJGE not so trivia.
Did you know since his high school in the Seventh Ward, St. Augustine, didn't have a field, Green-Ellis's team clambered aboard a bus every day for a 40-miniute round trip ride on I-10?
Or that his freshman team's field could be dotted with heroin-tipped syringes?
Or he made his first team when he came running up to his mother at signups and asked her if she got him into the league?
"They had told her they had run out of room," he says. "But when they saw me run up to her, they let me in. I was always pretty big and when I was seven years old I weighed 80 pounds."
That's all he has from those days. Memories. Stories. There are no pictures. No trophies. No certificates or Times-Picayune clippings. They were all taken out in Katrina.
"The baby pictures," Green-Ellis says when asked what he'd like back the most. "My mother's got a couple in Minnesota, but most of them are gone.
"That's what came out of this for me. I learned after that, all these material things don't mean anything."
Green-Ellis leaves you at the curb and this thought about his hometown.
"That was no different than any kid in this city," he says of his youth. "Every last one of us went through the same things and had the same upbringing. It didn't make you a softie, as they say. It makes you have tough skin.
"Oh yeah. Good football town."
Then he was gone, looking to truck in some blue water for the kids.