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Todd McClure got into his blue Ford F-350 on Tuesday, wound his way out of Zachary, La., and down toward Central, and his heart sank.
“I drove for an hour,” said the former Atlanta Falcons center. “It was nonstop devastation.”
His hometown of Baton Rouge has suffered a once-in-a-lifetime flood that has left 13 dead, more than 100,000 needing federal assistance, and more than 60,000 homes damaged.
“Piles and piles,” McClure said. “The sheet rock, the furniture, the insulation, non-stop, unbelievable.”
McClure, who played in the NFL for 13 years, has been a one-man force over the past few days, offering assistance through his construction company, doing media interviews to get the word out, delivering donated clothes, and raising, he says, $12,000 in tandem with the Zachary Charity League.
One of the more taxing parts of this, for those affected and those assisting the needy, is the exhaustion. There’s a lot of worry, confusion and inertia as many residents aren’t sure where to turn or who to trust. And McClure feels it too. He’s got 12 extra family members living in his house and he wishes he could fit more. His phone rings day and night with questions, requests, updates. He wants to raise $500,000 for the community.
“I don’t know if at any point in my life I’ve ever been more physically and mentally drained,” he said, all the while planning to ramp up his efforts.
He’s getting some help, though, from a former teammate.
Herb Tyler picks up his phone and he’s on the elliptical machine. He carries on a full conversation without pausing for breath because, well, that’s the energy he brings. Back when he was the quarterback for LSU in the mid-’90s, he would cut his teammates’ hair and fry them chicken wings while they waited. “By the time the hair was done,” he said, “the chicken wings were ready.”
One of his closest teammates was his center, McClure. And when all this happened in Baton Rouge, the two decided to band together again.
“When Herb called me that night,” McClure said, “it was a match made in heaven.”
They were quite the pair at LSU. Tyler went 26-5 after taking over at quarterback as a freshman, including a home upset over No. 1 Florida in 1997 – still remembered as one of the biggest wins in the program’s history. (It was the first time the goal posts were torn down at Tiger Stadium.) A lot of Tyler’s biggest highlights came rushing, and following McClure’s lead.
In nearly two decades since those days, both men have gone into similar careers in construction and renovation. McClure has grown JBS Companies, and Herb Tyler Renovations has specialized in disaster recovery since Hurricane Katrina.
“In relation to emotions and spirit, people are still kind of down and out,” Tyler said. “This is a tragedy of epic proportions – so much greater geographically speaking than Katrina. So many people without insurance.”
Many of the victims are lost when Tyler sees them. So he’ll start with a joke, surveying the grounds, nodding and saying, “I like what you’ve done with the place.”
“Give them some hope, some joy, some laughter,” Tyler said.
Of course there are many times when he gets a smile without saying a word. Most people around Baton Rouge recognize him immediately.
“Especially the guys, the fellas,” he said. “They know the name and the face. I never use that stuff, but it brings a smile to their face. They remember the Florida game in ’97. It was a magical night.”
Both Tyler and McClure have built up trust with the people of Louisiana from the way they played and the way they’ve stayed. That helps when looking for someone to assist in rebuilding, or figuring out loans, and it’s extra responsibility on the former players not to let anyone down.
“Keep them calm and not make any hasty decisions,” Tyler says. “You don’t want to just jump into doing something. The house has to dry out. We have to advise them correctly on how to move forward.”
Part of the plan for the old (and new) teammates is to work with the St. Bernard Project (SBP), which began after Katrina and has since rebuilt homes for more than 1,150 families from New Orleans to New York to West Virginia. It has borrowed a production method from Toyota to lower the rebuild time from more than 100 days to an average of 61, according to Evan Achiron of SBP. And that’s at 40 percent of the usual contractor rates. It includes AmeriCorps and a volunteer system of more than 150,000 – crucial labor for ongoing projects like this. “What they’re doing is so huge,” McClure says.
Most of this is still coming together as Tyler and McClure are figuring out how to be the most helpful and efficient. But the two are already figuring it out; the quarterback has the route between their homes down pat: “Nineteen minutes,” Tyler said, “and that’s stopping at CC’s Coffee House.”
They made a lot of memories as Tigers. Now they want to remake many more.