AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREThe top 10 theme park moments of 2019 Just then, Weems, a towering 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior, dropped his head and forced an embarrassed smile. “I’m still getting used to all this,” Weems said, looking around at teammates he barely knows. Two weeks ago, Weems was starting his junior year at Eleanor McMain High School in New Orleans and preparing to play his first game of the season for the McMain football team. For Weems, this is a pivotal season. He caught the attention of recruiters from LSU and Mississippi last year as a sophomore, but this is the year he’d give coaches across the country their best look yet at one of the top young tackles in Louisiana, setting the stage for an intense recruiting battle the next two years. “I was really looking forward to this season,” he said. Xavier Johnson dropped back to pass Thursday night against Crenshaw of Los Angeles and scanned the field looking for an open receiver. “He’s open in the flat, he’s open in the flat,” a deep voice called out from the Taft of Woodland Hills sideline. Johnson glanced to his left, spotted Malcolm Smith standing by himself at Crenshaw’s 15-yard line and lofted the ball to him. A few seconds later, Taft had a first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. “That’s right, that’s right,” Darrion Weems shouted from the sideline. Then Hurricane Katrina started making its way toward the Gulf Coast, and everything about Weems’ life was about to turn upside down. Now things like football and recruiting seem insignificant. “I lost everything, man,” Weems said. “Everything.” Weems knows how fortunate he really is, however. He and his family, which includes his mother and father, an aunt and two younger siblings, fled New Orleans for Memphis, Tenn., one day before Katrina hit. “My mom wanted to get out of there as fast as possible,” Weems said. It was a wise decision. The family barely outran a disaster that ripped apart the city they called home for seven years. And with it their house, their neighborhood and all their belongings, washed away in just a few hours. All they really have now is each other. At times like this, that’s more than enough. “We’re blessed,” Weems said. “We know that.” He looks at the war zone New Orleans is now and wonders about the friends and family members he still hasn’t been able to reach. “A lot of them left for Texas or Mississippi,” Weems said. “Or wherever they had family or friends or some place to go. “Everything happened so fast. It’s still hard to believe how bad it really is.” The family’s original plan was to wait out Katrina in Memphis, then return home a few days later to pick up the pieces. But as they watched in horror from a motel room as the full extent of the disaster unfolded, they realized there was no going back. “It doesn’t look anything like the place we left behind,” Weems said. “Just devastating.” So they packed their belongings and made their way to California, where Weems had an older brother and grandmother living in Woodland Hills. They drove 13 straight hours the first leg, then drove all the way from New Mexico to California the second. Once the family settled in Woodland Hills – half stay with the older brother, the rest with the grandmother – Weems showed up at Taft to enroll in school and inquire about a spot on the football team. Like so many other kids from the Gulf Coast who fled to California, he arrived with no official transcripts from his former school. That’s one of the reasons why Weems wasn’t in uniform Thursday. “We’re working with the City Section and making sure everything is done correctly,” Taft principal Sharon Thomas said. If Thomas has her way, Weems will play in Taft’s next game. “How can we penalize these kids after they’ve lost everything in their lives?” Thomas said. “My heart goes out to all of them. The bottom line is, they should be out there playing and getting on with their lives as best as possible. Nothing will ever be the same for them, and we need to reach out and help.” Weems can’t wait to suit up again. “Man, you don’t even know how much it’s driving me crazy not to play,” he said. “You have to understand, I haven’t missed a game, ever. Not since the seventh grade.” Just then, Taft scored a touchdown. As players celebrated on the sideline, a few came over to high-five their new teammate. Weems smiled and obliged, happily slapping hands with kids he met just a few days ago. “If you would have told me two weeks ago I’d be standing on the sideline at a high school football game in California, I would have said you were crazy.” Weems said. On the field, Taft forced a fumble. “That’s our ball, that’s our ball,” Weems shouted happily. And with that, he was off to celebrate with his new teammates. Staff Writer Vincent Bonsignore’s column appears on Saturdays. He can be reached at (818) 713-3612 or [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!