Building on dreams

Young, idealistic and tenacious, a UGA alumnus leads the effort to bring hope and dignity back to New Orleans’ 9th Ward

Building on dreams

Brian Bordainick surveys the neighborhood surrounding G.W. Carver High School. The condemned apartments housed hundreds of low-income and elderly residents before the floods.

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

From a bank around the east bend in the Mississippi River, you can see the city of New Orleans, its mix of waterfront skyscrapers and historic French architecture shining in the late fall sun. The city buzzes with energy, back to life after the devastating storm of five years ago.

Brian Bordainick (AB/BSEd ’07) walks the path of a neatly landscaped park down the river from the center city. Behind him is the 9th Ward, virtually destroyed by flooding when a canal levee failed. Unlike the thriving city ahead of him, much of this part of town remains untouched. Blocks of brick apartment buildings, once home to the elderly and low income, remain vacant and boarded behind a chain link fence topped with wire. At least one in three houses sits empty, the owners forced to rebuild their lives in other places after Hurricane Katrina.

About a half mile away, across the canal, sits George Washington Carver High School, now a shell of a building that the city has just begun to demolish. Around 400 students, just more than half of the student population before Katrina, attend classes in trailers while waiting for the school to be rebuilt.

“It’s taken five years to get to this point,” says Bordainick, who is wearing a green sport shirt with the Carver emblem. “This is progress, believe me, from where we were.”

Within the next year, city residents should be able to see some significant changes to the landscape. Not only will Carver be rebuilt, but also next to it a state-of-the-art football field and track that will serve the surrounding community.

Bordainick, a tall, lanky, white 25-year-old from New York is the unlikely hero behind the project.

In just two years, the New Orleans outsider built ties with the local community, lobbied local and state leaders and bulldogged corporate grants to amass the $1.85 million project. The Field of Dreams football stadium and eight-lane running track will be built adjacent to the school but will be open to the public.

“He had a vision and he articulated that vision,” says 9th Ward resident Johnny Jackson, who chairs the Field of Dreams community advisory board. “Brian got a lot of flack because he was white. If not for him I don’t think the Field of Dreams would have gotten as far as it has.”

Jackson, a former city councilman and state representative, is one of a handful of residents in the Desire neighborhood of New Orleans east of downtown who chose to return to the 9th Ward after his home was destroyed. Though his family is resettled in Dallas, he returns every few weeks to New Orleans to work on the home he bought in 1972.

“It’s almost like a whole new neighborhood now,” he says. “When their houses got destroyed many of them decided not to rebuild.”

Small businesses and a neighborhood park are gone. Several schools will not be rebuilt because the population in the area now cannot support them. If it weren’t for a committed group of Carver High School alumni and the Field of Dreams project, that school might have been sacrificed as well.

Bordainick arrived in New Orleans in August 2007, just two years after the flooding, and a few months after leaving UGA with undergraduate degrees in history and education. A Teach for America participant, he had requested placement in New Orleans, a city he visited annually with his fraternity brothers at Tau Epsilon Phi, in order to be part of the recovery effort.

His classroom was a trailer a couple of miles from the Carver site. He learned on the first day of school that he would be teaching geography.

The school was attempting to revive its once strong athletics program. Bordainick was asked to coach girls’ basketball in addition to teaching. When the school lost its athletics director, Bordainick took that post as well, at age 21 becoming the youngest high school athletics director in the country.

One of his first tasks was getting the school’s storied football program back on its feet. Carver Rams football has a long history of producing college and professional football players, offering a way out of poverty for talented kids living in the 9th Ward. Marshall Faulk, who won a Super Bowl as a member of the 2000 St. Louis Rams, is perhaps the school’s most famous alumnus.

More than that, football was a rallying event for neighborhood residents, many of them alumni from the days when Carver was the only high school for black students on New Orleans’ east side. In many cases their children and even grandchildren had attended the school.

An annual alumni football game on Thanksgiving Day routinely draws dozens of participants. The Turkey Bowl, as it’s called, pits the older alums against the young.

“We just have a love for Carver,” says alumni association president Mary Evans, who graduated in 1962 and taught at Carver from 1969 to 1980. “It goes all the way down to the children.”

The school brought in Shyrone Carey, who had played football at Louisiana State University, to coach the new Carver team. Getting the players proved more difficult. Youth football in New Orleans had been virtually nonexistent in the years following Katrina so many of the students had no experience with the game. A lot of the older players who had the experience did not return to the neighborhood after the flood.

Only two students showed up for an informational meeting, Bordainick recalls. So he went to their homes and worked on their mothers. If you commit your sons to play football, he told them, we’ll keep them off the streets in those hours after school.

“He’s yours,” the moms told him.

He put his fundraising skills to the initial test, looking for equipment and uniform donations. New Orleans Quarterback Drew Brees donated money for the team uniforms, a smart combination of green and orange that looks similar to the University of Miami Hurricanes. (Brees would later donate $100,000 from the Brees Dream Foundation for construction of the stadium.)

The 30 players he “scrounged up” for the first season lost every game. It was during that first season that Bordainick read about a competitive grant being offered by the NFL. The league would give $200,000 in matching funds to organizations raising money to promote athletics in an impoverished community. He knew the 9th Ward would qualify for the grant based on that criteria. Problem was, he had to raise $200,000 in matching funds to get the grant. And he had only 36 days in which to do it.

The grassroots campaign began with e-mails to everyone he knew asking for money. When family and friends were tapped out, he began emailing strangers—city and state leaders, business people, organizations, anyone he could think of. He made a commitment to send 200 emails a day with the subject line “Partner with the NFL.”

He was determined not to take no for an answer.

“If I get in front of you, you’re going to say yes,” he vowed.

His persistence was effective and he got meetings with city leaders, state officials and local celebrities.

He found a local architectural firm willing to design the project for the grant application pro bono. All seemed to be going well—until three days before the application was due when the architect backed out. He had raised the $200,000 matching funds but had nothing to present to the NFL grant committee.

“I felt like I’d been shot,” Bordainick says. “Like the rug had been pulled out from under me. ”

That night, Bordainick was the topic of conversation at a local event. When Steve Dumez, a partner in the New Orleans architectural firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, heard about Bordainick’s plight he wanted to help. He called his partner Mark Ripple, who after talking briefly with Bordainick agreed to assemble his team at the downtown office to talk about the plan. They worked through the weekend and by Monday—the day the application was due—they not only had it ready to go with a design, but also a local contractor signed on as part of the project team.

“Everybody understands what this kind of thing can mean to a community,” Ripple says. “It’s easy to get behind (Bordainick’s) passion and commitment.”

The Field of Dreams project got the $200,000 grant from the NFL as well as almost $250,000 from Nike. New Orleans City Council member-at-large Arnie Flelkow pitched in $25,000 of his own money. Carver students contributed the money they could afford, anxious to be part of the effort. By last summer, Bordainick had logged more than $1.2 million in contributions.

The fundraising had hit a lull as national and international news crews descended on New Orleans in late August to do a five-year retrospective on the hurricane. As part of his report, CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper interviewed Bordainick at Carver about the Field of Dreams project. The next day, Bordainick got a call from Ariadne Getty, the granddaughter of billionaire oilman J. Paul Getty, who oversees her family’s charitable trust in Los Angeles. Getty had seen Cooper’s interview and was moved by the project. She flew Bordainick to L.A. for a meeting the next week and agreed to donate the additional money needed for the stadium.

With the financing in place, Bordainick and the project team are working out the details of the project with the school district and also putting together an operations plan that will allow the facility to be self-sustaining. In January, UBU Sports donated the artificial turf from the Super Dome, valued at roughly $550,000, to the Field of Dreams. It was carefully packaged and placed in storage until the stadium is completed.

He left his job with the schools in the fall and is now working with the New Orleans mayor’s office to restructure the city’s recreation department to provide more programs and resources for children and adults.

Since the Field of Dreams program began getting national exposure, he has heard from corporations and philanthropists about potential jobs in other states. New Orleans, however, feels like home.

“The more I live here, the more unfit I’m becoming to live other places,” he says.

It is an unseasonably cold October Friday night in New Orleans, and Carver is playing its homecoming game against the J.S. Clark High School Bulldogs at City Park, a few miles north of the 9th Ward. The home stands are full as several hundred Carver alumni, their family and friends reminisce, eat pizza and hot dogs and cheer on the team. Only a handful of Bulldog fans dot the bleachers on the visitors’ side of the field.

A whistle blows signaling the umpteenth penalty of the game, most of them against Carver. It has been that kind of year. In October, a Carver player collapsed during a practice and died from an undiagnosed heart condition. Later, the school was fined and put on probation for a year for playing students who belonged in a different school attendance zone. They lose tonight by a score of 20-18, bringing their season record to 3 wins, 7 losses.

In the stands, wearing green pants, an orange shirt and a green Carver jacket is Eddie Scott, a 1979 graduate, who went on to play college football for legendary coach Eddie Robinson at Grambling State University before going pro with teams in the USFL and later the NFL.

“Some of these are kids that if there hadn’t been a hurricane they wouldn’t have been able to make the team,” he says of the team on the field. “But it’s about keeping them out there. We’re in the rebuilding process. You might not win a game this year but you’ve got to keep on trying.”

“You can be a good athlete with a C and everybody in the country will give you a scholarship. If that is the avenue that poor kids have to take, so be it.”

Field of Dreams is a perfect name for a new stadium in the 9th Ward, he says.

“Coach Robinson always told us this world was built on somebody dreaming.”

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