With the New Orleans Saints coming to town this weekend, here is a look back at D.J. Fluker's story of survival that we documented last year on the 10th annivesrary of Hurricane Katrina:
D.J. Fluker was just 14-years old living in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward when the hurricane hit and the levies broke, turning his world upside down. The storm rendered him homeless as he fled from the destruction, but simply mention the word Katrina and it all still starts with dark clouds.
"I can still see them," he said. "The clouds just got so dark, and that is when I knew it would be bad. That it would be worse than the other hurricanes. But early that morning when we decided to finally leave, I remember the clouds getting so dark and the wind picking up."
Fluker's mother, Annice, originally wanted to stay and wait out the storm. The family had lived through a number of hurricanes over the years, but it wasn't until that morning that D.J. finally convinced his mother they had to flee.
"My mom wanted to stay, and she was saying the house survived Hurricane Ivan so it could survive this one. But I told her I wasn't going to stay and die."
D.J., his mother, two younger sisters and younger brother packed all they could into a tiny car and left New Orleans. He still remembers traveling down a narrow two-way bridge with no cars going the other direction as the water crept over the side.
"We went down the backroads on this long bridge, and the water rushed over the bridge a little bit. And then more came and the bridge flooded with water. Finally we were able to cross over and we were in the middle of a long line of cars in the middle of the interstate."
The family made their way to Biloxi, Mississippi where they remained when the levies broke. It was there he learned the house the family fled had completely washed away.
"We'd watch the news and I saw all those people in the Superdome. And then I knew what we had lost too, but I felt grateful to be alive. But at the same time it was devastating because I was seeing what was going on. We were so happy to escape that situation, but my heart was breaking when I watched everything that happened. I remember thinking if we stayed, I wouldn't be alive."
A few months later after starting his freshman year of high school, D.J. returned to New Orleans to meet with FEMA. While he knew his house no longer remained, he wasn't prepared for the shock of seeing nothing but empty bricks over a slab of concrete.
"There was absolutely nothing there. We had two houses that were connected together, and there was nothing there. It was just all gone. The bricks were torn apart and there was just rubble. I remember thinking how thankful I was that we left in time. What if we were still in there?"
From there Fluker made his way to Mobile, Alabama, where the family of five lived out of their Ford between stretches at various shelters. They survived by scavenging dumpsters outside fast food restaurants. Fluker found refuge when he turned to football at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School. The head coach allowed him to sleep in a spare bedroom on occasion while students held fundraisers to raise money for his family.
Eventually, Fluker graduated high school as a top recruit, won three national championships with Alabama, became a father and was the 11th overall pick by the San Diego Chargers. So much has changed over the past decade from when Katrina first made landfall, but the 6-5, 339-pound lineman says it still feels like yesterday.
"It feels like it just happened. I think a lot about what I lost, and I'm sad I lost all those pictures of me and my family when I was younger. We had some good times, and I don't have many pictures of that left. But I got lucky. I am grateful and more appreciative of life. It was a struggle. But I appreciate life so much. I can say I've been through that, and I pushed through it. There are so many people along the way that helped me through it, and I appreciate everything they did. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them. My family and I wouldn't be alive. We were struggling to put food on the table, and there were people who looked out for us. I was lucky to have coaches that took us in and let me spend nights with them. They showed me there are good people in this world. I wake up every single morning and I tell God thank you. There are people who are still struggling from that point in time, and I am grateful for everyone who helped me get to where I am now."
Entering his third NFL season, Fluker is not only an imposing figure on the field but is also one of the most generous Chargers in the community. The 25-year old is especially active with at-risk youths, making regular visits to Juvenile Hall to talk about his life experiences. He helps provide life skills and tools for those in attendance to overcome their hardships. Meanwhile, this past Thanksgiving he bought dozens of pizzas for those who had nowhere to spend the holiday, and in June held a golf tournament and youth football camp with proceeds supporting McGill-Toolen Catholic High School.
"I wouldn't be where I am without good people in my life," Fluker said. "I want to be that person now for anyone who was in my position."