One of the last things Austin Duncan and Hakim Mathieu remember before their paths diverted and their friendship got put on hold was gearing up for a showdown with a cross-city rival youth football team.
"We're about to run this," Duncan told Mathieu, a fellow running back.
"Two touchdowns apiece," Mathieu predicted.
It was late August 2005. The place was New Orleans. The game never got played.
Duncan and Mathieu did not speak again for almost seven years as Hurricane Katrina displaced both of their families. They returned to New Orleans but did not reconnect before Mathieu's family moved again, this time to Arizona.
But football and fate restored their friendship. Recruited separately to play football at Hamline University, Duncan was on a visit earlier this year when he was handed the phone to talk to another running back recruit -- Mathieu.
"My mom was like, 'Hakim Mathieu? From New Orleans?'" Duncan said. "I got on the phone with him, and he was surprised that it was me."
Picking up where they left off, Duncan and Mathieu, both freshmen, are roommates and backfield mates. Through two games, Duncan ranks second with 182 rushing yards and is tied for the team lead with three touchdowns. His second college carry went 73 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Minnesota Morris.
A concussion has limited Mathieu so far. He has one carry for 4 yards but expects to see more action Saturday at home against Augsburg. The game starts at 7 p.m., just the second night game in Hamline's history. A total of 17 family members are flying up to cheer on Duncan and Mathieu.
Second-year Pipers head coach John Pate, who helped Georgia Southern to five NCAA Division I-AA titles from 1985-2000 and also spent 12 1/2 years as the Eagles' recruiting coordinator, said the reuniting of Duncan and Mathieu already ranks among his most memorable moments.
"What a coincidence it was," Pate said. "It's a novel story, and it's a great story."
A New Orleans-born Hamline alum tipped coaches off about Duncan, a swift running back with good size (6 feet, 205 pounds). Pate said his staff's ties to the southern United States and the lack of Division III college football options in the region led to recruiting Mathieu, who graduated from Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz.
Strong for his size (5-9, 175) and sub-4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash, Mathieu is "coming on now and getting his step back," Pate said.
Though quick to smile and joke, both young men acknowledged the scars left by Katrina. Duncan felt tensions rising as his family crowded with relatives under the same roof in Texas. Some nights he would sit on his parents' bed and cry because he wanted to be home. Mathieu felt his mother' strain as they moved from Mississippi to greater Louisiana to Houston.
"We lost a lot of memories," Duncan said.
They are relishing a chance to make new ones. Growing up they would play video game and Nerf football during sleepovers at each others' homes. Not much has changed.
"He's the same person," Mathieu said. "We just got bigger. Well, he got bigger."
Being together again, Duncan said, "doesn't replace the times that we didn't have together. but it helps."
"I believe God had a plan with us making this connection again," Duncan said. "It's not a coincidence a person in Arizona and a person in Louisiana came to a small liberal arts school in Minnesota when there are a million out there."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574