Sophomore defensive tackle Harold Legania has battled through Hurricane Katrina and the loss of his father.
The first time Harold Legania left New Orleans, it took 18 hours to drive 70 miles. That exodus, two days ahead of Hurricane Katrina, was excruciating, and ended tragically.
The second time he moved out of his hometown, traffic was better, but hard times still were ahead. Yet the Gophers' defensive tackle remains unshakably optimistic that success -- big success -- is dead ahead.
"I think we're going to go undefeated this year!" Legania said with a smile, and who could blame him for being a little giddy? He's survived two years of homesickness, idled on the sidelines during back-to-back 3-9 seasons, and watched his high school teammate head home to Louisiana. There is no guarantee, but it looks as if Legania is going to get to play football again next month. "And football has gotten me through a lot of things," he said.
The biggest, of course, was Katrina, a storm that temporarily cost him his home, briefly cost him his sport, and permanently cost him his father. Legania's family heeded calls to evacuate New Orleans on Sept. 27, 2005, two days ahead of Katrina's landfall in Louisiana.
"It was a horrible experience. Traffic was so bad, you couldn't move," said Legania, who was 13 at the time. "It took 18 hours to drive to Baton Rouge, about an hour away."
They remained there for several months, until Edna Kerr High reopened midway through the school year, "so I missed half of my eighth-grade year," he said.
But the toll was far worse. Legania's father, Harold Sr., had been diagnosed with cancer, but in the aftermath of Katrina, with some hospitals closed and others inundated with hurricane survivors, his treatment was altered. He lived for only four months after the storm.
"Basically, I lost my dad because of Katrina," he said. "That pretty much killed him."
He didn't live to see Harold become an all-Louisiana defensive tackle, one who racked up 10 sacks during his senior year to become a highly sought recruit. Legania was offered scholarships by upwards of a dozen schools, from Baylor and Mississippi to Virginia and North Carolina. He visited Colorado, but along with teammate Dwayne Mitchell, a linebacker, chose Minnesota.
"Everyone asks me why. The biggest thing in my decision was, I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to get out of New Orleans and be the difference somewhere, playing football," he said. "That's still my goal, to be the man, to make a difference on the field."
He's waited a long time to do it. Gophers coach Tim Brewster decided to redshirt the teenager in 2010. Legania decided to stay in Minnesota when Brewster was fired and Jerry Kill took over -- "He had recruited me in high school, too, and he's a great coach, so it was an easy decision," Legania said -- and was working toward his longshot hopes of challenging Minnesota's senior tackles for a job last fall when he fell awkwardly on his left foot during practice and suffered a high ankle sprain.
"That took forever to heal," said Legania, who sat out a second season. "It was sort of a lost season for me. ... But I was the biggest cheerleader on the sidelines."
Mitchell left Minnesota last spring, choosing to transfer to Nicholls State, about 40 miles from New Orleans. Again, though, Legania stayed in Minnesota. He likes Minnesota's business school, he said, and is one of six defensive linemen with a serious chance at playing time this season.
"He's changed his body physically, no question. He's worked real hard," Kill said of the 6-4, 310-pound sophomore. "There's great competition in there."
"He gives you more size than the others do," added defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. "... I wouldn't be afraid to play him in a game right now. He's just not consistent enough. Every day it's somebody different on the line. It's like the stock market, and you don't know which one to buy right now."
Legania, anyway, is glad he bought into Minnesota's program, difficult as it's been to wait. "I miss it a lot. I always miss it," he said of his New Orleans home. "My first year was pretty hard. But Minnesota is my second home now. I'm glad I'm here."