Tiny number, big expectations for Georgia Tech's Zenon

Monday, those who had their lives scrambled by Hurricane Katrina will put another year between themselves and the storm.

Observing the anniversary of Katrina’s landfall is a largely personal matter, an occasion to inventory resilience and to gauge the progress made since Aug. 29, 2005.

Six years ago, Tony Zenon was packed into his grandmother’s van with nine other family members, heading east through the sideways rain. Through Mississippi, into Alabama and then Florida, they found the way choked with evacuees. Twenty-six hours after leaving New Orleans, the weary bunch came to rest in Albany, yet to discover the extent of the hurricane’s spite, the great changes about to be forced upon them and the goodness that would pave the way to recovery.

Last week was momentous for the Georgia Tech A-back, and it had nothing to do with Katrina. The last signee of the 2010 recruiting class, the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Zenon got a new number. He traded in the No. 47, which never seemed to fit a player of his slight stature and quick-as-a-startled-cat running style, and inherited the No. 9 left behind by departed quarterback Josh Nesbitt. The switch was the buzz of practice.

“Basically, the way we decided to give Tony No. 9 was that he’s really tiny, and he looks goofy with two numbers,” a smiling coach Paul Johnson said. “He wanted a single digit, and he needs one. You can barely see that one.”

Chimed in quarterback Tevin Washington, “We need to get him a smaller size jersey. They got him in one like Josh (6 feet 1, 217 pounds) had last year, so it swallowed him. He looked like a little kid out there in practice.”

They joke because they care. Better that than to be overlooked.

Overcoming size

Zenon, pronounced “Zin-AHN” not “ZEE-non,” as he hears so often, is getting noticed by his peers. The redshirt freshman arrived in 2010 with much to prove. He was a too-small player coming from a tiny private school off the well-trodden recruiting path. But his pitch, thus far, has been convincing.

You just got to check out how quick this guy is, say his teammates. “He’s like a phantom out there,” starting A-back Roddy Jones said. “One time, you see him, and the next second, he’s going the other way.

“The first time he got out there and ran, we knew he was legit. He can fly. And when you got a guy who stands out like that with his speed, that’s the end of it. No one doubts him for any reason.”

Zenon’s preparation for the season’s opening has included few concerns about a 6-year-old storm. There seems to be a formula at play here: The less one makes of a calamity, the better one has recovered from it.

Thoughts of Katrina “are nowhere near on my mind,” Zenon said last week. “I was displaced from my friends. I lost my home. But I have a good family, and they made sure it didn’t affect me by putting me in a nice home and a better school. I became better off from [the experience].”

Who knows where Zenon would be today had the winds blown him a different way? He is at a choice university, playing his chosen game a little bit in spite of Katrina and, in some ways, because of her.

Zenon’s mother and stepfather don’t believe in random. There had to be a greater plan at work the day they bugged out of New Orleans intending to head west for Texas only to be redirected the exact opposite way by police, say Tonia and Felonius Osborne.

It had to be by some divine design, they figure, that every hotel on their route was packed to the eaves until they happened to hear about a few rooms still available in a southwest Georgia town they didn’t know existed just the day before.

“I knew Albany, N.Y., that’s about it,” Felonius said.

Mere chance could not explain that they would be on the phone with an Albany hotel desk clerk at the precise moment a local Samaritan was on the other line asking if there were any Katrina evacuees there who needed help. Mariellen Bateman couldn’t just sit by and watch more news reports about the Gulf Coast devastation, so she began calling hotels in search of some way to get involved.

Yes, she was told, I think we have someone here you should talk to.

How about a caravan of 26 exhausted people, one van and three cars? There was an elderly woman, Tony’s great-grandmother, in need of assistance. There were kids who had a two days’ supply of clothing and nothing else. There was Tony’s stepfather, whose good job at UPS and two-story home in the New Orleans East area was being flooded out. They could probably use a hand, don’t you think?

Bateman turned out to be “our angel,” Felonius said. Tony calls her his godmother sometimes, other times, in jest, his grandmother. She helped settle the family in their new surroundings, mobilizing her friends to help out with housing and clothing and food until they all could get their feet beneath them.

She was the conduit to help place Tony and two of his cousins in the private Deerfield-Windsor Academy, raising support from her group to help cover the $10,000-a-year tuition where scholarship money failed.

A new family

She was protective of those who she came to view as family, especially Tony. When during a recruiting visit Johnson mentioned the limitations of his size, no matter the 2,264 yards Tony gained as a senior, Bateman had an answer. “I told him, ‘He’s 90 percent muscle and 10 percent moral fiber. You’ve already got some gray in your hair; Tony’s not going to put any more there. He’s a great kid,’” recalled Bateman.

The decision to stay in Albany came with a cost. Felonius found work with Greyhound, but had to catch on first in Baton Rouge, La., then Tallahassee. He thought it important to keep the family grounded while working where he had to (he, Tony’s mother and his two younger brothers all recently moved to the Nashville area).

“He kept most everything intact. He worked his butt off to make sure we were fine,” Tony said of his stepfather.

For his part, Tony had to adjust the environment of a small college prep school with far more stringent academic demands than he had ever faced.

“He was a kid you definitely pulled for,” his high school football coach Allen Lowe said. “He did everything he could in the classroom to maximize what he had. And he’s done everything he can on the football field.

“Once he got adjusted, he knew how hard he had to work. We’d be traveling to an away game, and he’d be in the bus studying.”

Tony would do more than just get by in his new home. As a senior, he was named best-all-around in the class. He has made a habit of winning over people.

Friends tease Bateman, a University of Georgia fan whose son John is director of marketing for UGA athletics, about how she might react next year when Tech meets its rival in Athens.

“I tell them I’ll be running from one end of the hedges to the other yelling, ‘Go Tony, Go Tony!’” she said. No small feat for a 72-year-old woman.

“I just love him to pieces,” she said. “I feel I came out on the best end of the deal.”

Katrina blew. The levees broke. Homes washed away. People, sometimes in combinations that they could never have imagined, endured.

Some even were strengthened. Every year about this time is their chance to declare victory over the storm.