HOUSTON (Dec. 6, 2005) -- If New Orleans' famed French Quarter had a kids club, this is likely how it would look. The scene made third-grader Paul Kohnke, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, feel at home, if only for a moment.
Children with multicolored Mardi Gras beads around their necks joined a duo of New Orleans Saints dancing wildly to the pulsing beat of a Zydeco band in between bites of beignets and king cake Dec. 6 at Houston's Fay School.
"This is so cool," Paul said. "I can't believe it. It reminds me of home."
Paul, who loves the Saints, won the "NFL Take a Player to School" contest this summer. But when his name was drawn, Katrina had already ravaged New Orleans, and the NFL couldn't find him. The Kohnkes, who relocated to Houston, eventually returned to check on their home in the Uptown section of the city and found the package announcing the good news.
Instead of waiting until Paul could return home, the NFL, Saints and Houston Texans decided to throw an early Mardi Gras celebration for him at his new school.
Saints defensive ends Tony Bryant and Charles Grant, wearing T-shirts that read "Be A Saint," escorted Paul and his brother James, 11, to school in a limo. Quiet and shy, Paul, clad in Grant's No. 94 jersey, waited several minutes before haltingly asking the players a question.
"Who is the hardest quarterback to sack," Paul asked, drawing a chuckle from both players, but no answer.
Paul has been able to quickly mesh with his classmates and get on track at his new school. His teacher, Laurie Dreyfuss, said he's a great student and is so conscientious that when told to wear a Saints jersey to school, he worried that he'd get in trouble for violating the school's dress code.
Bryant applauded Paul for adjusting to his new school and said changing schools was his biggest fear as a child.
"I thought the worst thing that could happen was to go to another school and have to make new friends," Bryant said.
"It was kind of hard at first," Paul said. "But I did it."
During the ride, Bryant and Grant chatted with Paul, James and their mother, Beth Kohnke, about how they missed the food and flavor of New Orleans. Paul told the players about his football team winning a championship after slight prodding from his mother.
Beth Kohnke said the family will likely have to stay in their cramped apartment in Houston until the spring when repairs to their house in New Orleans should be finished. Her husband has been commuting from Houston to New Orleans for his real estate job.
"I wish my friends in New Orleans could see this," Paul said, chest puffed up, as he got out of the limo with Bryant and Charles to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Paul introduced the players to his classmates and was surprised when Travis Johnson and Donovan Morgan of the Houston Texans joined the party. Gumbo, the Saints mascot, and Texans mascot Toro also milled throughout the crowd.
Paul stood gawking at the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Grant as the easygoing player talked to the crowd while resting a huge hand on Paul's slight shoulder.
"You opened your arms to Paul," Grant told the students. "Helping people builds character, leadership, family. America needs a lot of family and friends. Without family and friends, America wouldn't turn the way it turns."
Morgan, a receiver for Houston, related to Paul because his family was also displaced from New Orleans by Katrina. The Texans organization helped his family members find housing in Houston after the storm.
"I've been through the experience, and I know how important it is to have support," he said. "My teammates were there for me."
The players asked if anyone had questions and quickly learned that these third- through fifth-graders weren't afraid to ask anything.
"Y'all haven't been winning very much," 7-year-old Bess Krasoff said, sending the players running for cover. "What are you going to do to win?"
Later they tossed footballs and ran around outside with the children while Grant implored his group to start a chant of "Stay in school!"
Before the party died down, Paul got up on stage and played the washboard with the band. Grant gave Paul a high-five when he was done, and his mother looked wistful as she softly tousled his hair.
"I love hearing the music," she said. "But it makes me homesick."