When the New Orleans Saints visit the Denver Broncos on Oct. 28, Gerald Thomas will be watching.

He doesn't know if he'll be in attendance or watching on TV, but he won't miss the game.

For Thomas, and many others from the Bayou, the Saints are like family. He's known them since childhood, and they helped him and others from the area get through one of the worst natural disasters in United States history.

"To this day I'm a die-hard Saints fan," said Thomas, now a freshman wide receiver at Colorado.

In 2005, Thomas was an 11-year-old kid in New Orleans. An only child, he lived with his parents, but spent a lot of his time with an extended family that is glue-tight. In late August, that family got closer than ever.

Hurricane Katrina smacked the city on Aug. 29, 2005, leaving roughly 1,800 people dead and destroying 80 percent of the city that the Thomas family called home. He and his family narrowly got out of the storm's path.

"I left New Orleans the day before Katrina hit," Thomas said.

Members of the family -- 13 in all, including Thomas, his parents, his grandparents, a grandfather and two baby cousins -- fled the city and settled in a hotel in Plano, Texas. All 13 of them packed into a room with two beds, where they stayed for three months.

His father, a trained chef, and grandmother cooked food for the family, using what little they had -- and leaving doors open to keep the room ventilated. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and area residents helped to provide food and other goods.


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"It was crazy, but we just had to make it work the best we could," said Thomas, now 18. "We were all very close, so it was kind of easy for us. We tried to make the best out of it, even knowing things were going bad back at home."

Although just 11 years old, Thomas knew right away that the situation was devastating for many of those who were in Katrina's path. On TV, Thomas saw houses that he recognized, washed away or destroyed. He saw many of the city's residents suddenly homeless and in dire need of food, water and clothing.

"It was tough at first, seeing all of that," he said. "My mom would cry and was stressed out; my dad didn't know what to do. We tried to keep our minds off of it, but it was tough at the time."

After a couple of months in the hotel, Thomas' extended family went back to New Orleans, but he and his parents stayed in Texas to start a new life.

They returned to New Orleans to gather their belongings a few months after the hurricane. As it turned out, the Thomas home in New Orleans escaped major damage. Their home on the west bank of the Mississippi River had a little water damage, he said, but, "It wasn't hit as bad as the east bank."

Still, the Thomas' felt it was best to go. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the crime rate rose dramatically in New Orleans and that proved to be a major factor in the Thomas family relocating.

"It wasn't a good environment to raise a kid in," he said of New Orleans. "It was a better opportunity for me for football and my education (in Texas)."

Over the next few years, Thomas blossomed as a football player, and in four seasons with The Colony High School, he became the school's all-time leading receiver, catching 127 passes for 2,345 yards and 22 touchdowns.

His success in high school led to scholarship offers from around the country. He and his parents fell in love with CU and he signed on to become a Buffalo. (His parents love the area so much, in fact, that they are moving here in a couple of weeks.)

Thomas is still learning the nuances of the CU offense, but he is beginning to emerge as a weapon for the Buffs. Through six games, he has caught 12 passes for 143 yards and he's gained another 44 on seven rushing attempts.

Through the trials and recovery associated with Hurricane Katrina, the Thomas family and thousands of others were healed by the Saints, who became a symbol of the city. On the field, the Saints went through difficult times in 2005, but slowly got better and reached the top in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl.

Thomas said he still remembers the Super Bowl victory "like it was yesterday." He's only seen the Saints in person once, when he was a child, so the thought of the Saints coming to Denver excites him.

"I want to go. I'm trying to find a way to go to that game," he said.

Whether he gets to the game or not, Thomas will always have a place in his heart for the Saints and the city of New Orleans. Like the football team and his hometown, Thomas has been through tough times, but he knows what he's been through has shaped him.

"It made me grow up faster and mature quicker than most kids," he said. "At first it was tough, but it ended up being a good thing in the long run."

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.