ATLANTIC CITY - Ga-briel Chandler fled this resort town on Sunday, Oct. 28 with Hurricane Sandy poised to strike.
The Atlantic City High School football player went to his uncle's house in Pleasantville. Many of Chandler's teammates also left Atlantic City. Others stayed in their homes to ride out the storm.
When Chandler returned to his home in the Westside section of the city after the storm, he found the downstairs destroyed by flooding. Many of his personal items, clothes and football pads were ruined. The house's hot-water tank had burst.
"It feels weird," Chandler said. "It feels like my life is half gone."
Since the storm hit, Chandler and his teammates have undertaken dual tasks. They are trying to recover and rebuild their lives. They also are preparing for the biggest game of the season. The Vikings (5-2) play at Absegami (5-2) tonight at 7.
Absegami already has clinched a South Jersey Group V playoff spot. The Vikings would earn a postseason berth with a win. Atlantic City could also qualify with a loss but would not have a high seed in the eight-team field.
"This is going to make us tougher," Chandler, a senior defensive lineman, said. "We'll be ready to play."
Life has been a whirlwind for the team since the storm. At least three players have not returned to practice because they are dealing with issues at home, such as loss of electricity or flood damage. At least one player lost his home.
"Hectic doesn't begin to describe what we've gone through," head coach Thomas Kelly said. "I'm trying to teach my boys to roll with the punches. This is real life."
Kelly, a 1992 Atlantic City graduate, lives in Mays Landing. He monitored the storm and stayed in touch with his players and assistant coaches from his home.
Most of the Vikings evacuated. Quarterback Jarren McBryde, who lives in Brigantine with his grandparents, left for a hotel in Mount Holly. Vikings defensive coordinator and Ventnor resident Mike Eisenstein did the same thing.
The Atlantic City players who stayed in the city banded together. Wide receiver and defensive back Dayshawn Reynolds left his home in the Bungalow Park section of town and stayed with teammate Demond Cottman in the middle of the city.
The power never went out. The two played video games to pass time. But the wind howled, the rain fell and the floodwaters rose.
"It was scary," Reynolds said. "The house was shaking."
Kelly's home suffered little damage.
"I almost feel guilty that I made out so well when my young men were going through so much," the coach said.
It took him and his assistant coaches three or four days to make contact with most of the players.
"Two days after the storm we had a pretty good handle on 90 percent of the team," Kelly said. "But this is ongoing. This is not over."
The players would tell the coaches their stories of homes destroyed and possessions lost.
"It was heartbreaking," Kelly said.
The Vikings began to slowly rebuild their lives last week. Chandler and his family moved into an Atlantic City hotel.
The players saw the toll the storm took everywhere they went.
"We got hit pretty bad," McBryde said. "My house was fine, but down the street there was a lady who had everything ruined. All her furniture, the bed, everything was out front of her house the next day."
The Vikings held their first practice after the storm last Saturday.
"That first day, everybody was saying to each other, 'We missed you all,' " Reynolds said. "During the season, you're like, 'Aah, another day of practice.' But this was great. It was nice."
Atlantic City seniors, such as McBryde, are looking after the younger players, offering them rides to and from practice.
"We just let them know we're here for them if they need anything," McBryde said.
The one positive for the Vikings is life at Atlantic City High School is anything but routine. Coaches are always helping to find players' rides or replace equipment.
"That's one of the things we do great around here," Kelly said with a smile. "We coach on the fly. We're used to something always happening - somebody needing something."
Much attention has been focused on the Vikings as they prepare for tonight's game. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick visited the team during Tuesday's practice to offer his support.
Atlantic City has tried to make things as normal as possible the past few days. McBryde described this week's practices as up-tempo.
But Absegami will be just as inspired and motivated as the Vikings. Absegami also had players affected by the storm. The Braves have clinched a playoff spot, but will earn a first-round home game with a win tonight.
"We'll have a lot of well-wishers, but Absegami is not going to feel sorry for us," Kelly said. "It's kind of a living lesson. We talk all the time about sticking to things, blocking out outside (distractions). But when you get hit with a super storm like this you're living it."
Contact Michael McGarry:
of the week:
Atlantic City (5-2)
vs. Absegami (5-2)
When/where: 7 p.m. today at Absegami in Galloway Township
Why this game is important: Both teams are South Jersey Group V contenders. Absegami already has clinched a playoff spot. Atlantic City would clinch a spot with a win. The Vikings could also qualify with a loss but would not have a high seed. Absegami is No. 7 in The Press Elite 11. Atlantic City is No. 8.