Behind The Scenes

From NOLA to Connecticut and back again, Louisiana native Maya Jones writes from the heart

I am sorry. I apologize to you. I neglected you when all you wanted to do was help ease my pain. Be my friend. Be that confidante I didn’t have as a frightened 15-year-old, ten years ago. I was afraid.

Unnecessarily afraid and ten years ago, life gave me something to fear. Them waters rising, them houses burning, bloated bodies strewn almost perfectly under signs that urged New Orleanians to keep our city clean. But just like a woman, she made her own rules. And for Mother Nature, the rules of society didn’t apply.

I left what I loved.

Countless books and notebooks filled with my words, my life, my truth. What was I thinking? Thinking I would return to the things that I loved? Making promises to a life in a city that would soon cease to exist in the way I pictured my future.

These poignant words are excerpted from “Rebirth: Ten Years,” a poem written by ESPN The Magazine senior researcher Maya Jones. Less than 10 years after the mighty floods of Hurricane Katrina ravaged her home and countless others in the Gulf Coast, Jones read the entire work during a recent Monday night poetry event at The Russell in Hartford, Conn.

Jones, 25, is a distinguished graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans. In 2005, she was a high school sophomore dealing with typical teenage angst – and then some. Roughly two weeks into the school term there was an eerie storm brewing in New Orleans. Jones didn’t know that this particular hurricane, unlike the ones she and her family had faced before, would take her away from the city she knew and loved.

Front Row spoke with Maya prior to ESPN.com publishing her first-person story about surviving the storm, part of the network’s cross-platform content this week to mark the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

How were you able to become part of this project?
Before it was announced there would be a New Orleans issue, I was thinking about topics to share my own experience. So I started formulating ideas in late February. In March or April, I was told there would be an actual [Katrina] issue. I spoke to Paul Kix [senior editor, ESPN.com Special Reporting] and Jena Janovy [deputy editor, ESPN.com Premium Content] about it. I was in Jena’s office casually telling her what happened to me. She encouraged me to put it to paper to provide another voice surrounding the tragic anniversary.

My editor, Raina Kelley, told me it was my story to tell and if this is what it takes, we are going to use it. I thought I was writing a lot but it was how I felt at the moment. I was in New Orleans [for a week] and I was looking around, putting everything in my story.
– Maya Jones, reflecting on turning in a 6,000-word draft of her Katrina feature

Did you think you would actually write the story or submit suggestions and/or give quotes?
No, I thought I would be given a small space to share my story. Maybe placed as a sidebar for relevant content. When I turned in my first draft, it was more than 6,000 words. My editor, Raina Kelley [deputy editor, ESPN.com Premium Content], told me it was my story to tell and if this is what it takes, we are going to use it. I thought I was writing a lot but it was how I felt at the moment. I was in New Orleans [for a week] and I was looking around, putting everything in my story.

You were able to hang out with Wright Thompson to compile this story. How was it working with him and possibly getting some writing tips from the accomplished writer?
It was a great experience. I briefly spoke to Wright during one of his visits to Bristol for ESPN’s World Cup coverage. We met again earlier this month in New Orleans. He is the most honest person regarding life, careers, whatever we talked about. You can tell he is just genuine with everything. When I told him I looked up to him he was like “Aw, cut it out.” I couldn’t help but be emotional because in my career so many people told me “no” yet to have someone, at the top of his game, give me solid advice – that was amazing. It was like speaking to one of my heroes. I’m happy I was able to spend time with him talking about writing. The way his mind works is fascinating to me. You can give him an idea and he already has a story for it. I told him how hungry and passionate I am about writing and he said never forget that hunger, where you came from. That thought will stick with me the most because, right now, I feel I won’t ever forget when I was told no or all the things people have said to tear me down.

Was this your first writing assignment?
I’ve written short pieces before but nothing like this. This is my first long-form piece.

What’s your take on ESPN’s Katrina anniversary coverage?
I think it’s unique what ESPN is doing. It is a situation where you can set the sports aspect aside and I don’t think sports fans would be upset. I’m confident the overall package we share will be great.

As an alumna of Xavier University (class of 2012), how does it feel to be nominated for their second annual 40 under 40 Young Alumni Award?
I’m honored and really appreciate the nomination. But it feels weird because I’m at a place where I’m still trying to make it. To be recognized for what I have done already feels good but I have such a long way to go. I had a great experience at Xavier and continue to carry everything I learned there with me today.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Xavier University, one of 106 historically black colleges and universities in the U.S., is located roughly 10-15 minutes from where Maya’s family was hit during Hurricane Katrina. The school still stands strong, much like the people affected by the path of the historical storm.

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