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October 12, 2009Allen Muse tells his story with a surprised smile on his face, as if he too is a little awed by it.
He arrived at Arkansas State in 2008, three years after being stuck in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Then, following a routine physical at the start of his college career, Muse learned he had a heart defect. Even if he had surgery, there was a 50-50 chance he'd never play again.
"I told them, let's get it," Muse said. "Because I'm ready to get back on the field."
Muse is back this season, playing wide receiver for the Red Wolves a year after open heart surgery. On Tuesday, he'll be in his home state when Louisiana-Monroe hosts Arkansas State in a rare weeknight game.
"To me it's very amazing, just everything that that young man's gone through," Red Wolves coach Steve Roberts said. "From losing his home in Katrina, to re-establishing himself in north Louisiana at Leesville to getting an opportunity to play Division I football."
Muse lived in New Orleans' 9th Ward, and like so many people in the area, his life changed dramatically when Katrina struck in August 2005. Muse's house was destroyed, and he ended up on a bridge near the Superdome.
"It just was horror. It got dark. Everybody's up in one spot," he said. "You hear people crying, saying we're going to die, babies crying. It was a horrible feeling, knowing that this could get really bad."
Buses finally arrived. Muse was then brought to Baton Rouge, La. but he eventually moved elsewhere in the state. His mother had a friend in the Leesville area.
"We stayed there with them for about a week and a half, and she liked it there so much that we ended up staying there the rest of my high school career," he said.
After finding a new home, Muse returned to the sport he loved. He was one of Louisiana's top players, and the Red Wolves were happy to welcome the 6-foot-4 receiver after he signed with them the following year.
"I got out of high school, more ready than I ever could have been in my life," Muse said.
Almost immediately, Muse had to face more terrible news.
Arkansas State players undergo extensive physicals, and Muse found out he needed more testing. He later learned the devastating prognosis.
"They found out that I had extra tissue stopping my blood flow throughout my whole body," he said. "It was like, either you can have the surgery now and have a 50-50 chance of playing football again. Or you cannot have the surgery, get 50, 55 years old and, you know, stroke out."
Muse says the decision was obvious, but his operation included a risk.
"They make you sign papers saying, we're not going to guarantee your heart's going to come back on once we cut it off," he said.
Muse made it through the September operation. He remembers rubbing his mother's hand afterward to let her know he was OK.
"She said the first thing I tried to say when I woke up was, 'Call coach Roberts,'" he said. "She said once I couldn't say it, I wrote it down on a piece of paper."
When Roberts first found out about Muse's ailment, he didn't expect him back on the field.
"You just want him to be able to live a productive life," Roberts said. "Then we got word that there was a 50-50 chance that he may be able to play football once they get in there and see how he is."
After the operation, Muse began running _ sooner than he was supposed to. He was cleared to participate in spring practice.
Though initially nervous about being hit in the chest, Muse can play without restrictions.
"When he got back here in January, there was nothing," said Ron Carroll, the athletic department's head trainer. "Go lift, go run, no more appointments, nothing. No therapy."
So Muse was on the field when Arkansas State opened its season against Mississippi Valley State, and he caught his first collegiate pass.
"The first play he put me in, they threw me the ball," Muse said. "I went to the sideline and told him not to do it again _ told him I was real nervous."
Muse has five catches this year _ not bad for a player in his first season. It's easy to forget about his health problems now, unless he takes off his shirt.
"It's a very long scar on his chest," Arkansas State wide receiver Jahbari McLennan said. "That's going to be there for life."
Meanwhile, Muse's parents are back in New Orleans. The house has been rebuilt, and life is slowly starting to resemble what it was like before all this adversity.
But if Muse's teammates need any inspiration this year, they know where to look.
"Just to see that scar is a reminder that obviously he's been through some things," McLennan said. "You have a lot of respect for somebody who actually didn't give up on his dream."