Before Hurricane Katrina, Armand Nance was a New Orleans kid learning his city’s passion: music. He might be teaching percussion if he had stayed.
After Hurricane Katrina, Nance was a Houston kid learning his new city’s passion: football. He has become a starter for a Top 25 college team in large part because he was forced from his home.
“I feel like Hurricane Katrina, at the end of the day, was a blessing,” Nance said last week as the nation marked the 10-year anniversary of the destructive storm. “... It’s a bittersweet feeling because it’s sad, but then I get happy because I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity I have now if I had still been in New Orleans.”
Nance is a senior returning starter at nose tackle and team leader for No. 23 Boise State going into Friday’s season opener against Washington. His boisterous personality off the field and targeted anger on the field helped push Dekaney High in Spring, Texas, to a state title his senior year and Boise State to the Fiesta Bowl championship last year.
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Nance didn’t realize the leadership role he fills until he read media tweets last month reporting that Boise State defensive line coach Steve Caldwell called him “the best leader that I have.”
“He’s kind of the cheerleader, the voice of all of us,” Caldwell said. “Sometimes he talks when I don’t want him to, but he brings a special thing that he’s got that brings the whole group together — not just the D-line, but I think the whole football team.”
And despite Nance’s surprise, his leadership position is nothing new.
Nance wasn’t the best player at Dekaney, coach Anthony Williams said, but he’d confront the best player if he wasn’t doing things right.
“He was almost like the big brother for everyone out there on the field,” Williams said. “If he said something, he meant it and you were going to do it. Whatever we said, he was focused enough to do it and he held everyone else accountable to do what we asked them to do.”
Nance, Boise State senior defensive captain Darian Thompson said, possesses the rare ability to lead with his voice and his actions.
Last year, Nance became the Bronco who leads the team huddle during pregame warmups. His intensity radiates to teammates.
“He’s someone you want in your circle of friends,” junior wide receiver Chaz Anderson said. “He’s very humble and he’s a loving dude — and he’s an animal on the field.”
Said coach Bryan Harsin: “Armand has got a personality about him and it is fun and exciting and live and all that. He brings that emotion to playing that you just feed off of.”
Nance spent his first 11 years in New Orleans living with his mom and older brother. He started playing drums when he was 6 years old and practiced on the front porch.
He was surrounded by trouble.
“Guys would be killed outside the corner store, which was three blocks from my house,” he said. “There were drug houses all up and down the street.”
Katrina wiped out that life — a devastating blow for Nance at the time — and forced him to start over. His family evacuated to Tuscaloosa, Ala., two days before Katrina struck. They had a hurricane routine by then but when they returned home they learned how different Katrina was.
“I had 9 feet of water in my house,” Nance said.
His mom had relatives in Houston and decided to relocate the family. They were “nomads” for a short time, Nance said, but after moving in sixth grade he settled into his new life in middle school.
At first, he said, fights broke out between the local kids and the New Orleans transplants.
“It was rough,” he said, “but it was cool after that had settled down.”
Nance found a refuge in football when his brother signed him up for a team at 12 years old. And he found an important ally in Williams, who is from Louisiana and felt a duty to help the kids who were displaced by Katrina.
The sport provided an outlet for Nance to deal with the anger, emotion and stress that enveloped him.
“That was a way for me to channel my aggression,” he said.
Nance’s aggression set him apart, Williams said. The coach played him at center, offensive tackle, tight end and defensive line — wherever he felt like the most important action would take place.
Nance, Williams said, stared down opponents at the pregame coin flip. If they looked him in the eye, he was miffed by their confidence. If they didn’t look him in the eye, he was ticked by their disrespect.
“You can’t coach that, the rage he played with, but it was controlled rage,” Williams said.
Nance missed his freshman year at Dekaney with a knee injury. He started at center as a sophomore weighing just 185 pounds.
He moved to tight end as a junior and defensive line his senior year but played as many as four positions in a game, including in the state championship game.
When college coaches asked Nance what position he played, many were taken aback by his response, Williams said. They thought Nance was being arrogant when in reality his answer reflected his unselfishness.
“I’m a football player,” Nance would respond.
Most programs apparently couldn’t figure out what to do with Nance. His only scholarship offers came from Boise State and North Texas. He wasn’t even getting other walk-on offers, he said.
He weighed about 240 pounds and the Broncos recruited him as a tight end/fullback.
“It’s funny thinking about the first summer we came in and I saw him catch a wheel route running from tight end,” junior defensive end Sam McCaskill said.
Nance took his playbook home that summer before his first fall camp, in 2012, and went to dinner with his high school coach. Williams scoffed at the pass routes Nance supposedly would run.
“You are naturally an offensive or defensive lineman,” he told Nance. “That’s where your strength is, and they’ll see it.”
Nance reported for camp at nearly 260 pounds. Coaches moved him to defensive end in the first couple days. About three days later, they moved him to defensive tackle — and played him there as a true freshman.
Sixty pounds later, the 6-foot, 306-pounder seems perfectly suited to nose tackle.
Nance started all 14 games last season (he has 22 career starts) and tied for 10th on the team with 36 tackles.
“He’s got great quickness,” Caldwell said. “He came here to play fullback and tight end and that carries into his defensive line play.”
Nance hasn’t lost his aggression, either. It’s not quite rage these days, but he finds the fire he needs somewhere.
“I’m in such a happy place, I can’t be angry,” said Nance, who wants to get into sports broadcasting and earned his first college 3.0 last semester. “I can still deep down pull it out from somewhere, but it’s not because of Hurricane Katrina. I’m mad I got a C on that assignment.”