NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Up and in the weight room of the Woody Hayes Center by 6 a.m. every morning, the kid transformed himself day by wearying day, hoping against hope that somehow his hometown would do the same.
If life were as easy to script as a football play or a workout regimen, it might have done just that.
Instead, Nader Abdallah came back to show his Ohio State teammates the neighborhood where he grew up and found himself in the middle of a ghost town.
``I'm happy things are starting to get back to normal,'' he paused, ``in some places.
``But back where we started, where our family's store used to be, the people who had nothing still have nothing. It ain't coming back anytime soon.''
The LaSalle Street Market sat in the shadow of the C.J. Peete public housing development, selling groceries, clothes, hot food - ``pretty much anything you needed whenever you needed it,'' Abdallah recalled - to poor people in a tough part of town. It was a corner store in the best sense of the words and a modest enterprise by just about any measure.
Yet it did well enough to launch a family of Palestinian immigrants into the American mainstream, and in its heyday, ``Hulio's,'' as the store came to be called, was the locus for a legendary rap scene that regularly drew locals Lil Wayne and Juvenile to the corner of Sixth and LaSalle.
Earlier this week, it was also the scene of a bittersweet reunion for Nader, his brother, Mazen, and their father, Younes, who opened the place after leaving Palestine almost 30 years ago.
``It got flooded out originally, then torn up, then parts of it caught fire,'' Nader said. ``Finally, it just burned down.''
Standing amid the ruins, teammate Brandon Smith tried to let his imagination paint the picture.
``We heard so many great stories from Nader that we wanted to see the place for ourselves,'' Smith said. ``It was crazy to see it like that. ... But being there made it a little easier to see why Nader worked as hard as he did.''
If there's a redeeming part to the story, that's it. Nader was a top prep prospect as a defensive lineman at Archbishop Rummel High in nearby Metairie who bottomed out quickly once he got to Ohio State. The Buckeyes were loaded at his position, but he didn't help himself by frequently being nicked up and out of shape.
Then Katrina scattered his family, first to Houston and then to an apartment just off the Ohio State campus in Columbus. The comfort was welcome, but with his nerves still jangling and his mother cooking meals, Nader ballooned to almost 350 pounds.
``Some kids are slow to figure out what it takes and Nader was heading into his third season with us by then,'' Buckeye coach Jim Tressel said. ``You don't often see them make the changes he did. And he's not all the way there yet. For all the hard work he's done, there's plenty more and tougher still to come.
``But you can see for yourself. He's come a long way in a short time.''
The transformation began when Mazen left school and moved in with his brother after last year's embarrassing loss to Florida in the BCS championship game.
Mazen had stayed behind to guard the store during the chaos of Katrina and his own story of harrowing escape should have been inspirational enough. But he wielded it like both carrot and stick to help his brother climb out of a rut, dragging Nader to workouts each morning, watching what he ate each night and constantly reminding him what was on the line.
``My whole life, my father supported us. After all that happened, it was a reality check,'' Nader said. ``Everybody in our family had to find a way to fend for themselves. So it was time for me to be a man, too, and stand on my own two feet.''
One immediate incentive came when the defensive line starters ahead of Abdallah left for the pros or graduated. But even after he started the excruciating workouts, some of his coaches wondered whether he'd last.
They didn't have to wait long for an answer. As the weight melted away, so did some of the sadness and most of what remained of a bad attitude.
``Me and my brother were looking through some old photos and saw this picture when I was almost 340 pounds. I didn't even notice how much I'd changed until I looked at it and said, 'I wonder who's that fat guy?'
``At the same time, what I've done is nowhere near what I plan to do.''
The next step in that progression comes Monday night. Nader will have his parents back in town - after trying first to rebuild, they moved back to their native Ramallah - his brothers and sister and a few cousins and friends in what should be an overwhelmingly pro Louisiana State crowd in the refurbished Superdome.
``It will top any game I've ever played in my life by a million miles,'' Nader said. ``Back home, my family in the stands, I'm even going to have Juvenile pulling for us on our sideline, because he knows what we've gone through.''
He stopped and scanned the empty stands of the Superdome. More than two years later, there are times that the wound still feels fresh.
``It's going to be crazy in here in a couple of days. But it's still hard to think that this place is back up and running,'' Abdallah said finally, ``when so many other places are still so torn up and nobody lives down there any more.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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