Pitt guard Woodall aids N.J. hometown's cleanup

| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011

Pitt junior Tray Woodall's hometown was battling its worst flood in more than a century, and he couldn't reach his mom.

"I didn't know what was going on," he said. "I didn't know how bad it was."

Seven weeks ago, as Paterson, N.J., fought its highest floodwaters since 1903, the Panthers' new starting point guard returned to check on his family and volunteer with the cleanup efforts.

"The rivers were so contaminated, a lot of people didn't want me to help," Woodall said. "But that didn't feel right. I needed to help."

The rainstorms of Hurricane Irene had overwhelmed the banks of the Passaic River in late August, devastating the blue-collar city of 150,000 in North Jersey.

With the help of Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and New Jersey-raised assistant Brandin Knight and some sensible rules by the normally stringent NCAA regarding family emergencies, the Pitt athletic department was allowed to pay for Woodall's trip home.

"I just felt it was the best thing for him to get back as soon as possible," Dixon said. "We knew the families were suffering. It was important."

Said Woodall: "That shows what kind of a man coach Dixon is."

Woodall spent three days in Paterson, where the river had crested 13 feet above flood level. Apartment buildings, including the high-rise complex in which his mother, Theresa Ratliff, lives, were evacuated. Hundreds of people were stranded. President Obama visited the city to offer support.

None of Woodall's relatives were injured; he learned his displaced mother was safe at his grandmother's house. But Hurricane Irene claimed at least 40 lives, including seven in New Jersey, and there was widespread property damage.

After the flood waters receded, Woodall, wearing a mask and gloves for protection, helped to remove water-ruined furniture and other items from the homes of family and friends. He handed out clean, dry clothes to those in need.

"I got a little feeling of how people felt during Hurricane Katrina," Woodall said.

Woodall, 22, had endured many floods as a youngster, being raised on low-lying Holsman Street near the western edge of the Passaic River. Still, he wasn't prepared for what he saw.

"The house that I grew up in was underwater," he said. "I used to live right next to the river. When there used to be floods, my bedroom used to get flooded and rats and stuff would be floating in the water. It was crazy."

Woodall's early life struggles are well-documented. Growing up in Brooklyn, his mother was addicted to drugs, and his beloved cousin, Kalief, was shot and killed at age 16. Woodall kept the straight path, moved in with his godparents in Paterson and helped Bob Hurley-coached St. Anthony High School to an undefeated, national-championship season as a senior.

Woodall, in his fourth season at Pitt, is working to add his name to the list of former Panthers standout point guards Knight, Carl Krauser and Levance Fields.

The 5-foot-11 Woodall ranks third in school history in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.12). He averaged 6.4 points and 3.4 assists last season.

Woodall, who had nine points and four assists in the Blue-Gold scrimmage on Saturday at Petersen Events Center, started 15 games over the past two seasons, leading Pitt to a 12-3 record in those games.

On and off the court, Woodall has made the right choices. He grew even stronger during his selfless visit home this summer, even as his coach warned him to be safe amid the raging flood waters.

"I joked with him, 'Don't try to be a hero,' " Dixon said. "I don't know how good of a swimmer he is."

Notes: Senior guard Ashton Gibbs scored 26 points to lead the Blue past the Gold, 57-49, yesterday. Sophomore small forward J.J. Moore scored 18 points for the Gold, while Dante Taylor had 10 points and 14 rebounds. ... Moore won the dunk contest.

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