BATON ROUGE, La. - Sitting alone in the dimly lit kitchen, Chris Toombs cradles his bedraggled iPhone, searching for holiday gifts for his three children. Books, electronics, clothes.
He clicks on a blue quarter-zip for his younger son. Then he flicks the cracked screen upward, sees the price, $27, and clicks his teeth. Too much for his paycheck from Louisiana State University.
"If this ain't poverty . . ." he says to himself.
His mother, Alice, looks up from a small breakfast table.
"Just give them love," she tells him. "Talk to them."
Chris nods, but his eyes stay on the screen. He is Alice's only child, still her 41-year-old baby, and four years ago he moved back into her house, on a street named for a Confederate general. Chris always had big ambitions and influential friends, but it was time to start over: beginning a master's program at LSU, of all places.
Not exactly where Alice pictured him, but she likes that he now works in the school's office of diversity. It's an important responsibility as LSU distances itself from a troubling history, provides outreach to a city marked with reminders of division and Jim Crow, attempts to diversify a student body that's two-thirds White.
For this, he makes $12,000 per year and has his graduate school tuition waived, enough to make him feel both accomplished and destitute. He graduated high school early, has a bachelor's degree, even ran for political office once. Yet sitting here two weeks before Christmas, on the verge of asking his mother to buy Christmas gifts for his kids, Chris exists on one side of a vast wealth gap that divides his employer, his city, his country.
"The most degrading, hardest, frustrating part of my life," he says.
Alice shrugs, saying she doesn't mind helping.
"It's just a little bit disheartening," he says, looking at a sterling silver pendant he wishes he could buy his mom. Her 73rd birthday is Dec. 30, but payday is Dec. 31. "It's just the way it is."
One morning in early December, Chris walked into Louie's Cafe, a venerable diner near campus. A new LSU employee was there having breakfast, and one of Chris's mentors had invited him to join their table.
Brian Kelly, hired days earlier as the school's football coach, exists on the other end of the wealth divide. He left Notre Dame to sign the most valuable contract in the history of college football: 10 years, a guaranteed annual salary of at least $9 million, and with bonuses it could be worth more than $100 million.
Kelly, dining with LSU board of supervisors member Collis Temple Jr., shook Chris's hand. For a brief moment, these denizens of two vastly different realities were occupying the same space, breathing the same air, speaking to each other as equals.
It's precisely what Temple hoped for when he summoned Chris here. A local basketball legend and power broker, Temple wanted to give Chris, a longtime protege, the chance to introduce himself. But he also wanted to observe how Kelly interacted with a "commoner," Temple says, considering every football town in America is filled with so many Chris Toombses, some of whom clean the homes of the few Brian Kellys, or cook or deliver food for them, or mow their lawns, or play football for them.
"I want you to speak to him," Temple recalls thinking, "and I want to see your reaction. I want to see if you're going to speak to him or speak at him or speak down to him or speak over their head. I want to see if your speaking is going to be sincere or if it's going to be racist or: 'What the f--- am I speaking to this n---- for?'"
Temple can be astonishingly frank, five decades after becoming LSU's first Black varsity athlete and choosing every word carefully. Back then Temple faced torment from his own teammates and fellow LSU students such as David Duke, the future Ku Klux Klan leader who wore a Nazi uniform while on campus. Even friends from back home in Kentwood, La., questioned why he'd enroll . . . there . . . when he could've gone to Grambling State or Southern, both historically Black institutions.
Even now, Temple says, there's a deep skepticism of LSU among the state's Black residents, many of whom never forgave the university for remaining segregated long after other schools.
"Black folk didn't give a f--- about LSU, man," Temple says. "The attitude was: These people are racists, and they were not interested in accepting or allowing Black people to attend their school. And that stuck."
Because he was good at basketball, and because he wore the purple and gold, White LSU fans came around on Temple. And he made the community his home, attending church at Mount Zion Baptist, where Martin Luther King Jr. once delivered a sermon and where a young single mother named Alice Toombs was a member.
Temple met Chris when he was 8 or 9, almost immediately spotting his intelligence and drive. Temple also couldn't help noticing that Chris's mom had discovered a wormhole into the city's complex social structure.
She ran the box office at the Riverside Centroplex, an arena downtown, and when James Brown or Luciano Pavarotti performed, elected officials and business leaders of all races approached her to ask for free tickets. Sure, she'd say, but in exchange she wanted her son to have a ticket into local high society. He was invited to shadow lawmakers and attorneys, becoming close with Temple and spending summers in the governor's office or with the clerk of court. He dreamed of law school and planned to be just like Johnnie Cochran, and when he enrolled at Grambling and was elected freshman class president, his plan seemed on track.
When he came home during breaks, Baton Rouge was changing. White neighbors had fled Hermitage, the neighborhood in south Baton Rouge where Alice has lived since Chris was 5. New construction was advancing the city's sprawl.
In 1999, when Chris was a sophomore at Grambling, LSU hired Nick Saban as football coach and paid him $1.2 million per year, at the time a massive sum. He turned the Tigers into a sensation, and in 2003, LSU won its first national championship in 45 years. The program drew thousands of visitors and tens of millions of dollars into the region. By 2014, according to a local economist's study, LSU football helped create nearly 4,000 jobs throughout Baton Rouge and supported $400 million in new construction. By 2019, when Coach Ed Orgeron and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow won the school's third national title in 16 years, the football program was pumping $95 million in annual revenue into the university.
That's not unique to LSU and Baton Rouge. These days every major college program has a corporate, win-now mentality while engaging in arms races for the biggest stadium, poshest locker room, richest coach. The head coach is the face of the program and, often, an international brand. A little more than two decades after LSU made Saban a millionaire, 21 coaches make at least $5 million. Alabama pays Saban almost twice that.
Temple doesn't love college football's bloat, especially when a short drive from Tiger Stadium reveals broad economic decay. The predominantly Black North Baton Rouge has zero grocery stores but 46 payday lending offices, and the Plank Road Corridor - originally built by enslaved people - is a haven for abandoned buildings and crime. To the east, 80 percent of public school students are considered financially disadvantaged, and so many murders have occurred at the Tigerland apartment complex near the stadium that a judge declared it a legal nuisance.
Fans "will probably pay somebody in those apartment complexes $30 to park their car there and go see Brian Kelly," says Davante Lewis, a Baton Rouge resident who studies government spending as it affects, and often eludes, low- to moderate-income Louisianans.
Not long after Temple joined LSU's board in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic paused sports and cost the school $81 million. LSU announced layoffs and pay cuts to rank-and-file staffers. That didn't stop the school from firing Orgeron last fall, less than two years after the Tigers' undefeated championship season. Months before ratifying Kelly's massive contract, LSU's board approved a combined $25 million in buyouts for Orgeron and his staff.
When Temple first heard about Kelly, he was unimpressed. Kelly won more games than any coach in Notre Dame history, but he's an outsider in Louisiana, a fact put on awkward display last month when Kelly, a Boston native, attempted a Southern accent during an address to LSU fans.
But nothing dismayed Temple as much as the message sent by Kelly's pay. In a state where one in five residents lives below the poverty line, on a campus where the football team's player workforce is unpaid, in a city where the predominantly Black state house district that includes Tiger Stadium has a median household income of $24,865 a year, the White man who will coach there will be paid no less than $24,657 a day.
It's just the new cost of competing, Temple says, but it's still nauseating in its excess. During a board meeting last month, Temple spoke up. If LSU is at the top of the Southeastern Conference in paying coaches, where did it rank in salaries for professors? For the people who actually teach the students?
Near the bottom, someone muttered, and Temple erupted.
"That's an atrocity," he said.
Kelly's interaction with Chris did little to change his mind.
"He was nice," Temple says, giving a C grade for Kelly's part of the interaction. "He really needs to win if he wants to get me. He hasn't earned no money. I want to see him beat Alabama and Florida and Georgia. Then I'll tell you if I think he's worth that ten million g------ dollars."
- - -
Late afternoon as LSU's fall semester concludes, and Chris is strolling down West Chimes Street when he recognizes a face from one of his many past lives.
Pat Bergeron is a longtime political operative and elections official, a true creature of the gears that turn, and often do not, in a Southern purple state. Bergeron, who is White, is sitting alone on a pizza joint's patio. Cobalt blue suit, thin legs crossed, a Newport between his lips.
"Mind if I . . . ?" Chris says, already reaching for a chair.
Bergeron smiles when he sees an old friend, and they launch into the only subject more incendiary around here than politics: LSU football. Bergeron says he hasn't met Kelly, but he's hopeful. What choice does he have? After last season, when the Tigers went 6-7 and lost yet again to Saban, the whole town is depressed. People here insist, straight-faced, that when LSU is bad, the economy tanks, crime goes up, and judges give out more jail time.
Chris went to two games last year, and he has secretly rooted on the team since childhood. He says if someone is seen in a predominantly Black neighborhood wearing something with "LSU" on it, the smart play is to suggest it's code for "Love Southern University." Bergeron's cigarette wobbles as he laughs.
"You're used to tilting at windmills," he says.
"I've never, like, just fit in," Chris says. "I've had to bounce to feel whole."
For a long time, Chris thought his powerful connections gave him a key to White Baton Rouge, and to success. He changed his wardrobe and speech to fit in downtown, and over time his drive eroded. He became entitled, Chris admits, and lost his grit.
"The world is an ugly place," Alice told him. But he didn't believe her, because he was special in a place where unremarkable White men prosper. He'd been let in, so his future had already been secured.
Chris was at Grambling when Alice lost her job and the supposed friends stopped providing favors and returning calls. Chris says he sold drugs and got arrested for shoplifting, so he quit school, came home, enrolled at Southern. He met a young woman in a psychology class, and when she became pregnant, Chris worked at the state senate and tended bar.
The next two decades, he says, are a blur. He married the young woman, their second child was born, and they bought a house. The economy crashed, the house was foreclosed, they got divorced. They remarried, had another son, divorced again.
Struggling to regain his footing while supporting a growing family, Chris became a teacher, then a lobbyist, then a youth minister, then an employee at a YMCA. He took a job as a chemical blender at the ExxonMobil refinery in North Baton Rouge, part of a corridor of widespread air pollution known as "Cancer Alley." The fumes made Chris's face peel and his head hurt, so he quit and started selling auto parts. He dabbled in political consulting, where he met Bergeron during a school board race, but he found that after trying to conform to so many communities, he now belonged to none of them. So he moved to Washington, then Monroe, then Houston.
He wanted to feel special again, to get back into the old club, so he returned home and ran for state Senate. A lifelong Democrat, he registered as a Republican in an attempt to trick White voters, assuming Black residents would support him anyway. Nobody bought it, and in a primary Chris got crushed.
"You can sell out your people, but you can never get them back," Geno McLaughlin, an activist and longtime friend, recalls saying. "Thank God he lost."
In 2017, broke and defeated, he returned to General Adams Avenue and asked Alice if he could move back into his old bedroom. "I should've listened," he told her.
Attempting to start over, he applied to LSU and began the master's program in liberal arts and took a job as a "retentionist" at the university. His responsibility was to identify at-risk students and help them stay in school. When Chris rides the campus bus, he says, he's often the only person of color aboard. His classes aren't much more diverse, though because last year LSU appointed its first Black president, Chris says he hopes students like him someday won't be penniless and feel so alone.
"This is just one of those things that I have to go through," he says. "To be verified in the social hierarchy of Baton Rouge, as messed up as it is, there is a way for you to get ahead."
Bergeron stubs out his cigarette.
"As a young Black man in America, it ain't going to be easy," Chris says. "But the way is there, right?"
On this day outside the pizza joint, gold-rimmed glasses and high twists frame a youthful face. He's wearing an LSU polo, and he's just as used to the stares from White LSU fans as he is eye rolls from Black Baton Rouge neighbors. He can still hear the skepticism in his friends' voices, he says, when he talks about his journey - not just where he's been but where he's going.
Bergeron stops him. "Where are you going?" he says.
- - -
He's bouncing again, going from here to there, driving through LSU's campus five months before graduation. The sun is setting, and Chris is talking about what's next. Temple believes Chris is capable of bridging cultures in a broken city. Professors have encouraged him to write his thesis on Confederate street names and pursue a doctoral degree. Alice asks God to bring her son stability, a career, a home of his own.
"What I want to do is," Chris says, "I want to be a conduit for change. And in the process make some money, where Christmases like this will never happen again."
He makes a left onto Stadium Drive and passes the veterinary college and engineering building. Tiger Stadium is visible through the cracked windshield, and the video board is on, bright yellow popping against a pink and purple sky.
"That's the cathedral, baby," Chris says.
A few days ago, he had a new idea and brought it to his supervisor. Was there a possibility, now or in the future, for someone like Chris to find work in LSU's athletic department? He could lend an experienced voice, and an ability to communicate across race, class and economic divides. Those jobs are rare and don't typically pay well, but it'd be Chris's latest attempt at a foot in the door of a fenced-off world - the one where Brian Kelly exists.
"They're going to need somebody to help them navigate that transition," he says of LSU's athletes, many of them young people of color. "It's already hard enough."
Chris is describing his excitement at the possibility as he stops his sedan at a traffic light. Up ahead is LSU's $15 million football operations center, its $28 million locker room, the offices for its millionaire staffers. Kelly works in there, and Chris considers the hypothetical of someday walking the same halls. Two men seemingly from different worlds, who represent the two ends of an extreme, again occupying the same space and breathing the same air.
"I'd just hope that the money wouldn't separate the humanity between people," he says, "and try to stay as optimistic as possible."
He turns left, heading home toward Hermitage to check on Alice.
"I would just see it that he's a person," Chris says, "just like I'm a person."