Marching in step

After Katrina, Saints success fueled New Orleans’ spirit

If you ask me what I consider to be the best day of my life, I’ll tell you, “With all due respect to my wife and daughters, it’s February 7, 2010. The day the Saints won the Super Bowl.”

I say that because I kind of always figured I’d get married one day and with that we’d probably have or adopt children. It was just a given, right?

I NEVER THOUGHT THE SAINTS WOULD WIN THE SUPER BOWL!

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I’m a life-long fan. When I was little, I wanted to be Archie Manning when I grew up. To be honest, some days I still do. Even though Manning never had a winning season with the Saints, I was heart broken when the team traded him to the dreaded Houston Oilers. But I got on board when Ken Stabler, God rest his soul, became our quarterback. In his prime he was nicknamed the snake because of his slippery running style. His left arm was a cannon. He won at Alabama and then with the Oakland Raiders. Even though he was ancient when he came to New Orleans, we had faith. (Remember those black and gold plush snakes Schwegmann’s sold. Yeah, I begged my mom for one, and she obliged.) Unfortunately, Stabler didn’t pan out for us.

Teams led by Dave Wilson and Richard Todd didn’t do too much either.

About this time, Tom Benson bought the Saints. He hired Jim Finks and Jim Mora. They built a strong defense around the best linebacker corps the NFL has ever seen, The Dome Patrol – Ricky Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, and Vaughn Johnson. Bobby Hebert, who grew up in the shadow of the Superdome, was our quarterback. And we started to win.

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Unfortunately the bon temps didn’t last. The handful of winning seasons the team accomplished were lost, replaced my mediocrity. We flirted with Hall of Famer Mike Ditka as coach. The Super Bowl XX winner seemed to lose his mojo and his mind, as it became readily apparent that the game had passed him by. The Saints reached their pinnacle, at the time, when they won their first playoff game under Jim Haslett, but soon enough the franchise was at its lowest.

On a Friday night in late August 2005, Saints fans piled into the Superdome for the final preseason game of the year against the Baltimore Ravens. A few hundred miles away in the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katrina broke from its path and veered left toward New Orleans. Within hours of being home to the Saints the Superdome became home to thousands of New Orleanians as a shelter of last resort.

Our team became orphans in 2005, playing home games in New York, Baton Rouge and San Antonio. In what felt like a kick to the gut, word spread that the Saints might make a permanent move to the Lone Star State.

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But they didn’t.

The Saints returned to New Orleans in 2006. Under the leadership of newly-hired coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, they charted a new course. In that first year, the previous year’s roster was trimmed and filled with flashy draft picks, including Reggie Bush, and cast offs from other teams. The season was highlighted by Steve Gleason’s blocked punt after the Atlanta Falcons first possession in the first game in the Superdome after the storm and punctuated by the team’s first trip to the NFC Championship Game. The team’s resurgence fueled passion for their fans as well as bandwagon fans from around the world.

Four years later, the Saints would be atop the NFL, champions of Super Bowl XLIV.

It’s now been a decade since Katrina and the flood from failed storm protections. It seems miraculous that the Saints were able to build the teams that they did immediately after the storm and in the years after. When New Orleans and the surrounding region was a wasteland, and by no means a magnet for millionaire athletes – much less their families – these men and women joined us not only rebuilding our team, but working with us to rebuild our community. They lived side by side with us. Their success was our success. Their wins were our wins.

The psychological boost the Saints provided through the recovery is immeasurable.

Although they played a game, the Saints represented us, our resilience, and our dedication. As the Saints marched, they led us to new heights and put a city that once felt forgotten into a class it never expected to experience.

I don’t know if a city and a sports team have ever been as closely tied as New Orleans and the Saints were in the first five years after the storm. But those teams from 2005-2009 will always hold a special place in the city’s collective heart – not just for winning, but allowing us to win with them. In doing so, they gave us what no others did – hope, smiles and a reason to go forward. For that, we’ll be forever thankful.

 

 

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