Resurrection: The Saints’ story


    Editor’s note: Niwot resident Gary Gansar is a native of
    New Orleans who moved to Boulder County 17 years ago.

    Seemingly over-matched by a Minnesota Vikings team led by Hall
    of Fame shoo-in Brett Favre, the New Orleans Saints finally advanced to the
    Super Bowl for the first time in the franchise’s 42-year history with a 31-28
    overtime win in the National Football Conference championship game. It was a
    very special moment for a very special city.

    Drew Brees, the saintly quarterback, raised the heavy George
    Halas Trophy – signifying the NFC’s newly-crowned champion – high over his head
    and he beamed broadly, then blew a kiss to the adoring throng of fans in the
    Louisiana Superdome. It was easy to read the elation on his face. Streamers and
    confetti fell from above, players embraced each other tightly, and the New
    Orleans fans, with tears in their eyes, hugged, high-fived and screamed as they
    had been screaming for a full four hours.

    Hundreds of miles away and four-and-a-half hours earlier in
    Indianapolis, Peyton Manning, another future Hall of Fame quarterback, accepted
    the American Football Conference championship trophy with a simple nod of the
    head and the nonchalance of one who has been here before and knows that the job
    is not near finished.

    The nation watched this tale of two cities with perhaps a
    bit of amusement when considering those New Orleans denizens and their childish
    delight. Several football commentators would, in fact, question the prematurely
    overzealous reaction, one stating, “Uh, guys, this is not the Super Bowl.”

    Those Saints faithful know that this was not the Super Bowl.
    They know that they will be underdogs in the upcoming fight with the Colts, who
    are led by New Orleans native son Manning, who grew up rooting for the Saints
    from his home uptown. They know their chances at the next level are anything
    but good — sportscasters almost universally forecast a Colt victory in Miami.
    Yet there is something very special about this Saints team, about these Saints
    fans, and about the story that binds them uniquely as no other sports team has
    ever been fused to its city. As New Orleans expatriates by choice for 17 years
    now, my wife and I have had the fascinating experience of watching a unique
    culture from inside and out, and being present when it boiled over as it had
    never done before in the wake of a conference championship (or even a Super
    Bowl, for that matter), and we knew why.

    A love story like no other

    It is an unusual story that is worth telling to football
    fans and non-fans alike. It is a love story like no other you have heard, and
    it speaks of redemption – from a higher power, a power poorly defined, yet
    palpable. It is a story of the downtrodden brought to the top against all odds,
    and it is one of life’s precious moments that was shared by several hundred
    thousand souls previously bound by misery.

    The story begins in 1967, in Tulane Stadium, on the campus
    of Tulane University. One of the largest stadiums in the country, it was filled
    to the brim with New Orleans residents about to witness the inaugural official
    game for their new professional team, the Saints.

    I was a 12-year-old sitting in the north end zone when the
    Los Angeles Rams kicked off to the south end zone, and John Gilliam returned
    the opening kickoff that that inaugural game 94 yards for a touchdown. My
    buddies and I whooped and high-fived, knocking my glasses from my face in the
    process. This is easy, I thought.This is so cool. The Saints are going to be great.

    Anyone who has followed professional football for the last
    42 years knows that it has been anything but easy for the Saints. In fact, it
    has been for the most part, a debacle. 
    Without going into 42 years of suffering, without talking about the brown
    paper bags engulfing our heads, and without explaining how great players could
    join a team year after year and not be great anymore – let’s suffice it to say
    that the team sucked almost all the time. 

    As the millennium rushed past, support for the hapless
    “’aints” began to wane, and Tom Benson, the owner, pondered moving the team to
    San Antonio. Plenty of hearts were broken, and when he made the usual owner
    demand that the state build his team a new stadium, the non-football fans bid
    him farewell. The legislature balked, the governor intervened, and the move was
    held in abeyance.

    Saints and the Superdown

    The Louisiana Superdome was a source of pride to a state
    near the top of almost every bad list and the bottom of every good list. When
    it was built, the political chicanery and subsequent brain damage made its very
    existence a miracle. It was to be large enough to contain the Astrodome in
    Houston, previously proclaimed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” by so many of
    those Texans. It would look futuristic, sleek, and it would shield players and
    fans from the intolerable and unpredictable weather.

    The Superdome would soon be home to six Super Bowls, world
    title fights, an NCAA basketball Final Four, as well as many international
    events. The Superdome showcased the best of Louisiana and the future of New
    Orleans to the world.

    Now, after 25 years, the luster was off and the need for
    expensive luxury boxes to support the escalating costs of professional football
    was making it outmoded. Benson needed something better.

    The question begged for a philosophical answer: “Should a
    state that so poorly funded education, that was overwhelmed with poverty, and
    that had so many more tangible needs, spend its meager funds and its future on
    building a new stadium for a rich guy just so he could get richer?”

    Then real tragedy hit in the form of the largest natural
    disaster to stain the country, a hurricane named Katrina. I will not belabor
    the point except to say the entire city and its suburbs were devastated. The
    land was laid to waste, the population emptied New Orleans, and the government
    was in disarray. The future looked so bleak that one consideration was to move
    New Orleans and its port up the Mississippi River and start over.

    The Superdome itself was horribly damaged. It had been the
    refuge of last resort to the multitude of newly homeless victims, and it was
    not prepared for that duty. People reverted to basic instincts where law did
    not exist. Horrible conditions fomented crime and desperation. People died in
    there, and bodies were placed in the refrigeration bins and stairwells. The
    roof was partly torn away and the rains poured in. The once jewel of the city
    was a ruin, a symbol now of the grime caked to the city’s underbelly.

    Saints to San Antonio

    New Orleans is not a city of people passing through. For the
    most part, even the most miserable of its citizens will not leave. They grow
    up, marry, have kids, and die there, knowing that the next generation will do
    the same.

    Those that could remain would certainly do so, and they had
    to be supported. There must be priorities. There were innumerable problems, and
    as a whole they threatened the future existence of a truly remarkable American

    The fact that the damage to the city had sent the Saints to
    practice in San Antonio and scheduled to play some of their games there gave a
    new urgency to the dilemma. Everyone realized that if this goes on for long, it
    would be too easy to relocate the football team to the center of Texas, and it
    would be a long time before the NFL looked upon New Orleans again.

    What should be saved first, the infrastructure of the city,
    the schools, the neighborhoods, or … the Saints?

    Great thinkers and planners on both sides of the line had
    reasonable arguments, but in the end it was decided that refurbishing the
    Superdome would have the most immediate effect on the city’s future. It would
    show the world that New Orleans was not going away, that it would not be moved.
    It would give the people who lived there tangible evidence that things would
    get better and that it was worth staying in the city and suffering now for a
    brighter future. And it would put pressure on the Saints owner and the NFL to
    maintain a holding pattern above New Orleans. How could they be taken from us
    if we made them a top priority?

    Would the public relations disaster that resulted from the
    NFL delivering a body blow to a struggling underdog fighting against the
    overwhelming reality of the profit motive in professional sports be worth the
    resulting tarnish it would have to clean?

    New Orleans rolled the dice, and once that decision was
    made, the work on the Superdome and the Saint’s practice facility began with an
    efficiency and alacrity that no other project in the state had ever experience
    before or since. The Saints would stay put. The NFL and Tom Benson begrudgingly
    accepted the crown of the beneficent.


    Intelligent design

    A chain of events occurred that must be evidence of some
    form of “intelligent design.”

    First Payton, then assistant head coach of the Dallas
    Cowboys, was offered his first head coaching job in the NFL with the Saints. He
    took over a team that had won only three games the year before, second-worst in
    the NFL, but pretty much the usual for the Saints. A few months later, he was
    courting Brees, a free agent and former Pro Bowl quarterback with the San Diego
    Chargers, who suddenly found his job in jeopardy with the rising, and youthful,
    Philip Rivers nipping at his heels.

    Payton got Brees and his wife to come to New Orleans to
    check it out. The city was still in shambles, but Payton drove the couple
    around, personally showing them neighborhoods that they could call their own if
    they accepted his invitation to join the Saints. Unfortunately, as Payton would
    later relate, he was new to the area himself and was not that familiar with
    these neighborhoods. He took a wrong turn and was lost – for an hour. They
    drove past miles of destruction. The major part of the tour that the Brees
    family “enjoyed” were boats on top of houses, foundations where houses once
    existed, and piles of rubble that used to be stores. Drew’s wife, Brittany,
    yawned nervously.

    Payton figured it was over, but Drew saw it another way. To
    him, it was a sign. The wrong turn had a purpose, and Brees felt that he could
    make a difference here. He could help rebuild these lives and this place.

    This was far from the easy life in San Diego, but it was a
    life with purpose — a personal purpose that a six-year, $60 million contract
    would help him fulfill. He signed in March of 2006.

    The following month, the Saints took Reggie Bush with their
    first pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, the second-overall selection, after the
    Houston Texans surprised the football world by passing him up. He said he
    “could not wait” to get to New Orleans. This is something that the people of
    the Crescent City had not heard in several years.

    Return to the Dome

    On Sept. 25, 2006, the Saints returned to the newly refurbished
    Superdome to play their first home game there since the destruction of
    Hurricane Katrina.

    The city practically beamed with pride. The hurricane had
    not defeated them. The dome was filled. The Saints were back. Their city was
    saving itself and the fans were changing its destiny. That day, the Saints
    defeated the Atlanta Falcons 23-3. By the end of the 2006 season, Payton was
    named the NFL Coach of the Year.

    The Saints players were loved by their town. Since the
    hurricane, it was not that big anymore, and they were visible everywhere. These
    guys had sacrificed quite a bit themselves in order to be here. There were
    innumerable inconveniences and indignities, but not one had complained. They
    could see what their fans were going through, and the players’ willingness to
    be there was reassuring.

    In addition, there were many charitable foundations set up
    by individual players and their wives. The contributions became real when an
    ancient, rundown, inner-city high school had its dirty grass field converted to
    a brand new state-of-the-art stadium and track by Brees.

    Thad Gormley Stadium, a WPA project from 1937, built in the
    style of the Coliseum, had been used by New Orleans high schools and had been
    the site of the only Beatles visit to New Orleans. Katrina left it looking like
    a bowl of mud. Reggie Bush was a major force in bringing it back to life. A
    plaque there thanks him for his efforts.

    All of the players seemed to be involved in resuscitating
    that city, and the people responded in kind. Black-and-gold banners began
    appearing everywhere imploring — “Bless You Boys.”

    Twelfth Man

    Now it was Jan. 24, 2010. The uphill climb was almost to the
    top. The end was in sight.

    The Saints had the home field advantage for the NFC
    championship game. That meant everything to the fans. Mostly, it meant that
    they could take part in this Cinderella story. They could be the 12th Man. They
    could push the adrenaline on the field to its maximum with their voices.

    The day before the game, an article appeared on the top of
    the front page of the Times Picayune,
    explaining how to scream effectively, when to scream, and the importance of
    screaming. The decibel level in the stadium would top 102, louder than a
    jackhammer. Standing throughout the entire game like everyone else, and
    screaming appropriately as directed, I found myself quietly pondering a Saints’
    defensive change to myself. Suddenly, I felt a smack to the back of my head,
    popping my fleur de lis-emblazoned Saints cap to the ground. I turned to find
    an intense young lady, perhaps 25 years old, sticking her index finger in my
    face like a schoolmarm. “Scream!” she demanded. “Every voice counts!” The
    rallying cry for a city rising from the dead.

    Our team may not go any farther than this championship this year. We may not win the Super Bowl in Miami, but forever those living in the City that Care Forgot during the last half a century will believe we are together and we are winners.


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here