Friday, January 15, 2010

Helping revive the Big Easy


The Saints have lifted the spirits of the people in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, and the good times will roll like never before if the team reaches the Super Bowl after years of football mediocrity

By JOHN MCCLAIN Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle

NEW ORLEANS — Nothing has done more to rebuild and revitalize New Orleans than the Saints.
Led by coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints boast a popularity that transcends age, income and race. They are the bond that has reunited a city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The remnants of Katrina’s devastation can be found on and off the beaten paths that connect a city that’s difficult to navigate unless you’re a tourist walking along Canal Street or stumbling through the French Quarter.
Despite the desolation of Katrina, New Orleans knows how to throw a party like no other city. Starting today with a divisional game against Arizona, the Saints are two Superdome wins from reaching their first Super Bowl.
“Emotionally, a Super Bowl would mean a lot to everybody here,” said Archie Manning, the former Saints quarterback who has resided in New Orleans for the past 38 years. “A Super Bowl would bring everybody together.
“I think, four years post-Katrina, the Saints have already meant a lot emotionally to the people of the city. They’re very beneficial to the economy right now. We are a destination city, but we’re still suffering, especially a lot of small-business owners that depend on tourism because we just don’t have the big groups back yet.
“This is a good group of guys. They do wonderful things in the community. There are so many great causes post-Katrina, and I think the players and organization have latched on to it.”
From Metairie to Mandeville, from the French Quarter to the Garden District, fans fly the fleur-de-lis for their favorite team. They’re optimistic because the Saints started 13-0, but they’re cautious because they lost their last three games, including two at the Superdome.
Whether you’re a tourist or a local, everywhere you go, everybody’s talking about the Saints and the possibility of them reaching the first Super Bowl in the franchise’s 43-year history.
“And if we are blessed enough to do that, the partying would be like nothing we’ve ever experienced,” said Jerry Romig, who has been the Saints’ popular public address announcer for 41 of their 43 years. “The fans here are so loyal, and they’ve developed such a strong bond with this team that, well, we just hope this is the time they finally reach the Super Bowl.
“What a very special thing that would be for a city that’s waited so long.”
There were decades in which Saints and Super Bowl were never used in the same sentence. Because of Katrina, they were nomads in 2005, playing four home games at LSU, one at Giants Stadium and three at the Alamodome. They finished 3-13.
Owner Tom Benson wanted to move the team to San Antonio, but then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue wouldn’t allow it. Instead, the NFL partnered with the Saints to make them viable in the city again.
In 2006, Payton’s first season, the Saints won the NFC South with a 10-6 record and defeated Philadelphia in the divisional round. They lost the NFC Championship Game to Chicago.

13-0 start to season

After finishing 7-9 and 8-8 the past two seasons, they shocked the NFL with their 13-0 start to earn home-field advantage in the playoffs.
“If the Saints win these next two and reach the Super Bowl, it’ll be like Mardi Gras times 10, but more people would keep their clothes on,” said Jim Henderson, Saints radio play-by-play man for 21 years. “I think it would surpass anything that’s ever happened in this city as far as celebration.
“And these people will celebrate almost anything. It would be totally insane.”
The Saints in the Super Bowl would be so big the owners of Commander’s Palace have said they’ll close the famous restaurant on a Sunday for the first time.
Bring up the Saints to just about anyone, and somewhere in the conversation will be their tireless work in the community.
“The people they brought in are folks you can invest in,” Henderson said about the players and coaches. “Drew Brees has been a godsend for a community that was on its knees. He’s helped in so many ways. He’s been the face of the franchise.”
Before Katrina, Benson had been frustrated in his attempts to get a new long-term lease to play in the Superdome. There were a lot of reports the Saints were a candidate to move to Los Angeles.
From the devastation of Katrina came a recommitment to the Saints, whose success in 2006 restored pride in the team. Brees and Payton were at the forefront of the restoration.
“In many ways, Katrina saved the Saints for New Orleans,” Henderson said. “This franchise probably wouldn’t have been here any longer if Katrina hadn’t been here. I totally believe that.
“After Katrina, there was a recommitment. You could see it in the season tickets that were sold in 2006. I think they would have had a hard time selling 25,000 season tickets (without Katrina), and now they have more than that on the waiting list.
“People recommitted to the things that make New Orleans special, whether that’s riding in a Mardi Gras parade, going to Jazz Fest, spending more time in the Quarter or just seeing the Saints.”

Time to rebound

As the clock ticks down to today’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff against the Cardinals, Saints fans are becoming apprehensive. They don’t want to believe the 0-3 record in the last three games will be a factor against Arizona, but they won’t know until they see them play.
“Honestly, I think the motivation for this team is a lot deeper and comes from guys wanting to do well after all the hard work in the offseason and having high goals,” Payton said this week.


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