Excerpt: The Saints Are Coming
Super Bowl XLIV and the New Orleans comeback
Note: The following is excerpted from New Orleans & The World: 1718-2018 Tricentennial Anthology, published by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Click here to purchase a copy.The New Orleans Saints’ triumph in Super Bowl XLIV changed the image of the city and marked a turning point in the post-Katrina recovery. Less than five years earlier, their hometown crippled by the federal levee failures, New Orleanians listened to the doubts of talking heads and high-ranking officials. Why rebuild? Why even build in the first place? Members of Congress and even some Louisiana legislators were among a chorus of critics who used the storm as proof that New Orleans was, from its conception, a flawed, sinful place that had brought on its own demise. Better to start with “a clean slate.” For people who’d lost everything, the words stung. And as they struggled to their feet, New Orleanians turned to the Saints for hope and validation.
The Saints didn’t save the city, of course. The couple huddled in a FEMA trailer, the business owner who gave out free food to relief workers, and the musicians who sustained their communities—those are the heroes of the torturous years that followed the flood. The disaster affected so many lives, many of them permanently, that it’s impossible to set an end date for the recovery period. And yet something changed on February 7, 2010. The championship sent a message to the nation that, yes, New Orleans was very much alive and, astoundingly, home to the best football team in the world.
As any New Orleanian can tell you, the Saints weren’t always so inspirational. From their first season in 1966 to 1984, the team never finished with a winning record, going a combined 83–187–5 and driving fans to don paper bags over their heads in shame. Some predicted the franchise would relocate. Instead, Tom Benson, a New Orleans native who’d built a fortune selling cars in San Antonio, returned to purchase his hometown team. In his first victory as Saints owner, the kid from the Seventh Ward grabbed a parasol and led his own sideline parade. The “Benson Boogie” replaced the paper bag as the prominent image of the Saints for national television audiences. In 1987, the team finished 12–3 and went to its first playoff game.
Succeeding years brought peaks and valleys, occasional trips to the playoffs, and a combined 151–152 record from 1986 to 2004. In the 1990s, the team failed to sell out the Superdome for many home games, resulting in TV blackouts locally. Diehard “Who Dats” clung to hope, but for fans of the rest of the league’s teams, the New Orleans franchise was little more than a loveable loser, and the city a great place to visit for a road game.
Hurricane Katrina struck just as the 2005 NFL season was about to begin. Displaced from the Superdome, the Saints went 3–13, playing “home” games in Baton Rouge, San Antonio, and New Jersey as rumors swirled that the team might permanently relocate. Tense negotiations between Benson, the NFL, FEMA, and the State of Louisiana centered on the extent of repairs needed at the Superdome. At the end of the season, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue expressed cautious optimism the team would come home in 2006: “We think it can, but it’s not a slam-dunk.” The parties eventually came to an agreement for a $336 million overhaul of the stadium.
The celebration that night in New Orleans was unlike any thrown in the city’s history.
A Texas native, Brees rejected an incentive-laden contract offer from his original franchise, the San Diego Chargers, who doubted the former Pro Bowler’s ability to recover from a shoulder injury. Despite an offer from Nick Saban and the Miami Dolphins, Brees made a surprising decision: he chose New Orleans. There were, John DeShazier of the Times-Picayune wrote, “more reasons for Drew Brees not to be a Saint than to be a Saint, more reasons for him to have run from the team’s offer than to it.” Yet Brees sensed an opportunity to turn around the franchise. “I just felt that energy in New Orleans,” he said. “They believe I can come back from this shoulder injury and lead them to a championship. They were as confident as I am, and that meant a lot.”Confidence” and “championship” were not words one heard regularly on the streets of New Orleans in the spring of 2006. The basic functions of city life were unsure: Would the garbage man pick up the trash? Would the lights stay on? Federal recovery dollars hadn’t reached most families, and the doorways of countless flooded homes still bore the spray-painted X mark left behind by first responders after the storm. An endless stream of volunteers from around the nation helped with the clean-up, but half of the city’s residents remained displaced, unable to return home, much less buy a ticket to the Saints home opener. Most pressing for football purposes: would the Superdome be ready?
The renovation work was overseen by Doug Thornton, the longtime Superdome manager, and completed by hundreds of workers, many of them immigrants from Central and South America, part of a wave of Latinos who arrived in the city after the storm. The job demanded a herculean effort. Water damage and the subsequent months of humidity required a near total rebuild, from carpets to video monitors, seating to food stands. The roof job was the largest in the history of US construction, totaling $32.5 million for the 9.7-acre surface. The sight of men crawling around the peak of the Superdome became a strange symbol of hope. “This is our World Trade Center,” said Thornton.
On September 25, 2006, the Saints came home. A national audience tuned into the Monday Night Football game against the rival Atlanta Falcons. For many Americans, this game provided the first images inside the Superdome since the storm’s aftermath. Onstage with locals Trombone Shorty and the Rebirth and New Birth brass bands, U2 and Green Day kicked off the festivities with a rousing, Katrina-tailored version of an old punk song, “The Saints Are Coming.” The crowd went wild. A decade later, Trombone Shorty told Alex Rawls of NOLA.com, “I got chills . . . [h]earing that crowd reaction, and being a proud representative of the city on the biggest stage at the moment. It was bigger than us musicians.”
Less than two minutes into the game, special teams player Steve Gleason blocked a punt, resulting in a Saints touchdown. In the annals of the recovery, that moment—and the gratified howl that erupted from the crowd—remains mythical. Finally, something went right. The Saints prevailed 23–3, and a storybook season was underway. Newly named NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell observed, “Tonight is obviously more than just a game. This means more to this community and more to this region . . . [it’s] an opportunity to show the world the human spirit that exists here.” The Saints finished the season 10–6, winning their division.
The next two years produced uneven results on the field, but the centrality of the team to the city’s image—both for residents and for the country—was cemented in 2006. For longtime New Orleanians, the Saints jersey became a symbol of loyalty, a refusal to give up on their hometown, naysayers be damned. For new residents, the people who arrived to support the recovery, becoming a Saints fan was the first rite of belonging, a part of a growing iconography that emphasized a collective fealty to the “authentic” New Orleans. Slogans bloomed on t-shirts and bumper stickers (“Be A New Orleanian Wherever You Are,” “FAITH”). The 2008 economic crisis and subsequent recession made New Orleans an attractive alternative for starting a career in education, the arts, or just finding oneself. Young newcomers flocked to traditional second-line parades and embraced local music and cuisine with gusto. Residents continued to argue about the impact of these idealistic arrivals, but on Sundays, the town came together for the Saints.
And they all agreed: one transplant was sure proving his worth. In his first three seasons paired with Payton, Brees directed a high-octane offense capable of big plays. In 2008, he threw for 5,069 yards, the second highest total in league history. The team surrounded him with explosive skilled players, including former Heisman winner Reggie Bush, wide receiver Marques Colston, tight end Jeremy Shockey, and running back Pierre Thomas. Off the field, Brees and his wife displayed a genuine love for their new city, renovating a historic house Uptown and earning praise for their civic spirit. The Saints couldn’t have dreamed up a better new quarterback for the battered town.The team entered the 2009 season with a quiet confidence. After missing the playoffs for two consecutive years, the wobbly defense was under the direction of Gregg Williams, a sought-after assistant hired to instill an aggressive style in the unit. Pre-season prognosticators remained skeptical of the Saints’ championship hopes, but Brees sensed something special. “You get in July and you’re working out, and you get in the best shape of your life, and especially in this stage of my career in particular, it feels like this is our time,” he told Times-Picayune reporter Mike Triplett. Perhaps most importantly, Benson and the state had agreed on a new deal to keep the team in the Superdome. The agreement put to bed any lingering concerns about the franchise’s ties to the city and gave the NFL confidence to name New Orleans as the site of the 2013 Super Bowl, the Big Easy’s ninth time hosting the big game.
But Super Bowls remained a party to host, not a realistic possibility for a home-team championship. Things began to change when the team rolled to a 13–0 start. The defense morphed into a hard-hitting, turnover machine that matched the big plays of Payton’s offense, giving the team an explosive quality that left opponents shell-shocked. And if the impact on the field was clear in early victories against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, the energy off the field had an economic impact in the city. Neighborhood bars were flocked with fans wearing brand-new team merchandise and celebrating long after the games ended. The Saints closed the year with a 13–3 record, their best finish in franchise history.
They stormed their way to the NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings, setting the stage for a classic at the Superdome. The big play defense battered Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, a future Hall of Famer and native of nearby Kiln, Mississippi, forcing two interceptions and recovering three fumbles. Tracy Porter picked off Favre’s pass in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, sending the game into overtime. When Garrett Hartley’s kick split the uprights, the Superdome crowd erupted in a deafening roar. Confetti fell onto the floor where, just four years earlier, distraught New Orleanians had huddled together to wait out the storm. “What’s great about doing it here,” said Payton, “is that four years ago, there were holes in this roof. The fans in this city and this region deserve it.”
The two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl were consumed with giddy plans for parties. In a city obsessed with politics, the excitement overshadowed the 2010 mayoral election, scheduled for the Saturday before the game. At his victory party that evening, Mitchell J. (Mitch) Landrieu took to the stage to chants of “Who Dat!” The two-time lieutenant governor won in a landslide after a campaign that emphasized racial reconciliation and Landrieu’s ample experience in government. Son of former mayor Moon Landrieu and brother of US Senator Mary Landrieu, the new mayor told the crowd that the city was ready to enter the post-recovery era. “We took a huge leap forward into the future today. The city of New Orleans showed America what it takes to rebuild a great place. We’re all going together and we’re not leaving anybody behind.” But first, the mayor-elect added, “what we’re going to do is get ready for the Saints to take it all the way and to bring the Super Bowl home for us!”
Ironically the biggest obstacle in the Saints path to victory was a native New Orleanian. Peyton Manning was a beloved figure in his hometown, a graduate of Isidore Newman School and the son of former Saints quarterback Archie Manning. Just days after the 2005 flood, Peyton and his brother Eli, quarterback for the New York Giants, mobilized a plane full of relief supplies; the brothers helped load the water, Gatorade, baby formula, and diapers bound for Baton Rouge. Manning was the reigning league MVP, and the Colts were a five-point favorite to beat the Saints and take home their second Super Bowl ring in three years.
After struggling to find their rhythm in the first quarter, the Saints began to show signs of life in the second quarter. Payton’s decision to go for it on 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line failed, but his team was energized. The defense held the Colts to just one touchdown and increasingly dictated the pace. At the half, the Saints were down 10–6.
Then something incredible happened. After planning his surprise for two weeks, Payton instructed rookie kicker Thomas Morstead to attempt an onside kick. For the first time in almost five tumultuous years, the ball bounced in New Orleans’ favor, specifically off the helmet of the Colts’ Hank Baskett and, amid a vicious scrum, into the arms of Saints safety Chris Reis. The tide had changed.
As signature big plays go, Payton’s decision to roll the dice provided a bookend for Gleason’s blocked kick in the return to the Superdome in 2006. Gleason’s play showed that New Orleans was still here; the fans that night unleashed a primal scream in a city in the throes of a nightmare. Payton’s gamble seemed to conjure the collective spirit of a population that took innumerable risks in resuscitating its hometown. And while Gleason did it on Monday Night Football, Payton doubled down in front of the largest television audience in history. Manning and the Colts responded with a touchdown, but the momentum—for the Saints and for their city—had changed for good. The offense took over and Brees led a drive that culminated in a 16-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas. The game remained close until Tracy Porter stepped in front of a Manning pass and sprinted 74 yards for a touchdown with less than four minutes left. Final score: 31–17.
The celebration that night in New Orleans was unlike any thrown in the city’s history. Impromptu parades struck out for the French Quarter. Traffic on Canal Street halted and drivers jumped out of their cars to howl at the night. Living rooms on the West Bank, barrooms in the Seventh Ward, bedrooms in Atlanta, Houston, Baton Rouge, wherever the displaced had landed, all filled with a feeling no one could quite describe. If we sometimes overburden sports with inferred meanings, on this night, it really was more than just football.When the Saints visited the White House, President Obama praised the players for their leadership in the region. “Not only did the team come back—it took its city’s hands and helped its city back on its feet. This team took the hopes and the dreams of a shattered city and placed them squarely on its shoulders.”
New Orleanians did not wake up the next morning to streets without potholes or a new roof on every house. The challenges facing the city didn’t disappear when the last seconds ticked away in Miami. Post-Katrina New Orleans was a difficult, quarrelsome place. The future of public education, the public health system, and levee protection were debated vigorously, with outside experts, state legislators, and neighborhood organizations all weighing in on the best course for the city. Whether because of a rising cost of living or better opportunities elsewhere, too many former residents never made it home to join in the conversation. Most everyone had a Katrina story to tell, a personal viewpoint that influenced their feelings on the recovery. And, New Orleanians being preservationists in spirit, they argued passionately over post-Katrina changes in architecture, food, and musical traditions. Everything, it seemed, mattered. These debates persist today, proof of a population that cares deeply about a place they almost lost. The Saints’ Super Bowl victory provided a common denominator, something everyone in New Orleans could agree on: the Saints were champions and, man, was it sweet.
The rest of the country agreed. The Saints name was forever etched in the list of Super Bowl champions, joining the Steelers, the Packers, the Patriots, the rest of the country. But more important, the nation saw that New Orleans was capable of producing a winner. Maligned as ill-conceived, careless, and not wholly American, the city responded to its gravest crisis with a world championship. Experienced at celebrating each year during Carnival, where the party is a performance and everyone is a player, New Orleanians cheered their victory with an unprecedented urgency. Unlike Mardi Gras, they’d never done this before, and there was no guarantee they’d do it again. Then again, there’d been no guarantee for New Orleans since Katrina, nothing that promised that it would continue. The city had changed, but it never gave up. The Saints victory was perhaps just a symbol, but for many New Orleanians, it was a sign: they hadn’t quit. They won.
For audiences around the world, the shadow cast over the city was lifted. The images that flowed from the post-Super Bowl parties and parade beckoned viewers around the globe: come to New Orleans, the city that came back.
Brian W. Boyles served as the publisher of Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine from 2014 until 2018.