NFL: Saints help New Orleans keep the faith

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 14, 2007

By Nancy Armour

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — This weekend’s raucous party at the Superdome is over, the city is quiet and New Orleans is once again immersed in the endless process of putting itself back together.

Look closely, though, and the New Orleans Saints’ presence is everywhere. From the black and gold that’s now standard wardrobe to the mention of them during Mass at historic St. Louis Cathedral to the small store-window sign that says: “Faith.”

The Saints’ sway reaches far beyond gameday in this beleaguered city.

“We’ve got a lot of hard work that needs to be done. The Saints coming in and winning the way they have has just lifted all of us,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco said Sunday. “It’s lifted us emotionally and it’s energized us.

“It’s given us hope.”

The Saints will play the Bears in Chicago next Sunday for the NFC championship, another chapter in the most unlikely and heartwarming story of the NFL season.

The Saints tortured their fans for most of their 40 years in New Orleans. It took 21 seasons before their first winning record, and playoff appearances were as rare as a modest Mardi Gras. Their fans may have mocked them as the ‘Aints, but it didn’t lessen their love for them.

When Hurricane Katrina stormed through Aug. 29, 2005, it looked as if the Saints might break New Orleans’ heart once again. Dislocated like so many residents, the Saints moved to San Antonio and many feared that’s where they would stay.

But the team returned, and has been the one thing that’s held the city together when everything else conspires to pull it apart.

“It’s just been a great diversion from the daily problems we see with the crime and the still unfixed portions of the city,” said Lloyd Aucoin, who is still helping his mother-in-law repair the home they share — a home where a Saints flag hangs from the balcony.

“I wouldn’t have traded last night for anything,” Aucoin said. “Except maybe a new city.”

Unless you live in New Orleans or have visited recently, it’s hard to grasp how much the team means to the city and why.

Parts of New Orleans look much as they did before Katrina, and the city still has its uniquely eclectic air. Tourists are filling the French Quarter streets again; maybe not quite to the old numbers, but enough so the beads and booze are flowing.

But Katrina’s scars remain deep and angry, and it will be years before the city fully recovers. Early Sunday morning in the Garden District, two men tackled one of the many debris piles that dot the city. A few blocks away, a man had set up sawhorses on the sidewalk and was cutting boards.

In Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward, two of the hardest hit areas, neighborhoods are still empty and rubble sits where houses once stood. Martin Manion had his Lakeview street pretty much to himself Sunday as he cut the grass in front of his home and the concrete slab that is all that remains of his neighbors’ home.

Manion recently moved out of the FEMA trailer in his Lakeview yard, but he is no closer to being home. The house that’s been in his family for 40 years will be bulldozed in the next few weeks, and Manion hopes a new home will be finished by Christmas — of 2008.

“When people see what’s happened, they say, `Wow, I just can’t imagine losing your house.’ But it’s not just about that,” Manion said. “It’s about losing something really familiar. It’s about losing a way of life.

“As we go about our daily lives, you don’t think of your community: The people you run into at the grocery store, you run into at the bank or at church. You can’t replace that.”

Equally disheartening is the rise in violent crime. Already this year, 10 people have been killed, including a 22-year-old man shot to death about 12 hours before the Eagles-Saints game kicked off Saturday.

Residents are furious, and marched to City Hall on Friday to demand action.

“I have friends who came back and are thinking about leaving again because of the crime,” Aucoin said.

To say the Saints are the answer to what ails New Orleans trivializes the city’s vast problems. But people here are looking for something — anything — good to cling to, and the Saints are the best thing going.

At first, it was mostly symbolic. If the Saints could come home and the Superdome could be rebuilt, well, just about anything had to be possible.

But as the Saints piled up the wins, going 10-6 and winning the NFC South crown, it became so much greater.

Their victory over Philadelphia on Saturday night put the Saints one step from the Super Bowl, unimagined territory only a few months ago for such a lowly team.

“This is a bright spot,” coach Sean Payton said Saturday night. “We just hope we can put a little kick in their step Monday and Tuesday, and give them something to look forward to next weekend.”

The celebratory toot of car horns was heard into the early hours Sunday, and it seemed as if every fourth or fifth car was flying a Saints flag from its antenna this weekend. At Shane Bulchandani’s Riverfront Gifts on Decatur Street, which features all kinds of New Orleans souvenirs, customers were only interested in one thing: How much were the Saints jerseys?

Archbishop Alfred Hughes even made a few mentions of the Saints at Mass on Sunday morning. As he chatted with people in Jackson Square afterward, several asked him to pray for the Saints.

“In a city that has experienced so much devastation, so much loss, so much struggle in the recovery, in many ways the football team has become a symbol of people’s desire to rise from the devastation,” Hughes said.

“It’s touched the hearts and stirred hope for people that we, too, can come together as a team and play as a team.”

Besides the emotional lift, the Saints are a boon for the still-struggling economy. There were lines at most French Quarter restaurants Saturday, and hotels were doing brisk business. The artists in Jackson Square were busy, and there was a pile of bills in one street performer’s hat.

If not for the Saints, Bulchandani said he hates to think of what his business would be like.

“Since Katrina, business has been bad. But every home game, I’ve been blessed,” he said. “All week, I was sitting idle. But Friday and Saturday, I was busy.”

As deeply as the city has embraced the Saints, the team is equally committed.

Payton has been talking about the team’s role as a leader in the community since he took over last January, and players have eagerly stepped up. Deuce McAllister delivered supplies shortly after Katrina, and has collected backpacks for schoolchildren. He and Drew Brees held a fundraiser for hurricane victims two days before the Saints’ reopened the Super Dome.

Brees can often be spotted on the street, talking to residents or just checking the city out. Reggie Bush has donated money to help keep a struggling school open and restore the City Park stadium where most high schools play their football games.

“It’s huge for the city,” Bush said after Saturday night’s win. “Hopefully, we just keep winning.”

No matter what happens next weekend, though, this year’s Saints are already champions in a far more important arena. They’ve revitalized a downtrodden city, and given it reason to hope.

“We are coming out of it. It’s slow and difficult and it’s painful,” Blanco said. “It’s rebuilding one house at a time, one neighborhood at a time, one city at a time. We’re doing it, though. We’re going to come out of this.

“And we’ve got the Saints to energize us.”