NFL: Brees and Saints in the midst of a new era
By Mark Craig
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
METAIRIE, La. — The Dallas Cowboys were tossed aside last week, but a real-life America's Team could be awaiting the Vikings in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.
Entwined by Hurricane Katrina and their corresponding resurrections since the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, the Saints and the city of New Orleans will rival even a 40-year-old Brett Favre as sentimental favorites to reach their first Super Bowl. Together, as always, the Saints and New Orleans will represent a determination, a perseverance and a spirit that is sure to energize more than 70,000 of the NFL's wildest fans inside the Superdome.
All that stands between Bourbon Street and South Beach are 60 minutes of football and 45 talented men wearing purple.
"It would mean the world because this city has been through a lot," running back Reggie Bush said. "It's a city that still, to this day, needs a lot more work to be done. But I think we've been able to uplift the spirits of the people in New Orleans and just kind of be a light, a shining star for them."
It helps that the key figures in the Saints' revival — coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees — chose to come here in part because of Katrina and the damage they saw when they visited in early 2006.
"There was an obvious need, or a feeling, to help out," said Payton, who replaced Jim Haslett on Jan. 17, 2006.
Brees calls the post-2005 Saints the "Sean Payton Era." It's easy to see why since 49 of the current 53 players were brought here by Payton.
The key addition was signing Brees as a free agent in 2006. He was coming off reconstructive surgery on his throwing shoulder and wasn't wanted back in San Diego. The Miami Dolphins also wanted him, but Brees took one long look at New Orleans and couldn't resist the urge to help rebuild a city and its team.
"I felt like it was a calling," Brees said.
The ups and downs
With 80 percent of New Orleans and its neighboring parishes still under water for weeks in 2005, the Saints relocated to San Antonio, where owner Tom Benson made his fortune selling cars. The Saints played a home game at Giants Stadium and split the rest of the home schedule between the Alamodome in San Antonio and LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La. The result was a predictable 3-13 season.
The following year was a magical one in the Big Easy. The Saints reached their first NFC Championship Game as Brees had the first of four consecutive seasons with at least 4,000 yards passing. But they lost to the Bears in Chicago.
After missing the playoffs the past two seasons, the Saints bounced back. Again. They started this season 13-0 and secured home-field advantage over the 12-4 Vikings.
The magnitude of Sunday's game has some predicting an electric atmosphere similar to the night the Saints returned to the Superdome for the first time after Katrina. They played a 2-0 Falcons team on "Monday Night Football." Atlanta never had a chance, losing 23-3.
"That game was just a symbol that this city was going to come back, not only the way it was before but better than it was the before," Brees said. "And we've continued to raise the bar since then. It seems like every week this year the atmosphere got crazier and crazier, and I would expect nothing less on Sunday."
'A unique relationship'
The Saints were founded in 1967 by local entrepreneur Dave Dixon. Benson bought the team in 1985 and hired former Vikings General Manager Jim Finks for the same role in New Orleans. In 1987, 21 seasons after they joined the league, the Saints finally experienced their first winning season.
The Saints didn't win their first division title until 1991. And their first playoff victory didn't come until the 2000 season. Yet even during the years fans wore paper bags over their heads to mock their lowly "Aints," the people here still loved their team.
"It is a unique relationship that this team has with the city," Payton said. "(The city is) very small, so I think the players are very visible."
The improved play on the field isn't the only attribute that has endeared this team to its fan base the past four years. Nearly every player and coach is involved to some degree in helping New Orleans come back from Katrina.
"Payton's Play It Forward" foundation raised $425,000 for local charities in 2008. The "Brees Dream Foundation" also is a key revenue producer for local charities.
Bush, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2006, also has been active in the community. Two of his pet projects included Holy Rosary, a special-needs school, and a local high school football field that was destroyed. Bush paid to have it rebuilt, and it now carries his name.
"That," Bush said, "was really cool."
Reality sets in
Like most people, Brees didn't quite grasp the magnitude of Katrina when he watched on TV from San Diego. The storm itself and catastrophic failure of the city's levee system made Katrina the costliest and fifth-most-deadly hurricane in U.S. history as about 2,000 people were killed. And even today, about 4 ½ years later, parts of New Orleans still haven't been rebuilt.
"As a free agent, when I came on my visit six months post-Katrina, it was still very much in shambles," Brees said. "You're looking around at a lot of the neighborhoods and there are still boats in living rooms and trucks flipped upside down on top of houses. Some houses just off the foundation and totally gone. You just say, 'Man, what happened here? It looks like a nuclear bomb went off.'"
At that point, Brees still had Miami on the table.
"Just from an outsider's perspective, you would say your two choices are Miami and New Orleans," Brees said. "New Orleans, 80 percent of the city damaged post-Katrina, and you're going there six months post-Katrina. Or there's Miami! From an outsider's perspective, you say that is an obvious choice."
Brees didn't see it that way.
"For me, I looked at that as an opportunity," he said. "An opportunity to be part of the rebuilding process. How many people get that opportunity in their life to be a part of something like that?"
Brees was asked if part of his "calling" includes winning a Super Bowl for New Orleans.
"Absolutely," he said. "Do you play the game for any other reason than to be the best and try to win a championship? That's why I'm here."
Ironically, if he wins Sunday, Brees finally will go to Miami. Only now he'd bring New Orleans with him.
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