Unexpected rise of Saints elevates a downcast city

NEW ORLEANS — NEW ORLEANS -- Somewhere in the upper reaches of the sanctuary known as the Superdome, the noise began not as a cheer so much as a primal scream of approval.

It built slowly, louder and stronger, tumbling through the bleachers on its way to the field. There was relief in the sound, and joy and celebration and gratitude for the escape of the moment. It swirled around the building, ebullient, and by the time it reached full volume, the pain had been blocked out.


The Saints were playing.

For just a moment, New Orleans was whole again.


This is what sports can do. It can grant a reprieve to a broken city that needs desperately to think about something else. It can allow fans to forget that less than a year and a half ago, this building was used to house those who had no place else to go. It can allow the illusion that a game somehow is important and that a scoreboard somehow measures happiness.

This is why we watch. This is why we care.

Perhaps, it is why a nation is about to fall in love with a team.

When the Saints came from behind to beat the Eagles, 27-24, on Saturday night, they kept alive the best story in sports. Two more victories, and they might be the best story in the history of sports. Few teams have ever come so far, and no team has been needed more.

As much as this is the story of a team, it is the story of a city. No, the Saints cannot square things for the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina 16 months ago. Football teams can't fix cities any more than rock musicians can cure hunger.

On the other hand, you do what you can, and a night such as this does not hurt. As far as having something to cheer about? Well, New Orleans has it coming.

They share a spirit, this team and town. They are surprising in their resilience, dogged in their determination. No wonder the Saints seem perfect for their city.

Did you see Drew Brees, the patron Saint of comebacks, on Saturday night? Brees has his own scars, many of them on his right shoulder, perhaps the reason the Chargers threw him away last year and the Dolphins rejected him. Yet, that was Brees, leading his team from behind.


Did you see Reggie Bush, the patron Saint of electricity? In the City of Jazz, the kid's feet seem to have been fashioned by old trumpet players. That was Bush jammed up to his right, but reversing his field and skirting downfield for 25 yards.

Did you see Deuce McAllister, the patron Saint of hanging in there? Not a lot of people thought McAllister would be in the lineup for long after the Saints drafted Bush. Yet, there he was, rambling for a Saints playoff record.

Outside, the scars of a city remain visible. The murder rate has skyrocketed to a point where 3,000 residents marched on City Hall this week to protest. The suicide rate is up. Schools remain closed. Roughly half the city's population is still displaced.

Drive through the Ninth Ward, and the sight of it remains overwhelming. No matter how many photos you have seen, no matter how much TV footage, it does not prepare you for the devastation: street after street, block after block of houses bearing the tombstone tattoo - the X that designates them for bulldozing.

It is like viewing a ghost town in a distant country. Homes are abandoned. Buildings are gutted. Shops remain shuttered.

And the more you see, the more you understand the volume of the cheers.


"You could feel it," Brees said. "This means a lot. People stop me 20 times a day to tell me how great this makes them feel, how it helps them go about their day and rebuild their lives."

Look, these are the Saints, and those are the playoffs, and who would ever have thought to hook up the two of them? In their four decades as a franchise, the Saints won exactly one playoff game before Saturday. They had played in only six, this team that won three games in 2005.

Before the season, I talked to general managers and scouts across the league for an article about the talent of the NFC South. In most positions, the Saints were last. Sometimes by a lot.

Yet, here they are, headed for the NFC championship game.

For a while, it didn't even look as if the Saints were going play in New Orleans. Owner Tom Benson was going to take the team to Los Angeles, wasn't he? Or San Antonio. Until the NFL was embarrassed into making Benson pledge to stay, the only place they seemed headed was out of town.

Instead, they provided a city with something other than the constant headlines about squabbles over relief funds. They have provided a little entertainment, a little hope. In the darkness of the city, they have lit a candle.


When you think about it, what more could you ask of a team?

Except, perhaps, for a Super Bowl victory parade down Canal Street.

Gary Shelton writes for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.