New Orleans rallies behind its Saints
NEW ORLEANS - A gleaming white dome hovers above the Big Easy, a symbol of rebirth amid all the rubble. And when the New Orleans Saints return to the Superdome, they'll be carrying the hopes of all those people who still live in trailers parked alongside their gutted-out homes, who vow to rebuild when it would be so much easier to give up on their beloved hometown.
Derryl Welch came back to New Orleans about a month ago, having spent a year in Atlanta and Houston after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, the levees broke and water poured into the Lower Ninth Ward. On Monday night, he plans to set up a television outside his temporary home-on-wheels to cheers on the Saints.
For three hours, at least, he'll be able to forget about the devastation all around him - the caved-in homes, the abandoned cars, the boarded-up businesses, the poignant symbols such as an overturned tricycle among the overgrown weeds, a reminder of what life was like before Katrina washed it away.
All that matters is the Saints won their first two games - and they're coming home.
They have become the ultimate team of the people, representing those folks who huddled on rooftops a year ago and are now counting on their football team to throw out another lifeline.
"Oh man, I'm ready for tomorrow," Welch said Sunday, breaking into a big smile even though his neighborhood could now pass for a war zone. "I just love 'em. I always loved 'em, even when I was small. And now that they're playing like this, I'm loving 'em even more."
Granted, this is just a football game. It can only do so much. Even if the Saints remain unbeaten with a win over the Atlanta Falcons (also off to a 2-0 start), it's not like the frustrating bureaucracy is suddenly going to become more efficient or the mom-and-pop store that used to be around the corner will be open for business on Tuesday morning.
Still, in a city that's cloaked in huge patches of darkness and will forever mark time in units of B.K. (Before Katrina) and A.K. (After Katrina), the Saints are providing a reason for optimism.
"If they keep winning, it will be a rebirth," said Douglas Taylor, pastor of the Bethel AME Church, which has resumed holding services in the Lower Ninth Ward even though it has to use someone else's sanctuary and most of its members have scattered around the county. "It brightens things up a little bit. Everything is not life and death when the Saints are playing. It shows there's still a positive side to life."
Even before Katrina, this city lacked the corporate wealth of a New York or Chicago. The typical Saints fan wasn't likely to be found in a luxury box. She might be a bartender, doling out beers on Bourbon Street. Or he could be a construction worker, heading out at the crack of dawn with a hammer and drill.
Even before Katrina, this city was deeply divided by racial and social problems: Rampant crime. Mediocre schools. A lack of good jobs for the underclass. But the Saints helped to break down some of those black-and-white issues, a rallying point for an eclectic community even when they struggled on the field.
"It's like there's a spirit to us," Welch said. "It's tough right now, but we're making it day by day."
The Superdome already has made a remarkable comeback. When Katrina took aim at New Orleans, tens of thousands of people hunkered down beneath its nearly 10-acre roof, only to have it ripped apart by the 145 mph winds. When help from the outside world took days to arrive, the iconic sports arena was transformed into a scene of suffering and misery.
On Sunday, workers put the finishing touches on a renovation project that will eventually cost $185 million. There's a new roof, fresh paint, state-of-the-art video boards and revenue-generating club seats.
"People have asked, 'Why would you rebuild the Superdome? Why would you want to go back into a place where so many people died?'" said SMG regional vice president Doug Thornton, who was trapped in the building for nearly five days during Katrina and was the chief architect behind its rebirth. "To me, it represents a highlight of what went on during Katrina. We were the refuge of last resort. We had nearly 30,000 people in here at one point. Those were people who could have been on rooftops or drowning. Yeah, people died in here. But so many more people could have died."
With the Superdome out of commission, the Saints spent last season on the road. Their "home" games were played in San Antonio, Baton Rouge, La., and East Rutherford, N.J., which created all sort of hardships with practice times and workout routines. It wasn't surprising that the team had a miserable 3-13 record.
There was plenty of speculation that the Saints were done in New Orleans. Everyone wondered if they would become the San Antonio Saints or Los Angeles Saints or Whatever-City-Provides-The-Best-Deal Saints. But outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue pushed for the team to return to its hurricane-ravaged home and kicked in $15 million of the league's money to help refurbish the Superdome.
"When you think about some of the images, some of the things that were happening in this city a year ago, yes, there was definitely a time when I thought we were not returning," running back Deuce McAllister said.
After the Saints committed to coming back, the city got more good news. Houston passed on Reggie Bush with the first pick of the draft, allowing New Orleans to land the most exciting player to emerge from the college ranks in years. The football-starved fans responded by gobbling up a record number of season tickets.
Yep, the Superdome is sold out for the season - a remarkable testament to the city's resiliency.
"People left us for dead," Thornton said. "We're making a statement to the world: New Orleans is back. The Superdome is back."
Even the Falcons are eager to see how the rebuilding is going, though this will be a brief, sheltered trip that doesn't allow for a lot of sightseeing.
"I've heard stories that it's not really all the way back," said Falcons safety Lawyer Milloy, who won a Super Bowl in New Orleans while playing for the New England Patriots. "I know how alive that city used to be. Even though I won't be able to actually see the city for myself except for a couple of hours, I'm interested to see how they're rebuilding."
The NFL is putting on a Super Bowl-like party in Week 3 of the regular season. Rock icons U2 and Green Day will team up for the pregame show. The Southern University band will perform at halftime. Hundreds of media applied for credentials, everyone from The Weather Channel to Arab news service Al-Jazeera.
"There are more Saints fans now because of what happened and we appreciate it," said Joe Horn, New Orleans' outspoken receiver. "We're not feeling sorry for ourselves now, either. We've got a good football team. Atlanta is not going to come here and say, 'Oh, they had a hurricane, Katrina, and let's just let them whup our butt.' No. They're going to try to come here and take our heads off."
But if Katrina couldn't break a city's spirit, there's no way the Falcons are going to do it - not matter what the outcome Monday night.