Super Bowl champs relight New Orleans

Sean Payton marches with the Lombardi Trophy. (AP Photo)
Sean Payton marches with the Lombardi Trophy. (AP Photo)

The New Orleans Saints’ first championship in franchise history came as the much-needed trot into the sunset for a city desperate for a shining star.

Figuratively, the sun likely still has not set on Bourbon Street, as the bright lights of pre-Mardi Gras and Super Bowl celebration have kept the city glowing through the nights, but this area that has returned to party central status can easily, or painfully, be remembered as unlit and unfit for human life not long ago.

Yes, some recovery has been achieved in a city ravaged by the costliest, as well as one of the five deadliest, hurricanes in American history. Hurricane Katrina was a surreal step into the harsh reality of nature’s true power.

I vividly remember high school class periods interrupted by coverage of this storm nearly five years ago. It was like a disaster movie without a “pause” button. The overlying question, as thousands sought refuge in the Saints’ Superdome, was, “how can a city ever recover from such destruction?”

The answer was found not only in the hands of countless volunteers rebuilding New Orleans’ schools and churches, but in the spirit of a city that latched onto a historically miserable football team and seemingly willed it to elite status.

This belief in football did not come immediately, as the Saints’ first game was played less than three weeks after water filled parts of the city, and although a John Kasay field goal against the Carolina Panthers gave the team an emotional victory, it played no games in New Orleans during the 2005 season, and finished at 3-13.

Hope was dwindling but not vanishing, as two key offseason changes, as well as the joy of returning to the Superdome revealed light at the end of a still damp tunnel. The Saints signed underrated and somewhat undersized quarterback Drew Brees from San Diego and ushered in a new head coach, Sean Payton, a former Dallas Cowboys assistant coach, to lead a program that had fallen to shambles. A blockbuster draft class also gave New Orleans the electric Reggie Bush to bring excitement to some of the most unlucky fans imaginable.

The Superdome’s doors reopened for football fans on Sept. 25 as more than 10.8 million viewers tuned into Monday Night Football to see resilience manifested in black and gold. More than 70,000 fans filed into the repaired stadium, entering the gates under a sign reading, “Our home, our team, be a Saint.” The Saints delivered on this emotional night, defeated the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 on their way to a 10-6 record and an NFC Championship game appearance, the franchise’s first.

For any team, a seven-win swing from one season to the next is almost unheard of, but for the Saints, following the storyline of rising from tragedy, something like this had to happen, a bit of Louisiana magic.

Three seasons later, the Saints now enter the halls of NFL immortality, and although not every Saints player has been a member of the team since that whirlwind of relief in 2006, every player undoubtedly knows what this Super Bowl victory means to the city it now calls home.

Redemption is not the proper word to describe this rain-saturated rags-to-riches story, and this storyline will likely be told and retold in print and online to the point of nausea, but it is a story that deserves to be told again and again. No team deserves to win, celebrate, get drunk and collect loads of beads more than the 2009 Saints who have not only brought New Orleans its first NFL championship, but a sign that it really is darkest before dawn, and that with the strength of many, great things can come from terrible circumstances.