Lifting up New Orleans: City rising in unison with Saints
Lifting up New Orleans: City rising in unison with Saints
January 22, 2009
By Jim Corbett
NEW ORLEANS â€” The New Orleans Saints' road to Sunday's NFC Championship Game â€” and to helping repair this Hurricane Katrina-battered city â€” began with a wrong turn.
Coach Sean Payton might have facilitated the most fortuitous drive of his NFL career â€” one that delivered community-conscious quarterback Drew Breesâ€” by getting lost.
In early March 2006, the first-year head coach made a rookie mistake while showing Brees and his wife, Brittany, potential neighborhoods, just seven months after Katrina hit.
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"The only problem with this whole plan I had was I hadn't really been around here too long to know my way around," Payton said. "I thought I was heading in one direction, except I was heading in another. I'm not talking about 15 minutes. I'm lost for an hour now, and Brittany's dozing off. I thought, 'We've got no chance of signing this guy.' "
Payton didn't know it at the time, but that ride awakened Brees, then a free agent, and his wife.
"I felt it was my calling that God was leading me here for a reason to help make a difference," said Brees, who signed a six-year, $60 million contract.
A league-best 122 touchdown passes later, they have the top-seeded Saints hosting the NFC title game for the first time, facing the Minnesota Vikings.
Nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina hit the area Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and leaving unprecedented damage, things are getting better little by little thanks in part to three Saints who have been a city's saving grace â€” Payton, Brees and running back Reggie Bush.
"After Katrina, Payton, Brees and Bush came aboard here like God just gave them to us, and the whole city has wrapped their arms around them," said Darrell Guy, director of special projects for the Boys and Girls Clubs of New Orleans. "They've given this city hope."
Payton's wayward ride helped open Brees' eyes.
"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 were just off the foundation and totally gone," Brees said. "You just say, 'Man, what happened? It looks like a nuclear bomb went off.' "
As with Brees, fate factored into the arrival of Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner from Southern California who fell to the Saints with the second overall pick in Payton's first draft with the team, now in its 43rd season.
"When the Heisman Trophy winner said he couldn't wait to come when so many were leaving, that sent shock waves of joy," said Mary Beth Romig, director of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "When Brees goes on national TV and tells (Fox analyst) Terry Bradshaw how much he and his wife love this city, that does wonders, because we're suffering a Katrina hangover.
"The Saints made a commitment and have been integral in our recovery."
The trio also has been integral in the resuscitation of a team that was 63-97 in the 10 years before Payton's arrival. The Saints have posted a 38-26 regular-season record since then, scoring 27.6 points a game, third best in the NFL over that span.
This season, Brees threw 34 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions and had his fourth consecutive season throwing for 4,000 or more yards in leading his team to an NFC-best 13-3 record.
And Bush, finally healthy after microfracture knee surgery in late December 2008, exploded on the postseason stage with possibly his finest game â€” rocketing for 217 all-purpose yards, including an 83-yard punt-return score and a 46-yard touchdown run in the Saints' 45-14 divisional demolition of the Arizona Cardinals.
A coach's commitment
Hope, help and wins. Payton, Brees and Bush have dished a heaping jambalaya of that invigorating m?lange.
"I spent the first year of my time here pretty much breaking out in tears every morning because of the amount of suffering that I was seeing," said Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans.
"I never had followed football but became an instant Saints fanatic because there was no single organization that was holding together the spirit of the people in this community like the Saints."
Payton and his wife, Beth, launched their Play It Forward Foundation last year to raise money and awareness for disadvantaged families with health, education and welfare concerns.
"It is a unique relationship this team has with the city," Payton said. "It's very small. The players are very visible."
Before this season, Payton's foundation pledged a $5,000 grant to a program designed to help fight childhood hunger through Second Harvest.
"Our tagline is, 'Feeding hope,' " Jayroe said. "I can't think of any tagline that's more appropriate than that for the Saints. They were feeding the hope of this city at a time when there were very little signs of any."
The food bank serves 263,000 people annually.
"I talked to Sean's wife, Beth, at their reception," Jayroe said. "She said when they were in Dallas (he was a Cowboys assistant from 2003 to 2005) and he was making his decision, they were getting a lot of advice from friends saying, 'Why on earth would you go to the Saints?' Beth told me, 'Sean felt he could make a difference.' "
Payton sets his team's community-minded direction. At Friday practices, Payton invites kids who lost everything to Katrina. Such a priority sends an unspoken message to his players, who sign autographs for the children.
His foundation also donated to actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right initiative, an organization that rebuilds homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.
"The Saints have helped 100% to restore our psyche," life-long Saints fan Mickey Triche said. "You can only drive by so many schools and hospitals still closed with the slow pace of recovery. It's not only the psyche of the city, the Saints have added true monetary value to the rebranding of New Orleans as a winner."
How much do the Saints bring in? The number hasn't been quantified, but the impact has.
"We did notice last week the hotel occupancy in the city rose over 80% because of the Saints," Romig said. "There's a natural increase in spending in restaurants, bars and grocery stores because we New Orleanians love a party."
Brees' goal: Help the kids
Brees Family Field is a sparkling, nearly $1 million multipurpose gem that was a joint project of The Brees Dream Foundation, Operation Kids and Advocates for the Arts.
The field sits between classroom buildings filled by 1,560 students at Lusher Charter School, where Brees and his wife donated an additional $38,000 for a new weight room.
"It's amazing," Lusher Lions defensive end Kyle Locasio said Tuesday of the multisport field bordered by a high-tech track. "A few years ago, this field was a cow pasture."
Now, Locasio and his teammates are the envy of opponents.
"They associate our school and our team with Drew Brees," wide receiver Andrew Albert said.
Brees beamed as he discussed his pet project Wednesday at his locker. "The sense of pride is immeasurable," he said. "It's not just the field or the school, it's the community that has rallied around it."
Before committing to how best to help, Brees studied with the type of meticulousness he has reserved for the Vikings defense this week. His conclusion? Help the kids.
His foundation, created in 2003, also is dedicated to aiding children with cancer and helping post-Katrina challenged youth.
"You should never lose out on your childhood," Brees said. "Those are your greatest times, greatest memories and great life lessons."
Bush makes a difference
Like Brees, Bush saw firsthand that his new team needed more than big plays from him.
"When I first was drafted here, they took me on a tour of the city," Bush said. "The first thing I saw was just a lot of devastation.
"I tried to do my part."
Bush donated money to restore Tad Gormley Stadium, a multiuse New Orleans heirloom built in 1937 that hosted a 1964 Beatles concert. The stadium was renamed Reggie Bush Field and reopened in fall 2006.
"It's more cool to know you made a difference, not necessarily to have your name on the field," Bush said. "Just to know that you made a difference in kids' lives."
During his rookie season, Bush donated $50,000 to help Holy Rosary, a school for 250 kids with special needs, remain open.
"The Saints are on a mission bigger than going to the Super Bowl," said Patty Glaser, director of curriculum and development at Lusher. "It's a mission of helping rebuild this city."
That mission would benefit from Super Bowl hype â€” two weeks of talk about all that still needs to be done.
"A lot of the city is back and never better," Romig said. "But there are still pockets â€” the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Lake View â€” that still have a long way to come back."