New Orleans almost lost Saints, too, during stormy 200

New Orleans almost lost Saints, too, during stormy 200
February 3, 2010
By Pete Prisco
CBS Sports

MIAMI -- Their homes, their city, even their stadium, were destroyed.

That led to the 2005 New Orleans Saints being a displaced NFL team, vagabonds sent packing after the horrors of Hurricane Katrina ravaged their city.

The Alamodome was home for the Saints in 2005 -- sort of. (Getty Images) They headed to San Antonio, with little more than three or four days worth of clothes, plenty of uncertainty, and the idea that they might never return to New Orleans.
Most people don't know this, and they certainly don't want to hear it now as a rain cloud over the non-stop parade that is New Orleans with the Saints in the Super Bowl, but these are the facts:

The New Orleans Saints came as close as powdered sugar on a beignet to becoming the San Antonio Saints.

At one point during their displacement in San Antonio, Saints owner Thomas Benson met with the team and told them something they all thought might be possible, something they anticipated they would hear.

"We're not going back," Benson told them.

"We were told we weren't going back right up until a week before the season ended," said current Saints guard Jamar Nesbit, who was on that team.

It's hard to imagine New Orleans without the Saints, but it nearly became a reality. It might seem hard to believe now with all the goodwill the team has brought to the region and with all the hoopla of the first Super Bowl in team history, but it was very real.

I asked Benson at Tuesday's Super Bowl Media Day how close the team came to staying in San Antonio.

"New Orleans would have had to kick us out," Benson said. "How close is that? I don't know."

He may say that now, but sources, coaches and players from that 2005 team all insist that Benson was dead-set on keeping the Saints in San Antonio. Even with pressure from the NFL office and then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue to return to New Orleans, Benson balked, telling the team it wasn't going back.

"He said forget the commissioner," the source said. "We're not going back there."

That changed in part because of pressure from the outside. The league wanted the Saints back in New Orleans, and how could the league turn its back on the city after Katrina? Benson relented.

It was the right move to return. The Saints have helped revitalize the city of New Orleans and the region. The Super Bowl will be there in three years. Tourism has come back some.

The region is still far from perfect, but it's getting better every day.

With the Saints playing the Indianapolis Colts this Sunday in Super Bowl XLIV, the party has been non-stop for two weeks. Maybe no city or region identifies with its team as much as New Orleans and the Gulf region. Home games are like mini-Mardi Gras celebrations.

When they win, they drink. When they lose, they drink.

One can only imagine now what could have been if the Saints didn't come back.

The Superdome, which has seen so much joy this season, would still be considered the symbol for so much sadness, rather than the home of the NFC Champions.

They'd still be known as losers.

When the Saints beat the Minnesota Vikings to get to the Super Bowl two weeks ago, ending 43 years of frustration, the city rocked and players and coaches talked about what it meant to the people of New Orleans.

"This is for everybody in this city who's had homes that used to be wet," coach Sean Payton said after the game.

It's nice that Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and many other Saints acknowledge what the fans lived through, those horrors left behind by Katrina. But the reality is there are only five players on the roster who were on that Saints team in 2005, players who truly lived it. Those five are bound by what they went though together that season, perhaps the most trying season ever for any NFL team.

"For the players who were here for five years, it's a special bond," Nesbit said. "And the guys who are here now reaping the success; they don't understand the work ethic and pain the guys went through to help get us here."

Three of the five players will be factors in Sunday's game. Tackle Jon Stinchcomb, defensive end Will Smith and receiver Devery Henderson will all start. Nesbit is a backup and defensive end Charles Grant is on the injured-reserve list.

"They have no idea how bad that year was for us," Smith said. "One day somebody will write a book about it."

"We were true vagabonds," Nesbit said.

After settling in San Antonio, the Saints played their home opener at Giants Stadium against the Giants, an unfair way to start. It got a lot worse.

They played some home games in San Antonio, others in Baton Rouge, which meant they had more away games than home games. For some, since San Antonio never felt like home, it meant they had 16 away games.

That was only part of the problem. They used the Alamodome as their home base, but were often sent to high school fields to practice because of booked trade shows. The players lived in hotels for the first month, but then had to find their own places even though they had homes in the New Orleans area.

Coaches slept in the bowels of the dome. Coach Jim Haslett lost 20 pounds from the stress.

"You had to live it to believe it," Haslett said.

I went to San Antonio that year to do a story. It was hard to believe the Saints were an NFL team. There was nothing that screamed big time football. The Saints were trying to find places to practice, places to live.

One of the best stories from my trip there came from Haslett. He told of how the team put up tarps around the fence of a high school field to keep people from watching practice.

One day, the tarps were gone.

"Put the tarps back up," Haslett told one of the team's security people.

"The gangs will just take it down," he was told.

The tarps stayed down.

"There were a lot of unhappy campers," Henderson said.

Deuce McAllister was the star runner on that team. He signed a one-game contract with the Saints for the first playoff game this year, but he's here in South Florida as an unofficial member of the team, sort of like their honorary captain.

McAllister was one of the front-and-center players from that 2005 team, which is why fans have come to love him in New Orleans.

"A lot of these guys on this team have no idea what we went through," McAllister said. "It took a strong individual to get through that. You never knew what was next. It was an experience, that's for sure."

McAllister was so convinced the Saints weren't going back to New Orleans that he purchased a home in San Antonio. So did receiver Joe Horn.

"I didn't think we were going back," McAllister said. "There was no New Orleans then. Plus, I got a great deal on a house. I kept it for a while, too."

The Saints finished 3-13 that year. Haslett was let go after the season. Payton was hired to replace him. Drew Brees came the next spring.

The Saints went back to New Orleans. The Superdome received a $185 million facelift it badly needed. The city started buying tickets, selling out the stadium in 2006 for the first time.

Now they're in the Super Bowl.

It's Who dat and all that.

"I think they did the right thing coming back," Henderson said.

"There were a lot of people who wondered if there would be a New Orleans Saints anymore," Stinchcomb said. "I'm glad we did go back. We helped rebuild this city. We understand the relationship this team has with the city of New Orleans. It was the right thing to go back."

Let's face it: Who Dat just wouldn't have seemed so right in Texas.
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