Saints give hope to uneasy hearts

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The street lights still worked. No one had to worry about mold or rotting timber. And there wasn’t a FEMA trailer in sight.

The scene late Sunday night in San Diego seemed entirely normal for a city shaken by the loss of a team most thought was headed to the Super Bowl. The biggest worry might have been whether the surf would be up the next morning.

Life isn’t so easy in the Big Easy, where the Saints are carrying a city on their shoulders. Those who are still there worry about more mundane things, like where they will be living six months from now. Others are scattered about the country wondering whether they will ever make it back. To them, the Saints represent a link to a life they no longer know.

One of them wrote a colleague of mine the other day to tell her just how deep that link is:

“My family has been in Austin, Texas, since Katrina with a five-year plan to move back to the city we love,” he wrote. “We wept when the Saints played Monday Night Football and the bands played “When September Ends.” I even pray to God about something as silly as a football team. Our hurt is deep and the Saints soothe our sadness and turn our tears to joy.”

If only it was that simple. If only New Orleans could be reborn like the Saints.

The Saints play the Chicago Bears on Sunday, and nothing that happens at Soldier Field is going to get houses rebuilt any sooner or put families back together any quicker. A trip to the Super Bowl may rest on the outcome, but in the end it’s just a game, like any other.

Still, if ever a city needed a team in the Super Bowl, it’s New Orleans. “It’s in the back of your head and you know it,” Reggie Bush said Wednesday. “You just see the effects from when we win, how big it lifts these people’s spirits.”

In San Diego the other day I watched as some 68,000 fans left quickly and quietly after the Chargers blew a golden opportunity against New England.

Naturally, they were bitterly disappointed that a team with an open path to a Super Bowl was done for the season.

But they didn’t have to go home to a neighborhood they still don’t recognize.

I wasn’t in New Orleans to watch the Saints beat the Eagles. The last time I was there, it was a disaster.

Literally.

The National Guard was just arriving in force and we drove over a deserted bridge into a city ravaged by Katrina. The streets were littered in broken glass or covered in water, and bodies still lay rotting in the heat.

I usually write about sports. A world full of feel-good stories, like the one the Saints hope to write at NFC championship game. This was real, though. And really ugly.

I hadn’t been in town more than a few hours when I was walking door to door in a poor neighborhood trying to find the husband of a woman whose body was found on a street. A passer-by thought she deserved more dignity in death and piled some bricks around her for a makeshift memorial.

He spraypainted a message on the sheet that covered her body. “Here lies Vera,” it said. “God help us.”

I found the husband sitting shirtless on a porch a few blocks from the French Quarter. He hadn’t gone down to see his wife’s body. Probably wouldn’t. But the man who put the bricks around her came by and told him what he had done.

“I told him I appreciated it,” the husband said to me.

A few days later two female police officers who had been trapped in the Superdome for five days with 25,000 refugees took me in there. We drove through flooded streets, past downed power lines, and finally up a ramp to the parking garage where they would take refuge at night.

Inside, in darkness illuminated only by sunlight shining through a hole in the roof, the scene was unimaginable. So was the stench as we walked up to owner Tom Benson’s suite, trying our best not to step in rotting garbage and human waste.

The Superdome is all cleaned up now, and I presume Benson’s suite looks better than the day I saw it with its plugged up toilets and ransacked liquor cabinets. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about big sections of the city.

Some may never be rebuilt, others will never be the same.

Fans, though, were so grateful that former commissioner Paul Tagliabue refused to let Benson even consider moving the team that they bought up every season tickets. They did it as an act of faith, not knowing that the vagabond 3-13 team from the year before would, a year later, be a win away from the Super Bowl.

New Orleans needed the Saints like no other team has ever been needed by a city. Almost magically, a team that couldn’t deliver for 40 years finally did.

I don’t normally root for teams. In my job, you really can’t.That will change this Sunday.Because I’ll be rooting for an entire city.

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