NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A taped-up refrigerator with rotting contents was left on a sidewalk. On it was a message scribbled in spray paint: “Do not open. Benson inside.”

Down the block, another abandoned refrigerator courtesy of Hurricane Katrina carried this comment: “Saints lie to their fans.”

These are not the best of times for New Orleans Saints fans and team owner Tom Benson.

At LSU, where the Saints will play Sunday in their first game in Louisiana since the hurricane, campus flyers depicted Benson with horns protruding from his head. They read, “Satantonio,” a reference to where the Saints relocated after the storm struck the New Orleans area in late August.

Since 1967, through mostly losing seasons, Saints fans have been renowned for their loyalty to a team that features the city symbol (a fleur-de-lis) on its helmet and is named for one of the most famous jazz tunes (“When the Saints Go Marching In”).

“We loved this team when they were 1-15 and playing in Tulane Stadium,” said Ian Dermody, who spent last Sunday watching the Saints lose on TV with friends at a pub in suburban Metairie. “We will love this team until they’re no longer part of New Orleans.”

Such support has prompted Louisiana’s politicians to spend tens of millions of dollars in recent decades to ensure the team remained despite state budget crunches.

Until late last season, the Saints had enjoyed 36 straight sellouts at the Louisiana Superdome – a streak spanning mostly mediocre years.

But now, with San Antonio officials announcing their intention to make Texas the permanent home for the Saints, many Saints fans are showing signs of an emotional backlash – at least toward Benson, if not the team itself.

“It’s wrong to kick the city and the state while we’re down, taking the last hope that we have,” Noelle McKoin said after watching last Sunday’s game. “It’s something we look forward to every Sunday, win or lose. It’s something that gives everybody something to cheer for and that’s what we need right now.”

Benson said in a written statement last Friday he has not decided on the Saints’ future home. When reporters at his suburban home asked him what he had to say to the team’s New Orleans fan base, he told the visitors to get off his property.

“He doesn’t have the courage enough to face the fans themselves and tell them what’s going on,” said McKoin, adding it’s hard for her to justify buying tickets to any of this season’s four games in Baton Rouge. “I don’t know if I want to give Benson my money if he’s going to leave.”

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin expressed similar sentiments in a newspaper interview last week.

“Who’s going to buy his tickets? I’m not buying one. … I’m not listening to him on the radio. I’m not doing anything with him,” Nagin said. “I’m just appalled.”

Nagin has said he would support a move if Benson were forced to give up rights to the Saints name, logo and records, much like what happened in Cleveland. The Saints could be reborn in New Orleans as an expansion team.

New Orleans, however, is a small market with few major corporate headquarters. The Saints, however, draw from across the football-crazy Gulf South and are easily the region’s top pro sports attraction.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco and others have encouraged fans to come to Tiger Stadium on Sunday with the aim of winning favor with NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Tagliabue, who has been cool to the idea of the Saints moving to San Antonio, plans to attend the game and meet with Blanco.

Early last week, more than 40,000 tickets had been sold, but the Saints stopped giving out updates after Benson fired top executive Arnold Fielkow, a strong proponent of the Saints returning to Louisiana in 2006.

Saints fan Jason Campagna, whose community was wiped out by Katrina, said New Orleans-area fans have nothing to prove to the NFL after nearly four decades of strong support.

“It’s the responsibility of the other owners of the NFL to say, No Benson, you cannot take the Saints out of New Orleans,’ because that’s what the city needs,” Campagna said. “The city needs the Saints.”

AP-ES-10-24-05 1529EDT

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