As the sea of black and gold rose up, the silver confetti streamed down. The field of the Superdome was overrun by masses of screaming, jubilant reporters, players and coaches. Garret Hartley’s 40-yard field goal had just sailed through the uprights, sealing the New Orleans Saints’ 31-28 overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game. The franchise had earned its first Super Bowl appearance, throwing the Louisiana Superdome into a frenzy. In the midst of a raucous celebration, the Saints’ stadium bore little resemblance to what it had looked like just four short years ago.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in the summer of 2005, the field of the Superdome had been covered not with confetti, but with trash, sleeping bags and cardboard boxes. The stadium served as a shelter for those who had lost their homes in the hurricane. Inside the Superdome, the appalling conditions and the people strewn across the field conveyed a sense of desperation—one that was felt not only within the stadium, but throughout all of New Orleans.
Throughout the following weeks, images of destruction—of flooded neighborhoods and wrecked homes—were on constant display on all television news stations. A city known for its vibrant culture had become a mere shell of what it had previously been. Its citizens, burdened with the task of rebuilding their city, saw little hope around them.
The city’s much needed inspiration, though, would come from an unlikely source. Its football team, the Saints (nicknamed the “Aints” due to the team’s poor performance), would finish the 2005 season at the bottom of the NFC South division with a record of 3-13—far from an uplifting end to a year of devastation. Just like their city, the Saints had hit rock bottom. It would take a great deal of effort for them to dig themselves out, just as it would take a lot of work to rebuild New Orleans. The football team found itself in a predicament very much the same as that of its city.
The similarity of the two situations resulted in the transformation of the Saints from merely a football team into a symbol of its city’s rebirth. The people of New Orleans could relate to the players, who had to overcome their own obstacles, and began to draw inspiration from the Saints.
The team’s obstacles were apparent at the start of the season. With the Superdome crippled by Katrina, the Saints had no stadium and were forced to split their home games between three different venues: Tiger Stadium, Giants Stadium and the Almadome. The team faced offensive problems, averaging a mere 14.7 points per game in the 2005 season, which was second to last in the league. After the Saints finished 3-13, winning only one of their last 12 games, head coach Jim Haslett was fired.
But the Saints would go on to slowly overcome these obstacles in the following seasons, inspiring the people of New Orleans through their resilience and determination. The Superdome was repaired and the team opened the 2006 season in front of an electric sellout crowd of 70,003 people. The Saints hired Sean Payton as head coach and acquired veteran quarterback Drew Brees, who overcame a possible career ending injury to become one of the elite quarterbacks in the league and the leader of the team. Four years after Katrina hit New Orleans, the Saints knocked off the Vikings at home, and capped off their magical run in the most improbable fashion, defeating the Indianapolis Colts, the team highly favored to win, 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV.
Some may argue that although the Saints have accomplished a great deal, they did this in a game that had no connection to what New Orleans had suffered. Although it may be merely a game, football is filled with highs and lows, and obstacles and triumphs. For these reasons, it is very similar to the hardships that the city faced. By overcoming all of this, and by starting out at the bottom of their division and emerging as champions, the Saints showed New Orleans the power of determination and hard work.
The resurgence of the city’s football team has led to a cultural and social rebirth of the city, which can be seen throughout New Orleans. It is seen at Saints games at the Superdome, which is no longer a shelter for the hopeless, but a place for people to share their pride and joy for their team and city. It is visible in the various rebuilding projects throughout New Orleans. It is evident in the flourishing jazz clubs and the wild, joyous festivities of Mardi Gras. It was also present in the city during the Saints’ Super Bowl Parade. The same desolate places that were hit by Katrina were filled with 800,000 people clad in black and gold—crying, laughing and shouting. The barren streets were filled with energy and life—all thanks to a football team.