A few months after Hurricane Katrina, my mom, siblings and I traveled across the old Twin Span, held together by those temporary aluminum-looking segments that buzzed when you drove over them, and wandered into our old neighborhood. Our first stop was Wildair Drive in Gentilly, right off Filmore Avenue, where a dirty line 7 feet above the ground ringed the house we’d moved out of in 1997. Next to the door was painted one of those hieroglyphics I’ve never quite deciphered, with symbols and numbers indicating that the place had been searched. There was a number other than zero. I’m not sure if that means someone died there or not.
Over in New Orleans East, we stopped by a house that belonged to some cousins. I dimly recalled a party of some sort there, though the empty shell, stripped of walls and ceilings, hardly looked like the house I remembered — I thought of standing on the front steps while people tossed a football in the quiet street.
We stayed in the car. My mom went inside. We lost sight of her. Everything was oppressively silent. An indeterminate period of time later she came back out crying, but crying quietly. Back then, whenever anyone cried, they did it quietly.
At some point very soon after the storm had passed, maybe two or three days later, just long enough to hear from our safe if uncomfortable vantage point 40 minutes north of the city about how levees had broken and neighborhoods were flooding, but not long enough to have yet seen anything to make this information stagger us, copies of The Times-Picayune arrived at the Winn-Dixie up the road. We were still subsisting on hurricane supplies, which hadn’t yet run out, and hadn’t yet begun the morning ritual of driving across town to the FEMA and National Guard supply depot, because FEMA and the National Guard weren’t there yet. We’d wake up with the sun and get an hour or two of near-comfort before the heat became overpowering, and I’d read for awhile and listen to WWL or NPR, the only two sources of outside information we had.
The copy of The Times-Pic made a stir. In the living room it was spread open and there was a huge image of the Twin Span from high above, and there were gaps in it. I’d spent my entire childhood scooting back and forth across a construction whose existence I’d taken for granted and whose integrity I’d never thought to question. Now it was destroyed.
Then came the Superdome roof image.
The power was still out when the nomadic Saints went up to Carolina and won. We hadn’t yet hit that stage when a handful of players began to openly question whether or not they should come back to New Orleans, and Tom Benson hadn’t yet started twirling his hair and flashing some leg while sitting at the bar with the mayor of San Antonio. For three hours the Saints provided, via a shaky radio signal broadcast into hundreds of thousands of homes like mine, a reason to think about whether or not Mike Sheppard was in fact an upgrade at offensive coordinator over Mike McCarthy (he wasn’t); whether Aaron Brooks would add general passing efficiency to his repertoire of skills (he wouldn’t); and whether the Saints would somehow manage to build on the four-game winning streak with which they’d ended the previous season (of course, they didn’t).
It wasn’t that we needed the Saints to win a Super Bowl that year. We just needed them to face the challenges we were all facing, to one degree or another, and try to overcome them. Against Carolina, we felt that, maybe, they were doing so. When it looked like they’d be leaving us when we couldn’t try to get them back, things became different. And it only got worse when the commentator for one of the Saints games in Tiger Stadium, looking out on a mostly-empty college football bowl, said, his voice dripping with condescension and disgust, that this was unacceptable, that the NFL should just move the team out of here and be done with it. That someone else would properly support the NFL franchise.
The comment, forgotten now by, it seems, everyone but me, is a perfect example of how it seemed everyone else was approaching Katrina and the Federal Flood. The lights just came back on the other day and most everyone is still moving from place to place across America and those who are home are trying to remove toxic waste from their kitchens, and because we are listening to our Saints on the radio or watching our Saints on a battery-powered TV rather than traveling hours across broken bridges to Tiger Stadium, it’s time to relocate the franchise?
To hell with you, man. Repeat this for months and months—for a year. Recite the litany: Hastert, Bush, Nagin, Blanco; bulldoze the city, move the team, they’re stupid for living below sea level; not with my tax dollars! All of this swirling around us in a toxic atmosphere of bile and contempt while, back home, we’re not just trying to get back to normal but are instead now realizing that normal wasn’t good enough, that we need to grab the opportunity and make something better than normal.
Outside the area it seemed everyone knew exactly what we were supposed to do. Sitting far away in Middle America, local newspaper editorial writers and cable news prognosticators and members of Congress, none of whom had ever smelled the inside of a refrigerator left without electricity for a month, made their audacious assertions. How dare they rebuild a football stadium? Why would they even think of having Mardi Gras? When will they just go away?
September 25, 2006. Return to the Dome.
September 25 is my birthday. A friend’s family had bought season tickets after getting back home. He offered a pair to my brother and I, and, of course, I took them. I had class in Hattiesburg that afternoon. The week before, I told my professor I wouldn’t be there, and why. She told me I’d be an idiot for coming to class rather than going to the game.
We drove into the city. We parked somewhere in the Warehouse District. Walking up Poydras through downtown canyons of high-rise buildings with plywood over their broken exterior windows, it was like Mardi Gras. The streets were flooded with black and gold and purple and green. There was music and the scent of jambalaya cooking somewhere out of sight. The crowd grew thicker and thicker as we approached the Dome until, just outside its repaired façade, we couldn’t really move. Everyone just stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a human mass, waiting for the chance to go inside. Under the gold glow of a New Orleans dusk the air was alive and electric.
The Saints kicked off. They shut the Falcons down. The ESPN commentary guys made some kind of remark about so much for Mike Vick running wild right away — though surely he’d do so soon, was the feeling you got from them. There was almost a big moment, in which the Dome crowd, humming, collectively gasped — Vick fumbled, and the ball was almost scooped up by a Saints defender, who had a clear shot at the endzone.
The entire Dome experience was fraught with communal anxiety and excited tension — every emotion that any one of us experienced was an emotion all of us experienced. There were 70,000 people in the Dome and all of them had brought their own stories and all of them were exorcising their own Katrina demons there, and we were all doing it together. As a result, the events on the field, usually just sport, usually something separate from real life, interacted viscerally with real-life stuff that normally sport takes us away from.
The year before, when Aaron Brooks and Deuce McAllister and John Carney produced that win against Carolina right after the storm, it took me out of the immediate and focused me entirely on something that wasn’t about living without electricity and eating MREs. But that isn’t what was happening in the Dome on the 25th of September. The stuff taking place on the field had a direct relationship to the stuff that had gone on and which was still going on every day.
That’s the thing national commentators who talk about the distraction the Saints offered us back then and up through the Super Bowl win don’t understand. The 2006 Saints weren’t a separate narrative pulling us out of our stressful lives; they were part of that same story.
And the story was about to hit a climax. You could feel it, that tension I mentioned crackling around us. You knew something was about to happen, and you’d look around at the faces of people you didn’t know as you all stood — stood, no one was sitting — and waited to experience whatever the moment was going to be. By the time it happened, the emotional outpouring was volcanic.
Steve Gleason darted through and blocked the punt. Curtis DeLoatch leapt onto the ball in the endzone. Later, I’d see him slam-dunk it over the goal posts, see Sean Payton’s fist-pump, see Drew Brees celebrating, but I saw none of that at the time because I was jumping up and down on the steep Superdome terrace steps in the arms of a girl with stringy hair and tattoos wearing a black and gold wife-beater. When we separated so we could embrace other people, I stopped for an instant and stood there with my fists clenched on the steps and roared in a way I’m not usually physically capable of roaring, so that later my throat hurt and I couldn’t speak very loudly, and my arms became sore from the clenching of my muscles, and I couldn’t quite catch my breath and kept having to yawn and became light-headed, but I kept screaming anyway, and with 70,000 people doing exactly the same thing the result was a force in the building that overwhelmed everything and silenced a chatty national television crew for the duration of its existence until well after, finally, eventually, John Carney kicked the extra point.
For any other franchise, the moment that Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton Manning’s pass at the Super Bowl would be its greatest. But no other sports entity has experienced something quite like what happened in the Louisiana Superdome on my birthday in 2006, when worlds that don’t cross suddenly interacted and exploded.
Sports and real life are separate, distinct things, split like the natural and supernatural worlds. When the natural and supernatural come together we call it — as you may recall from your catechism — a miracle. Because this moment, this single instant in New Orleans Saints history, marks the purest example of reality and sports crossing the existential plane, coming together and becoming one, it is the only true sports miracle, and so is the greatest moment in the history of the New Orleans Saints.