On April 29 of this year, a bereaved city celebrated the salvation of its football franchise with the arrival of the newly-annointed Saint Reggie of New Orleans.
The previous night, the Houston Texans, owners of the top pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, had announced they were passing on Heisman Trophy winner and human highlight film Reggie Bush in favor of defensive end Mario Williams.
Said Texans fans everywhere, "This is who we threw away our season for?"
Said Saints fans everywhere, "Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaapppppeeeeeeeee!" Or something to that general effect.
Unlike the Texans' brass, the Saints knew not to look a gift horse (Trojan or not) in the mouth, and selected Bush with all due alacrity with the second pick. In so doing, the Saints turned Houston's Texas-size blunder into one of the best feel-good sports stories in recent memory. To be sure, it's a story with only a beginning, not yet a middle or end. But that's alright in New Orleans, where a new beginning is really all that people have been praying for.
For the residents of a town with a strong Catholic heritage and a traumatic familiarity with Acts of God, the bounty placed in the Saints' lap seemed like nothing short of divine intervention. And while that may be giving Gary Kubiak a little too much credit, you'll forgive the residents of New Orleans if they are enjoying an emotion thought to have deserted the city for higher ground months ago—hope.
Even prior to August 31, 2005, it would have been easy to point out why such a word had little place in discussion of the New Orleans sports scene, which the Saints had monopolized until the NBA's Hornets buzzed into town in 2002. Simply put, in their 40 years of existence, perhaps no team has done so little to deserve so much unconditional love as have the New Orleans Saints. It is hard to accurately describe the relationship between Saints fans and their team; in some ways it mirrors the "Lovable Losers" phenomenon seen with baseball's Cubs. But what sets Saints fans apart is the unique blend of half-party, half-religion they exhibit in their fanaticism, inevitably drawing from the unique character and history of the city of New Orleans. Unfortunately, that unyielding faith has rarely been rewarded with success.
True, there have been some relative glory years, notably in the early 1990s and in 2000. Those aberrations notwithstanding, the following facts speak for themselves: an all-time winning percentage of .396, first above-.500 season in 1987, two division titles, five playoff appearances, and a single playoff win. Recent history is no salve, as since that lone playoff triumph in 2000, the Saints have failed to make the postseason and generally remained stagnant under the leadership of former head coach Jim Haslett.
Off the field, the recent headlines surrounding the franchise weren't much better. Years of contested Superdome lease negotiations and New Orleans' status as a small market without a large business presence generated an ominous cloud of uncertainty hanging over the team. Looming large on the horizon were cities showing "Vacancy" signs at their respective city limits, most notably Los Angeles and San Antonio.
And that was even before the worst natural disaster in the history of this country decided to kick up her feet and make herself at home.
Suffice it to say, late last summer, the residents of New Orleans found themselves awash in problems that dwarfed anything football could ever present. As the water finally receded, in its place rose anger and frustration aimed in the direction of a number of very deserving parties (that other Bush among them). Amidst this atmosphere of distrust and dejection, the generational ties that bound the community to their Saints for the first time seemed to be straining under the pressure.
Owner Tom Benson looked for temporary refuge in San Antonio, where it's no secret he has business ties and where he has had desire to relocate to in the past. When opportunistic San Antonio officials put on an unnerving full-court press to permanently capitalize on the Gulf Coast's misfortune, the conception grew that Benson was callously deserting the Big Easy in its greatest hour of need. New Orleans residents seethed and made Benson Public Enemy Number—well, let's just say one of many. Benson, for his part, did absolutely nothing to ease those concerns, publicly questioning the ability of the Saints to survive in a disaster-torn region. The tense situation boiled over in an ugly encounter between Benson and reporters after fans had berated him at a "home" game in Baton Rouge.
Luckily for all involved, cooler heads prevailed over time, the coolest among them being that of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. One gets the sense that at some point, the Commish must have sat Benson down, shook him by the shoulders and made him see just how inflammatory and counter-productive his public comments and outbursts were. Finally, after months of rampant speculation, the Saints and NFL held a January news conference to announce the Saints' return to New Orleans in 2006 and a "long-term" commitment to the region. Surely, it is only Tagliabue's strong desire to do right by the citizens of New Orleans and the entire Gulf South that kept the Saints from relocating permanently after last season. His efforts should be remembered as one of the great lasting legacies of his tenure.
With the future of the franchise settled at least for the near future, attention rightly turned to the on-the-field product, which had ended its nightmare Tour-de-America season with a 3-13 finish. Haslett was let go, probably for the mutual benefit both parties. Talented but oh-so-inconsistent quarterback Aaron Brooks was also given his walking papers, fitting given his chief advocate seemed to have been Haslett.
Next, General Manager Mickey Loomis tabbed Dallas assistant Sean Payton to succeed Haslett, hoping to import some of the qualities of a Bill Parcells-coached team. Then, eschewing the common wisdom that had them selecting a quarterback with the second overall pick, the Saints made a big splash in free agency by throwing money at Drew Brees, who was deemed a risk by San Diego because of a late-season shoulder injury. In so doing, the Saints acquired an efficient, Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback who can ably distribute the football to the Saints' myriad offensive weapons. These early moves were cues to the New Orleans fan base that the team was serious about winning in the near-future, and serious about doing so in New Orleans. Change was afoot in the steamy Gulf air, but no one could have expected what was yet to come.
Flash forward to April 29. While the team still had numerous holes that a trade down might have helped to fill, the Saints recognized that the true value of Reggie Bush was greater than just X's and O's. So when the Texans got stage fright and blinked, the Saints were there to reap the benefits. Cynics would argue that any team not high on nitrous-oxide (or Houston smog) could have pulled off a no-brainer choice like Bush. But given the Saints' history of draft-day bungles (a certain dreadlocked, high-on-not-just-life running back comes to mind), the selection of Bush actually constituted a rare display of competence from management. Thus, credit the Saints for recognizing the genuine excitement a player like Bush can generate among its fan base.
But even here they miscalculated, as the outpouring of support from fans has to be beyond even the team's wildest expectations. At the team's draft-day party, a raucous crowd of fans roared an approving "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" when the pick became official. Even Old Man Benson got in on the love, as fans saluted him with high-fives and cheers, an obvious contrast to last year's embarrassing Baton Rouge Battle Royal. When Bush toured the city in the days that followed, at every stop—charity events, golf tournaments, Emeril's restaurant—he was greeted with a rambunctious hero's welcome. Even though it is still unknown whether Bush will be able to wear his trademark No. 5, pre-order sales of his jersey have set an NFL record.
The most astonishing news of all? Saints fans are so enamored with their new star, they have purchased a franchise-record 54,000-plus season tickets, and sales show no signs of slowing any time soon. This, in a city whose population has been halved, and them some. This, in a city whose team is coming off a misery-filled 3-13 season. This, in a city where professional football was thought to have no hope of survival.
But New Orleans residents are gradually warming up to the idea of hope. No, the scars of Katrina on the landscape of the Crescent City have not disappeared. They are still evident in closed-down stores, street lights that stand dark, neighborhoods turned into wastelands, and mountains of trash strewn under highway overpasses. By no means is the ordeal over for New Orleans, as the monumental task of rebuilding—about which there should never be any question—is only beginning.
Under these circumstances, many consider football to be the utmost in triviality, a distraction from much more serious problems. But it's time to stop apologizing for turning to sports during trying times, and focus the positive role they can play in a community. Instead of being a distraction, an NFL franchise can be an instrumental force in helping the city back onto its feet. With an economy based almost entirely on tourism, New Orleans needs the exposure that the NFL can offer in terms of national television coverage, as well as lucrative future Super Bowls. This is what Tagliabue realized from the start, and what Benson came around to see as well.
Thus, it seems almost providential that Bush—a player with the type of national attraction and marketability that New Orleans desperately needed—would end up with the Saints at the exact time they needed him the most. It even seems that Bush may have lucked into a pretty good situation for himself as well. The Saints already have a workhorse running back in former Pro Bowler Deuce McAllister. Given that the one (and pretty much only) concern observers had about Bush was his durability as an every-down NFL back, a shared backfield could mean a prolonged career for an undersized back. Saints coaches hope that the dual-back look will give defenses the same kinds of problems that Bush and partner LenDale White presented at USC. Saints fans sure hope so too, because if so, the Saints figure to have a playoff-caliber offense sooner rather than later.
Is it fair to cast a 21 year-old, would-be senior in college as the savior of a franchise, and even an entire city? Of course not. But that's the gig when you're hyped to be the most exhilarating offensive talent to come out of college in years. Expectations such as these have a tendency to run away with themselves, and Bush will have a lot of pressure on him to ensure Saints fans' faith isn't renewed in vain.
The good news is, Bush has passed the test with flying colors so far. While an investigation into his parents' real estate dealings continues and a balky hammy has kept him out of rookie camp, Bush has managed to set the right tone in his public comments and actions about fully joining the community and giving back to those desperately in need. Last week, he donated $50,000 to Holy Rosary Academy, a local special-needs school that was in danger of being shut down due to lack of funds. (The school is, you guessed it, Catholic.)
Are Bush and the Saints destined to be a marriage made in—well, you know where? Answering such a question before Bush even steps on the field would be obviously premature. But the fact that his mere presence has brought rejuvenation and excitement to a city that has seen some very dark days is truly remarkable.
In fact, some people might call it downright miraculous.