Post-Katrina: Former Saint Joe Horn Personally Remembers the Aftermath

Michael Tillery@@michaeltillerySpecial to Bleacher ReportAugust 26, 2015

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Joe Horn played in the NFL for 12 years after signing in the CFL for $400 a week two years out of Itawamba Community College. Though over seven seasons he would become the New Orleans Saints' second all-time leading receiver, Horn understands the struggle and is also as charismatic as he is down to earth—especially in the presence of those needing a boost.

He is unapologetically a man of his word, and within the candor of his all-encompassing conviction, a love for his fellow man is his calling card. Horn was one of the Saints’ faces of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina became one of the most devastating storms in history. In fact, if it weren’t for his relentless will to keep the team in New Orleans after all of the destruction, there’s a big chance Drew Brees would be chuckin’ the rock for the Saints in San Antonio. Ten years after the hurricane, the following are Joe Horn’s words, speaking of a time when so many lost their lives, both literally and figuratively.

The Superdome was was home to thousands of displaced Katrina survivors.
The Superdome was was home to thousands of displaced Katrina survivors.JAMES NIELSEN/Getty Images

In our last preseason game before the 2005 season we headed to Oakland to play the Raiders on September 1. We were scheduled to fly out on that Friday but learned Hurricane Katrina was touching ground that Thursday. I was on the golf course when I got a call from my coach, who was Jim Haslett at the time. He said to pack clothes and get my family outta Dodge. In times like these, there was nothing else to say. The organization paid us as players, so we did what the organization told us to do.

Katrina hit while we were still in California, and we saw the incredible images on TV. The actual storm was nothing compared to the flood damage caused after the levees broke. When those four levees were breached, people were like "Whoa, we’re stuck here now!" It was crazy being in California, seeing that s--t and feeling helpless. Forget a football game. I ain’t playing that s--t. I was trying to get back to the city and give my life if I had to.

Leaving Cali, we flew into Houston. We couldn’t even get into New Orleans. Displaced folks were everywhere across the country—and Houston was a destination, with the Astrodome being the only hub. When I walked in the dome, I broke down. I was the first so-called celebrity the people saw after the storm, but I’m just a real dude from the hood. When I got out the car, folks bum-rushed me, and I handed out money. When I saw the kids, my mind wasn’t on football. I was thinking of a way I could stay in Houston for an extended period and help the people get what they needed, like water, tissues, toothpaste and feminine products.

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When fans approached me saying, “We gotta beat Carolina’s ass,” I was like “What?” These people have been reduced to nothing, yet they’re talking about football? My whole attitude changed; I had to go into football mode. We won the home opener, and the region was temporarily happy. That’s how people in Louisiana rock. They’ll die for the Saints. So I went from non-football oriented to straight-up gladiator. I did what I had to do. It was hell.

Katrina was crazy because I didn’t understand the NFL making us suffer when we should have been rebuilding the city. I scraped and clawed to get into the NFL because I know what it is to struggle. When you’re from the gutter eating welfare cheese for meals, constipated for two weeks and throwing up with rats and roaches crawling under your head every night, doing drills is nothing. That struggle allowed me to identify with the people displaced. When Katrina came, I was suited and already booted. I didn’t care how many millions I had in the bank; all I wanted to do was help the people on the ground.

Horn with former President George H. W. Bush at the Saints' 2005 "home opener" in New York.
Horn with former President George H. W. Bush at the Saints' 2005 "home opener" in New York.KATHY WILLENS/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Our home opener was September 19, so instead of playing at home, we had to go to New York as the home team to play the Giants. That was bulls--t, but we did it. I did it for the city, I did it for my family and I did it for the fans. I love the game, but we’re playing a game when we should be helping the city. Is this really America? Is the dollar bill the only thing that matters?

My goal was to bring the city back. NFL folk meeting with me said the Superdome would be blown up; horrific stuff was going on in there, so it can’t be played in again. I said it will happen, and I will be the first to walk in the Dome after reconstruction, and that’s what happened.

That first game back would be my Super Bowl. I was OK leaving New Orleans after my release in 2007. People didn’t understand it, because all Joe Horn could give was getting the Saints back to New Orleans. I know Tom Benson brought the team back, but on a political level, my goal was to make sure I said whatever I needed to say to NFLPA head Gene Upshaw on that visit. When the city was awarded the team back, I cried all day in my house. My goal was accomplished. It might have taken one voice from that team to award San Antonio the Saints. Upshaw and someone else from the NFL came in and said, “We need to talk to Joe.” Behind closed doors, they asked what I thought. I said, “I’m telling you right now that we should go back and help rebuild New Orleans.”

That rebuilding would be the ultimate glorification for the NFL. People are not leaving Louisiana. That’s all I had to say. I was not playing for the New Orleans Saints in San Antonio! The next morning on ESPN, the Saints were awarded back to New Orleans. I’m not saying I’m the one who made it happen, but after our convo that previous evening, to hear the Saints were awarded back? That was my Super Bowl. I knew I would be back opening up that first game.

I had a chance to sit on my chair with tears rolling down my face when I saw what was going down in New Orleans after Katrina. I can’t say my people because every race in that moment had to hustle. They had to survive. Most were black, but there were white folk that were stuck at the Superdome. I saw a two-year-old white child standing with her pregnant mother, and a black family gave that baby water. I saw the same in reverse where white folk would give black folk water. I was sad, but I was kinda happy some days because I saw how all races had to join hands to survive. The images of a white dude hugging a black dude stuck in my mind, and Hurricane Katrina brought that out.

Horn with fans at the Saints' 2006 home opener back in New Orleans.
Horn with fans at the Saints' 2006 home opener back in New Orleans.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

When the Saints got their new head coach in Sean Payton, and the team was awarded back to New Orleans, Drew Brees became the new quarterback. All that kicked in, and my focus was on the Atlanta Falcons. We were not going to lose that game. Whoever we played was gonna get their asses kicked in that dome that night. That’s how hard we practiced; that’s how focused we were. My prayers before the game were for the Lord to take away my selfishness and allow this city this game.

When I came out on the field during pregame, I couldn’t even warm up because I had to hug so many people that were crying. I went into the receiver line and began shaking to the music. I was in a zone. I was so hyped and focused I felt like I was gonna have a heart attack. I had to get on the sideline and put on an oxygen mask just to calm down. It was very exciting; I was on cloud nine and ready to die that game.

I knew what happened in that dome; I heard the stories from the people who lived in the dome. Stories of little boys drowning and their moms carrying their dead children through the water. These stories were all running through my mind during that first game back.

There was no personal celebration for me after we beat the Falcons when the Dome re-opened. I got to my locker and broke down. After the game, the city never settled down. Some might say the city found normalcy, but you can’t ever find normalcy where so many lost their lives.

I feel I’m a big part of the Saints being back in New Orleans. It’s something my children can forever say about their daddy: that I was part of the face that brought the Saints back to New Orleans.

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