Saints euphoria sweeps New Orleans past Katrina
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – On his feet, his insides roiling like a butter churn, Percy “PJ” Williams Jr. pulled his leather Saints helmet over his face and closed his eyes.
“Look! Look! Watch this game, baby!” his wife gushed.
“I can’t do it!” PJ blurted, hiding his face. Over and over again he cried: “Please, Lord, let this guy make this field goal … Please, Lord, let this guy … Please, Lord …”
The scene: Jan. 24, Section 302 of the Superdome, row 14, seats 15 and 16. Two die-hard Saints fans. The play: Overtime, and Garrett Hartley readies for a 40-yard field goal to send the Saints on their first trip to the Super Bowl.
Snap. Kick. Victory. Then, the roar.
Everywhere around the city of New Orleans, people cried, or screamed, or both. Nuns danced. Grannies, toddlers, waiters, yogis and jazzmen – all of them donned black and gold. Friends embraced. Shoot, even strangers embraced. Behind PJ, a man and woman wept together.
For a moment, PJ himself was speechless. All he could do was listen to the roar.
It wasn’t the roar of the hurricane he remembered so well, tearing the roof off the Dome. It wasn’t the roar of his neighbors, the people he helped with an M16 rifle slung on his back – the barefoot children crying, elderly slumped in wheelchairs moaning, families sweating in the stadium’s dark, waiting for relief.
On this night, the 33-year-old soldier and Saints season-ticket holder opened his eyes to the roar of a lifetime: The Saints had kicked away the Katrina blues, patched a city’s scars, and put New Orleans in the Super Bowl – touching off the biggest party the Gulf Coast has seen since maybe the end of World War II.
Saints 31, Vikings 28.
At the end of season 43, the football gods had finally smiled on his hapless Saints.
Few of the 71,276 people at the NFC championship last Sunday night had the same kind of perspective or same raw emotions that PJ did, living from nadir to zenith in New Orleans.
On Aug. 29, 2005, the day Katrina hit, his Louisiana National Guard platoon of MPs was sleeping on the floor of the visitors locker room, almost directly under the season-ticket seats he’d bought a few months prior.
Williams and his men had the mission of manning the biggest, smelliest, weirdest lifeboat ever seen as they watched their hometown, and homes, drown. A few days later, he’d take a flatboat to his childhood home in Hollygrove, float over the fence in the front yard and dock on his porch.
Now, he was hollering: “The Saints are going to the Super Bowl!”
Later, he reflected on it all: “Every time I walk up to the Dome, we walk up through Gate A, I look down, I remember seeing people come up on boat, it brings chills.
“Little children, they didn’t have no shoes, so they tied MRE bags around their feet. We had some people looting and stuff. One guy had 30 brand new tennis shoes. We took them off him and distributed them to people who needed shoes.”
Running on two hours of sleep a night, Williams pushed the sick and elderly in wheelchairs out of the Dome to the relative comfort of the nearby basketball arena; on patrols, he walked the Dome 40 times a day (“a good hump”) amid the sea of people.
“To see people in such need, people of all walks of life coming, this was their life raft, this was their foothold on life and now, strangely, it’s the same thing, but just in reverse. This is New Orleans’ foothold, right there, this is a way of healing a city by winning,” Williams said. “Any other city would have folded. This is the mentality of this city. We have lemons, we’re going to make lemonade.”
Obviously, New Orleans and the Saints didn’t fold in the wake of Katrina.
But at one time it sure felt as if they could.
When you ask Bob Remy, the unofficial Saints historian and official statistician, about that 2005 season interrupted by Katrina, he strangely draws a blank.
A man who’s filed away just about every Saints newspaper article, team guide, stat and ticket or press pass since the first game at Tulane Stadium in 1967 has a hard time recalling what happened when the Saints went homeless.
“It’s all a blur,” Remy said, poring over the meticulous, day-by-day calendar he keeps of Saints seasons, and his own affairs.
He laughed. “Look, I ordered a washer, dryer and refrigerator on the day of the Giants game.” That was the team’s first “home” game after Katrina on Sept. 19. With the Dome torn up and waterlogged, it was transferred to the Meadowlands.
It was also the day Remy missed his first home game – ever. His sports memorabilia-packed suburban home was flooded with about a foot of water and he had to rebuild.
That 2005 regular season started with him in a hotel in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 11. He walked down to the hotel lobby. The game, Saints at Panthers, wasn’t even on the TV. He headed to another hotel.
“There I was, sitting in the lobby by myself, watching the game. Never forget that,” Remy said, a tear struggling at the edge of his eye.
At 72, Remy can say he has seen just about everything there’s been to see in Saints history. With his horn-rimmed glasses, he was there in the first line of men in trench coats, ties and flattop haircuts that stretched down the block, on March 6, 1967, to buy the first Saints season tickets. He was third in line.
Much of the nearly 43 years since hasn’t been pretty.
It took the Saints two decades just to get their first winning season, and it wasn’t until 2000 that they won their first playoff game. The Saints were so bad fans wore paper bags over their heads in 1980 and called them the “Aints.”
Fans grumbled, and, it being New Orleans, people talked about a “curse.” Maybe, they said, it was because the Dome was built close to, some say atop, the former Girod Street cemetery.
Against that dismal background, the 2005 season was the team’s lowest point, Remy said.
The team was relocated to San Antonio. It lived out of hotels and did weight training at Gold’s Gyms. They went 3-13 and for a while practiced at a high school. San Antonio’s mayor said he’d set up talks with team owner Tom Benson about moving the club to Texas. The future of the Dome was in doubt.
It got so bad, Benson swatted at a television camera at the Saints’ first game back in Louisiana on Oct. 30 at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. Then, he issued a statement saying he wasn’t going to games in Baton Rouge because he feared for his life. Rock bottom.
By the start of the 2006 season, though, the stars had begun to align.
The Dome was fixed up. Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees had been brought in. Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush was obtained by a stroke of good fortune in the draft and the Saints sold out their season tickets.
That year, they got to the NFC championship, and lost.
Standing in his back yard under a blue sky, Remy explained the euphoria.
“When we were going through the poor years, it’s a beautiful day like this, and it’s in the third quarter, and they’re losing 35-3, half the people are gone, the other people are drunk in the stands, and I got two small children at home, my wife’s at the park with them. You get my picture? And you say, ‘Why am I here?’ We had so many of those Sundays.
“You say to yourself, ‘Let’s make our way through this.’ And of course, it all does (pay off) on Sunday night.”
Ever the keeper of Saints history, Remy, tipsy on beer like everyone else, and his stats crew went down to the field after the game. He kneeled at the 30-yard line, pointed down at the hash mark where Hartley planted his foot. Snap. He’ll frame that photo.
New Orleans is changed. Stunned. In the throes of love and hope.
At the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Kenny “Kool Breez” Battiste, a deejay by profession, shakes his head. “It’s like they said: We’d never have a black president, we’d never make it to the Super Bowl. Now, we got a black president and we’re going to the Super Bowl!”
At the Impressive Hair Design, a neighborhood barber shop, old friends met up for the first time since the game and hollered Tuesday morning.
“Who Dat nation!” … “Black and gold to the Super Bowl!”
“The violence is going to stop!” Fabian Pace shouted. “No love. But the love is coming back. We need this win. We need this sense of hope. Just when we thought there was no daylight. It’s not a black and white city. It’s a black and gold city!”
Farther along on the street, Beverly Netter, a retired hospital worker, said she’d frame her Times-Picayune newspaper from the day after “the kick.”
“We kick butts!” the elderly woman said, grinning.
“Who Dat! Who Dat!” Catherine Tate, her friend, said. The Saints, Tate hoped, would inspire the young, the “lost generation,” in her words. She was thinking about her 17-year-old grandson shot down and killed: “He loved sports.”
In the French Quarter, Ray and Karen Baker waved from their balcony, where a banner reads: “Announcing: Hell freezing over,” a reference to the late Saints sportscaster Bernard “Buddy D.” Diliberto, a legend in these parts. He said the Saints would make it to the Super Bowl when hell froze over. He was the first to wear a bag over his head.
Karen, 66 and ardently religious, said: “I believe (Drew Brees) has been empowered by God to lead us out of the wilderness. I really do.”
Out at Musicians’ Village in the 9th Ward, where rows of homes were built after Katrina for displaced musicians, one with the help of Brees and students from his old fraternity house at Purdue University, trumpeter Shamarr Allen played his instrument, adorned with a fleur-de-lis and Brees’ signature.
“Forty-plus years, it’s time. It was written for it to happen,” Allen said.
“If you take a look back and remember that the Saints had to play in Mississippi (a preseason game in 2006) and practice in a school yard,” he said, searching for the moral of the story, “it’s one of those things that make you realize, man, look how far they came in a short period of time. My situation is bad, but it can always get better.”