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Haslett Has a Connection to Saints' Rebirth


Labor Day weekend, 2005.

The hub of activity is the lobby of a Marriott hotel on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. This is where the New Orleans Saints, displaced by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will bunk for a while.

They left New Orleans ahead of the storm to finish their preseason schedule in Oakland. They never returned.

You know the story. The hurricane hit the city but New Orleans weathered the worst of it. Then the levees gave way, the pumps failed and the City That Care Forgot would never be forgotten for what it endured.

Water flooded through the lowest-lying areas of a metropolis already below sea level. Residents unable or unwilling to leave their homes got chased to higher ground and found themselves stranded there.

Saints players, coaches and front office personnel watched their homes wash away, saw terror and desperation and could do nothing to help except be the Saints and play football.

That tree of hope, planted in filthy, raging waters 4 ½ years ago, bears fruit today. The Saints, so much apart of New Orleans' healing process, continue to deliver hope and sustenance. They're going to their first Super Bowl, chasing their first NFL championship, delivering on the dream.

Go back to '05. Jim Haslett, now the Redskins defensive coordinator, is the Saints head coach. His own family has been chased by the storm from Tallahassee to Pensacola.

He's trying to figure out where to have meetings, where the players can lift weights, how to function with no home stadium. The general manager, Mickey Loomis, works on the logistics of finding and a place for the Saints to play their games.

They're due to open on the road, against the Carolina Panthers. Then they're scheduled at home against the New York Giants. I remember it well -- I was supposed to cover the Giants game. I was planning to stay at a Courtyard by Marriott hotel on Julia Street, down near the convention center, scene of such terrible suffering in the summer heat following the floods.

Haslett tries to get his team prepared.

"Our guys will be ready to play," he tells me.

They practice at a high school field in San Antonio. They take over parts of the Alamodome in San Antonio. They try to focus on their jobs while fretting about New Orleans and their loved ones.

Jay Romig, then 51 and the director of the Saints training camp operations, scurries about the hotel trying to line up a variety of supplies. How are things back home, I ask?

He, his brother, two sisters and their parents all lost their homes in the city's Lakeview section. They made it out to Baton Rouge to stay with his brother's friend. Five family members, now without homes.

"Hey, we're alive," Romig told me as I hustled alongside of him at the hotel. "And we have work to do."

They did it in San Antonio, in Baton Rouge. Not in New Orleans. Their headquarters near the airport wound up as a FEMA outpost, taken over by the government.

Their stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, suffered damage to its roof in the storm and more afterwards. Its innards suffered as thousands of people with no other place to stay crowded in to a building with no air conditioning or running water.

When the situation finally stabilized, some folks around town wanted to tear down the Superdome. Instead, a $200 million rehab job got the building ready for the '06 season and the Saints came home. That season they reached the NFC championship game, where they lost to the Chicago Bears. The Bears then lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl.

Back again, more successful this time, the Saints will play the Colts on Feb. 7 in Miami.

"I can't think of two better teams to meet in the Super Bowl," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "I know there's going to a lot of storylines, with Peyton (Manning) being from New Orleans but the fact is there's two great teams that's going to be playing."

Funny how it works out.

Brett Favre grew up as a Saints fan about two hours from New Orleans, in Kiln, Ms. His mother's home was badly damaged by Katrina. His only Super Bowl win came in New Orleans with the Green Bay Packers in 1997 and what may have been his last hoo-rah, with the Minnesota Vikings, ended at the Superdome.

Manning, raised in New Orleans, is the son of Archie Manning, the former great Saints quarterback.

The '05 Saints won that first game on the road. Then the NFL declared that their game against the Giants would move to Giants Stadium but be a Saints "home" game. Haslett fumed. The Saints lost. The stresses and strains of the season wore them down and they finished 3-13.

When they went home to New Orleans the next year, they went with a new coach (Sean Payton) and a new quarterback, Brees. Reggie Bush, their No. 1 pick in 2006, became an important contributor to the city's come-back efforts, as did Brees and Payton. They all said they felt a calling to be part of something far bigger than football and a desire to rebuild on the ruins of 2005.

"We really hit rock bottom that year. The whole city went through a lot," offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "It has been a long road. We all came together as a city and as a team. Heading to Miami shows how far we have come."

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