It's strange, the way that sports can uplift a city. They can bring hope to an otherwise miserable time, and they can distract people, if only for a moment, from the suffering happening around them.
Few cities know this better than the city of New Orleans. After being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the team came back in 2006 with the then best season in team history. This, of course, was the inaugural season of Drew Brees and Sean Payton's rebranding of the franchise, taking them from a league laughingstock to a force to be reckoned with. The team made it to the NFC Championship Game in 2006, where they were soundly beaten by the Chicago Bears.
Now, exactly a decade later, the city is in pain again. It was alleviated, briefly, in 2009-10 with the Saints' lone Super Bowl victory, when "pigs flew and hell froze over," as Jim Henderson so poetically put it. But now, the Saints are playing for something much more personal.
It isn't about the city this time, nor is it even about the sport itself. The 2016 Saints don't have to prove themselves around the league, they aren't "expected" to contend. But this year it's about the fans, and it's about the Saints themselves. The franchise is bleeding, and a helmet sticker or a patch is nothing but a stopgap anymore. Just last week, the Saints were only going to have a 50th Anniversary patch on their left breast. It was a point of pride, the existence of a franchise that has stayed in New Orleans despite so much adversity and so much pain. The Saints suffered through 40 years of being a league-wide joke, they won one playoff game, their fans wore bags over their heads, but they remained, and their fans remained as well. Humiliated, perhaps. But also as loyal as any fanbase in the league.
Just last week, two Saints' legends were to stand on the field and be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame at some point in 2016. Now, who knows how that ceremony will take place. Maybe Will Smith's family will stand in his stead, maybe they'll decline to do so, but it doesn't matter. Smith was senselessly killed, and Hokie Gajan was taken too soon by a disease that has hurt so many people in the past. Not just those it afflicts, but also their loved ones. Death is a part of life, there is no denying that fact. But death should never stand in the way of a full life, and it did so twice in three days to two people beloved by friends, family and fans.
The city of New Orleans and its fans have a symbiotic relationship with the New Orleans Saints. You can see it when one gets hurt. Sean Payton has come out and publicly stated his hatred of guns, a distraught Drew Brees has claimed that something in the city is broken, and he may be right. This kind of connection transcends football. And it should. The players that come to New Orleans buy into the culture, and there are few teams with more culture to buy into. New Orleans is its own little world, and things just feel different around the team.
Just look at the support outpouring from around the NFL. The commissioner gave a statement, rivalries have been put on hold, the Saints' social media has never been busier, but it has never felt more empty. There is this outpouring of love and support from so many others, and yet it can't fill the void that is left by the passing of two larger than life figures.
And those larger than life figures are why sports are important. Thousands of people have been affected by these deaths. What percentage of those thousands personally knew these men? There's no way of really knowing, but they were idolized. I remember growing up, before I discovered VPN Strea..... Ahem... NFL Sunday Ticket™. As an out of town fan, the only way to hear the Saints was to listen to them. Jim Henderson and Hokie Gajan were Sundays, and that didn't die. There's this sentiment going around now that Will Smith was underrated, but he wasn't in New Orleans. Smith was a key part of the 2009 defense, and it was a rite of passage for fans of whoever the Saints were playing that week to go "like the actor?" Smith never put up completely incredible numbers, but his best year was the Saints' Super Bowl year. He recorded a career high 13 sacks, and Saints' fans never forgot that. It was one of two times in his career that he recorded double digit sacks. The other was 2006, in which he had 10.5.
Smith and Jonathan Vilma were two of the players that were most affected by Bountygate, since "Saints' leadership positions" were targeted, and the two players that fought the hardest on the Saints' behalf. Smith ended up not serving a game of his four game suspension, and 2012 would end up being his last season. He was cut from the New England Patriots, and that marked the end of his career, but there's something poetic in the only two teams of his career being the ones that are the biggest thorns in the league's side.
And so, the Saints are going to head into 2016, a battered team. They've suffered loss, and they've seen two people who were going to experience what may have been among the proudest moments of their lives have that opportunity taken from them forever. How the Saints choose to pay tribute to these two remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: They'll give them what they deserve. The Saints' franchise takes care of its own, and it's seen its share of tragedy. 2016 is the Saints' 50th Anniversary. It's the 10 year anniversary of what started the best era in team history. And it will mark a new anniversary, one way or another, as the team that over came adversity once again to make its fans, and its city, proud.