Over the past few offseasons, the Canal Street Chronicles has done a series called "Triumphs" and "Tragedies" that covers some of the best and worst moments in New Orleans Saints history. Hopefully it goes without saying, that no disrespect is intended towards the true real tragedies in this country, such as the recent mass shootings throughout the nation. One such life tragedy occurred in the Gulf Coast Region in late August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the area and literally left the city of New Orleans under water. Certainly not overlooking the loss of life and countless personal losses in the wake of the storm, this has always been a region that identified with its football team. Because of the devastation suffered to the city and the damage to the Superdome itself, the New Orleans Saints were forced to play every regular season game on the road during the 2005 season, with it's "home" games split between L.S.U. Tiger Stadium and the Alamodome in San Antonio. There were even some rumors that owner Tom Benson may move his team. The beleaguered Saints stumbled to a 3-13 finish in 2005, costing both head coach Jim Haslett and quarterback Aaron Brooks their jobs. Sean Payton was hired as the new head coach to turn around the fortunes of the franchise. Among his first moves as head coach was to sign a new quarterback. Payton signed San Diego Chargers castoff Drew Brees to a six year contract to lead his new offense. Brees had an up and down five year career in San Diego (30-28 record as a starter), and was coming off major shoulder surgery that had his future somewhat in doubt. The franchise and the region would come together in rebuilding efforts around the community, then the announcement came that the Saints would return home to the Superdome to play their games in the 2006 season. Their preseason games would be played in Shreveport though, so the first game in the post-Katrina disaster would wind up being the third week of the 2006 season. Little was expected of Payton's Saints in 2006, with a rebuilt roster and an unwanted quarterback. Nonetheless, the entire Gulf Coast area was excited for the return of their football team, bringing a little sense of normalcy that hadn't been experienced for over a year. The Saints opened up the 2006 season with a road win at Cleveland, then surprised many with another road victory over Green Bay in week two. Brees was sharp in both wins, particularly against the Packers when he threw for 353 yards and 2 scores, putting to rest any doubts about his shoulder. The surprising 2-0 Saints would now finally return home to play a football game, with an entire region awaiting anxiously.
Monday September 25th 2006
An electric atmosphere surrounded the Superdome, both on the field and in the stands, as the Saints prepared for their first game back in the Dome since a preseason game against Baltimore on August 26, 2005, and first regular season game there since a December 26th 2004 win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints opponent for this Monday night national telecast were those same Falcons (also 2-0), the franchise's most bitter rival. Atlanta took the opening possession, and after a sack by New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita on quarterback Michael Vick on 3rd and 4, the Falcons were forced to punt. Amid a raucous Dome crowd, Atlanta punter Michael Koenen took the snap standing at his own 16 with 13:37 left in the first quarter. What happened next would be a moment frozen in time, and send every member in attendance into a frenzy.
New Orleans reserve defensive back Steve Gleason, a seventh year player with 1 career start to his credit, lined up with his teammates on the punt block team. Gleason exploded through an opening in the middle of the Atlanta line, blocking Koenen's punt attempt and sending it bouncing toward the goal line. Backup cornerback Curtis DeLoatch fell on the ball as it was rolling into the end zone, giving the Saints a 7-0 lead. The Superdome crowd erupted, and many veteran players would later say that it was loudest they'd ever heard. Gleason's block spiked a mountain of emotion and momentum that had been at a high level since pregame warmups. Atlanta did manage a field goal drive after the punt block, but the Saints defense was flying around the ball and giving Vick little time to operate. New Orleans would hit the athletic quarterback 8 times on the night, sacking him 5 times and holding him to just 12-31 passing for 137 yards in the game.
The Saints offense would get rolling later in the first quarter, with Drew Brees completing 3 of 4 passes for 53 yards to get in scoring position. Wide receiver Devery Henderson capped off the drive by taking an expertly called end around 11 yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead. Brees would complete 20 of 28 throws on the night for 191 yards. Seven of those completions were to rookie wideout Marques Colston, who led all receivers with 97 yards for the game. Saints kicker John Carney converted two long 2nd quarter field goals to extend their lead to 20-3 at halftime. From there New Orleans would control the game offensively, mixing precise Brees passes with a running game that would pick up 146 yards behind 81 from Deuce McAllister and 53 from rookie second overall pick Reggie Bush. The Saints defense not only bludgeoned Vick, but held Atlanta running backs to just 60 yards on the ground, allowing the Falcons to pick up only 10 first downs for the game. Carney added a third quarter field goal for the only score of the second half, as the Saints pounded their rival 23-3.
New Orleans would shock the football world in 2006. The Saints won the NFC South with a 10-6 record and advanced to the franchise's first conference championship game before having their season ended by the Chicago Bears on the brink of the Super Bowl. Sean Payton's offense would lead the NFL in total yardage, and would be the standard bearer for offensive proficiency for the next dozen years. Drew Brees made the entire NFL regret overlooking him in free agency. Brees led the league with 4,418 passing yards, a career high at the time but a harbinger of things to come in a legendary Hall of Fame career.
Curtis DeLoatch played just that one season for the Saints, appearing in seven games and finishing with 9 credited tackles. The 2006 Saints laid the groundwork for a team that would win Super Bowl XLIV following the 2009 season. Players like Brees, along with 2006 draft picks Colston, Bush, offensive linemen Jahri Evans and Zach Strief, and safety Roman Harper were part of a championship foundation that Payton created upon his arrival.
Steve Gleason played his final NFL season in 2006 (all with the Saints), finishing with 65 career tackles and 2 fumble recoveries in a seven year career, providing one of the most iconic moments in franchise history. In 2011, Gleason revealed that he was battling ALS, a fight for life he continues to this day very much in the public eye. Now 42 years old, Gleason, his wife, and their two children are still involved with numerous team activities. Gleason's big play in 2006 prompted an eruption of emotion from a whole region of people who had been through so much turmoil over the previous thirteen months.
During the summer of 2012, a statue of Gleason's blocked punt was erected outside the Superdome. The statue is named "REBIRTH"; a term that is perfectly applicable to not just the resilience of the New Orleans Saints franchise, but Steve Gleason himself, the state of Louisiana, and the entire Gulf Coast region.