A region devastated nearly a year ago is celebrating and partying in the streets, Showing, yet again, the resilience of this community. Perseverance is nothing new to New Orleans, nor to the Gulf Coast region. A population known for returning, rebuilding, and refining now experiences its rebirth.
On Monday night, with the Saints’ 23-3 victory against the rival Atlanta Falcons as they returned to the Superdome for the first time in 14 months, the city of New Orleans and the Who Dat Nation worldwide open their eyes to a new beginning. Week 3 may have just concluded in the NFL, but this is the beginning of something special for this fanbase and for this organization.
First-year head coach Sean Payton marched the reloaded Saints roster out in front of a sold-out Louisiana Superdome with new signal caller, a boost in the run game and some exciting rookie talent. What transpired throughout the evening was something that Saints fans and the NFL will remember forever.
Before the game started, the energy was palpable. The Dome was so loud that television and radio calls were nearly drowned out by the chants and cheers of Saints fans. Jim Mora and the Falcons walked into a gauntlet. Consistently referring to the idea that it was “them (the Falcons) against the world”. However, to be honest, this night was never about the Falcons vs. anyone. It was always about the Saints and the city of New Orleans.
You had the feeling the night would be special when Scott Fujita forced a fumble on a Michael Vick scramble on the third play from scrimmage to force a punt. But the moment this night will forever be remembered by materialized as the clock ticked past 13:40 in the first quarter. As the ball was snapped to Falcons punter Michael Koenen, a flash of white looped around and right up the middle of the offensive line. An outstretched “37” flew down the backfield and then, impact. Impact as the ball lifted from Koenen’s right foot. Impact as seventh-year special teamer Steve Gleason blocked the punt. Impact as a late substation Curtis DeLoatch recovered the loose ball in the endzone for the Saints’ first score at home in over a year.
That impact may have only taken up merely 10 seconds of gametime, but it was felt around the world and encapsulated in one arena as the Superdome crowd of 70,000 erupted in celebration for what felt like a joyous eternity. Mike Tirico uttered only the words “Touchdown, New Orleans.” before holding space for the people of New Orleans to say the rest. Sean Payton and Drew Brees ran down the sideline pumping their fists. Saints jerseys leaping up and down. The return of the Saints to their home was revitalizing enough. This? This blocked punt by Steve Gleason deserves to be memorialized as the moment New Orleans was back.
The special night continued 11-yard double-reverse for a touchdown by Louisiana’s own Deverey Henderson and a defensive performance that locked down the Falcon’s outstanding run game which had compiled over 250 yards and each of the first two games. A rushing attack that featured the league’s leading rusher in Warrick Dunn as well as the electrifying abilities of Michael Vick.
Perhaps one of the most connected players to the emotion of the evening was WR Joe Horn. Horn, like other players, has been very entrenched in the relief efforts within the city since Hurricane Katrina. Horn skied for an impressive catch in the second quarter, taking a shot to the backend on the way down before coming down hard on his back. He rolled around on the ground for a second before waving an official off and getting back to his feet. Later in the game, he took a late hit from Atlanta corner Robert Mathis. He stood, pumped his fist and immediately maintained his tenacity in the fact of DeAngelo Hall. That tenacity, grit, and drive are an exact representation of the region.
To cap it all off, what would a special night be without more special teams? Josh Bullocks followed up Gleason’s blocked punt with a blocked field goal before the half. It was a night in which everything went right for the Saints, and rightfully so.
At the end of the game, you could see the excitement. Not just from the fan base, but from the team itself. This team that Head Coach Sean Payton has transformed in order to bear the weight of one of the heaviest responsibilities taken on by a football team. This team shouldered the duty of leading a resurgence for a population. Sean Payton showed that his team is ready to do exactly that and he lead by example running to the sidelines to high-five fans as the game came to a close. The connection between club and community in New Orleans will forever be unmatched.
While the Saints franchise has not yet won a Super Bowl, what took place this night might be just as important. No fanbase deserves a win this monumental like the Who Dat Nation right now. This is a community that was, not too long ago, counted out, drowned, and forgotten. Now, no one will forget the events of September 25, 2006. Less than a year since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the city on September 29, 2005, there is little focus on the upcoming one-year anniversary of devastation. Instead the focus of this community, this city, and its team are on what lies ahead. The rebirth of New Orleans has begun.