As a coach whose 34-year career has included stints in Italy, Mexico and Little Rock, Al Everest has seen his share of strange birds. But when the New Orleans Saints' special teams coordinator moved into a long-vacated office in San Antonio's Alamodome in September, after Hurricane Katrina uprooted his team, he was caught off guard by an unexpected visitor. "There was this little, bitty brown sparrow sitting in a chair in the back corner, and he'd fly in and out through who knows where as the day went on," Everest recalled last Thursday. "I didn't bother him; I figured he needed a place too. Who knows? Maybe he was from New Orleans."
After three weeks the sparrow disappeared, leaving Everest, 55, to study film--and haggle with his insurance adjuster, arrange day care for his nine-year-old daughter and attempt to track down his missing mail--on his own. Earlier this month Everest and the rest of the Saints flew the coop as well, moving across Interstate 37 to the San Antonio Water System headquarters. They had to make room in the Alamodome for the NCAA women's volleyball final four.
Vagabonds since Aug. 29, the Saints have learned to endure inconvenience like no team in the NFL's modern era. The franchise has played "home" games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge and Giants Stadium in New Jersey. They have practiced on five separate sites in three cities, getting bumped by everything from the Special Olympics to an ROTC convention. They currently conduct midweek walk-throughs in a small, concrete parking lot under an eight-lane San Antonio freeway. Last week, in an unprecedented action, the league and the players union teamed up to give each player a $40,000 bonus for "performing under unusual and unanticipated conditions."
Two weeks before the end of a season adrift, players and staffers still wonder whether their 2006 training base will be in San Antonio or at the team's abandoned facility in Metairie, La. As they play out the string--New Orleans slipped to 3-11 after Sunday's 27-10 defeat by the Carolina Panthers in Baton Rouge--the Saints are unnerved by their uncertain future. "We have some guys on this team who've won Super Bowl rings," says veteran tackle Wayne Gandy. "I told them, 'You will remember more about this season than those Super Bowl years.'"
Of course many people have it infinitely tougher than the Saints in the wake of Katrina--but they are not, as Everest pointed out last week, "the people we are competing against." The guys on other teams have order and consistency, hot tubs and weight rooms, home field advantage and quiet spaces to study their X's and O's.
When the Saints look back on 2006, they will remember the sawdust and hammering that infiltrated their meetings when the models for a home show were being constructed in the Alamodome last month. They'll recall the high school "Battle of the Bands" in the same building--and the host of a live radio broadcast who, while covering the home show, tried to interview players in the midst of simulated plays. Some players have grumbled about their substandard locker room facilities. After last Thursday's practice at San Antonio's Burbank High, where a pair of light-blue outhouses offered relief to teammates between drills, veteran halfback Antowain Smith said, "I thought I was through with high school."
To their credit the Saints have continued to play hard and have bonded strongly with each other. "I'm proud of them for continuing to fight their asses off when they had every right to throw in the towel," Everest says. But he believes the distractions have affected the team. "We've lost four games by seven points or less," he says, "and that's where attention to detail is killing us." The disruptions have gotten to sixth-year coach Jim Haslett. According to a source, Haslett earlier this month turned down a contract-extension offer; word is that he will resign rather than fulfill the final year of his deal in 2006. Quarterback Aaron Brooks, benched on Dec. 14 by Haslett after 82 consecutive starts, also appears to be on his way out.
The previous Sunday, Brooks had blasted team owner Tom Benson for failing to make the Saints feel "comfortable every week." Benson, who before Katrina had feuded with Louisiana politicians and flirted with San Antonio officials eager to relocate the franchise, has yet to decide his team's fate, though he agreed to postpone until 2007 a deadline allowing him to void his Superdome lease. There are indications the hurricane-damaged stadium could be ready for the second half of the '06 campaign, meaning the Saints might split their games between San Antonio and New Orleans.
Or maybe not. All Everest and the Saints know for certain is that there are two more games this season, in San Antonio and Tampa Bay. "Sure, I'm lucky to have a job," the coach said last week, as he prepared for the homestretch. "But this is the hardest job I've ever had."
Boxing is the only sport where you can get robbed without a gun. --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 24
ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO