On a break fromtheir preparations for the NFL draft last Thursday, New Orleans Saints coachSean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis toured the Lower Ninth Ward, the2.3-square-mile neighborhood destroyed by Hurricane Katrina last August.Escorted by a Habitat for Humanity guide past houses lifted off foundationsonto cars, Payton and Loomis were visibly stunned as they surveyed thedesolation. Neither had been through the Lower Ninth since Katrina--the clubonly relocated its headquarters from San Antonio back to the New Orleans areain January--and when they stopped at debris-strewn intersections, they werestruck by the eerie silence. No demolition was going on, no construction takingplace. The area that was once a vital part of the Saints' fan base was a ghosttown. ¬∂ In one way the tour made Payton realize the insignificance of his16-hour-a-day predraft cramming. In another, though, it reinforced for him howimportant this team and this draft were to the city. "The devastation isjust numbing," said Payton, who was hired to replace Jim Haslett inJanuary. "I was in New York with the Giants [as an offensive coordinator]for 9/11, and I thought I'd seen serious damage before, but the scope ofthis--no one can describe it. You have to see it. The months and the yearsahead are going to be so stressful for this town. If we have a good [draft on]Saturday, and we win on Sundays this fall, I know we can help this communityheal. It's part of our duty."
They're off to avery good start. The football gods first smiled on New Orleans in March whenfree-agent quarterback Drew Brees surprisingly signed with the Saints. And justbefore 11:30 a.m. Central time last Saturday, the early-drinking crowd onBourbon Street (or was it a late-drinking crowd from Friday night?) foundanother reason to raise its glasses. After the Houston Texans formalized theirdecision to take North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams with the No.1 pick, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced that the Saints had chosen2005 Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, the electric running back from USC. Aroar erupted from French Quarter bars and from the 3,000 fans watching in thegiant tent set up outside Saints headquarters. The joy spread as far asMilwaukee, where Detroit Pistons honcho Joe Dumars, a native of Natchitoches,La., and a proud Saints fan, interrupted his NBA postseason to pick up hiscellphone and call friends who work for the team. "Now we're on the NFLmap," Dumars said. "Saints fans really needed this day. For us, MardiGras came early."
Since Katrina, thequestion surrounding the Saints' franchise has been whether the ravaged city ofNew Orleans has the means to support an NFL team. Even before the hurricane,low ticket sales and feeble corporate backing had led to talk of a move. Morethan half of the population of 480,000 has yet to return to New Orleans (theleague's fourth smallest market before Katrina), and the Big Easy's economy isin shambles--of 80,000 businesses affected in 10 parishes, some 30,000 remainclosed. But the NFL has said it is committed to giving the Gulf Coast region achance to save the franchise. "Psychologically," New Orleans mayor RayNagin said last week, "the Saints mean everything to this community rightnow. We need them now more than ever, at least until we get back on ourfeet."
Fan support willbe critical to the Saints' fate, and for that reason the club is on an all-outblitz to sell every one of the 64,900 Superdome seats to all eight home gamesthis season, a monumental task given that the Saints sold only 34,000season-ticket for the 2005 season and that the highest total in the team's40-year history was 54,000 in 2001. "It's hand-to-hand combat, but we're onpace to sell more season tickets than the franchise ever has," said MikeStanfield, vice president of ticket and suite sales. "You might see thesituation as doomsday. We see it as a chance to shock the world."
The Saintswouldn't reveal sales figures as of last weekend, less than five months beforethe late September home opener at a rehabbed Superdome, but indications arethat they have already surpassed last year. "We are determined to not losethe Saints," said musician Joey Mangiapane, 34, who joined six friends inpaying $520 apiece for a block of seven choice sideline seats. "Money'stight. My wife just had a baby, and the hurricane blew the fence down on ourproperty. But I bleed black and gold. [The Saints] need us more than ever. I'mhoping Reggie will put a few more butts in seats."
Minutes after theBush pick was announced, all eight phone lines in the ticket office, one floorabove the Saints' draft room, were blinking. "Ma'am, these are perfectseats for you," account executive Allison Sharfman told one caller. "Wego to the playoffs, and your husband is going to be really happy.... We canwork out a payment schedule for you.... Great!" She pumped her fist. Twoclub sideline seats were in the bag, a $2,400 sale.
Said Stanfield,surveying the room, "This is the craziest I've seen the phones in my sevenyears with the Saints."
Last season, afterKatrina had made the Superdome unusable for football, the Saints played homegames in New Jersey, San Antonio and Baton Rouge, suffering through a 3-13season. Out went Haslett and quarterback Aaron Brooks. In came Payton from theDallas Cowboys, where he ran Bill Parcells's offense, and then the 27-year-oldBrees, the league's fifth-rated passer over the past two seasons with the SanDiego Chargers. Brees has spent the off-season rehabbing a fully torn labrumand partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, and last Saturday hesaid by phone from the West Coast that he's a month ahead of schedule. As if toprove it, he went out with his personal trainer that evening and threw 80passes of up to 25 yards, his third such session in a week. "My goal,"he said, "is to be ready for the start of camp."
If so, he'll bejoined by one of the most exciting players to come out of college football inyears. Once Payton and Loomis realized they had the chance to draft Bush, thetop-rated player on New Orleans's board, they never seriously considered any ofthe three offers they received for the No. 2 pick. "It was going to have tobe a Ricky Williams--type offer, something insane," Payton said, referringto the Saints' decision to trade six picks in the '99 draft to move up andselect the Texas running back at No. 5. The New York Jets' offer of the fourthand 29th picks plus a fourth-rounder was the best--and it hardly gave theSaints pause.
New Orleans wasn'toverly concerned about reports last week that linked Bush with possible NCAAeligibility violations while at USC, reasoning that the story won't deeplyaffect his NFL future. And his NFL future was what Payton was alreadyenvisioning last weekend--schemes in which the 5'11", 201-pound Bush willbe used as a single back, a receiver split wide, in tandem with 232-poundrunning back Deuce McAllister and (judiciously) as a return man. Payton thinksBush can handle the ball more often than the 13.5 rushes and receptions pergame he averaged in three seasons as a Trojan.
As he rode in alimo from the New Orleans airport to meet with Payton and Loomis on Saturdaynight, Bush addressed questions about his limited touches at USC, noting thathe shared running duties with LenDale White and that his coaches tried not torun up the score. "Look at what I did when I carried the ball more than 20times," Bush said. "I got stronger as the game went on. I can wear adefense down." Indeed, on successive Saturdays late in the 2005 season herushed 23 times for 294 yards against Fresno State and 24 times for 260 yardsagainst UCLA.
One of Bush'sfirst questions to Payton on Saturday was how he would fit in with McAllister,a two-time Pro Bowl back who's coming off major right knee surgery. Payton toldhim there'd be enough touches to satisfy both of them. And McAllister said onSaturday that he welcomed the pick. "The Saints would take a lot of heat ifthey passed up someone that special," said the 27-year-old McAllister, whosigned a seven-year, $50 million contract extension last summer. "HavingBush can only help, especially if you look at the city trying torecover."
Had he beendrafted by Houston, Bush would have had to concern himself only with playingfootball and expanding an endorsement portfolio that already includes Adidas,Hummer and Subway. In New Orleans he'll have the added responsibility ofserving as a beacon of hope for a desperate region. That's a heavy load for a21-year-old who'd never set foot in the city before.
As he looked outthe window of the limo, Bush seemed a bit overwhelmed. "I've been to LittleRock," he said. "How close is that to here?" In a hushed tone headded, "I'm still a kid. To be honest, I'm a little nervous about it all. Irealize now for the first time I'm leaving the perfect world of SouthernCalifornia--perfect weather, all my family, my friends--and I'm becoming a man.I just hope I can help the team and the people in this city. They've beenthrough so much. I want to help."
Visiting a Habitatfor Humanity site last Thursday, Payton and Loomis encountered Nagin, Louisianagovernor Kathleen Blanco and another politician and fan. As a frame for a newhouse was being erected by volunteer home builders behind him, the coach wasclapped on the back by President George W. Bush. "How about this?" thebeaming President said to Blanco and Nagin, smiling at the kid coach. "A42-year-old guy from Eastern Illinois, coaching the Saints, living hisdream."
"Only inAmerica!" Nagin said.
As he left thesite, Payton joked, "Maybe we can meet the other Bush on Saturday."
He got his wish.The two rookies, coach and running back, made their first stop on the road torebuilding at Emeril's, the famed restaurant favored by Saints players andstaff. When Bush walked through the front door just after 10 o'clock, it tookonly seconds for diners to recognize the man in the mustard-colored suit, riseand applaud. "Reh-JEE! Reh-JEE!" they cheered as one, while digitalcameras flashed at the shyly smiling Bush. And then these fans, who've had solittle to celebrate for eight months, launched into a popular local chant, onethat Bush was hearing for the first of what will surely be many times.
"Who dat! Whodat! Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints!"
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"I realize now for the first time that I'm leavingmy perfect world of Southern California," Bush said. "I'm BECOMING AMAN."
Photograph by Heinz Kluetmeier; Uniform by Michael C. Hebert ; Image digitally altered by SI Imaging
New Orleans hopes Bush is as much a multipurpose threat in Saints colors as hewas in Trojans cardinal and gold.
MICHAEL C. HEBERT
Bush's arrival in New Orleans on Saturday was greeted with greatexpectations.