Column: New Orleans Revels in Old Self

The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 26, 2006; 7:20 AM

NEW ORLEANS -- For anyone who questioned why the Saints would go back to a flood-ravaged city, or wondered if a football game could really make a difference in the lives of people mired in misery, you have your answer.

New Orleans was a rollicking, raucous sight to be hold Monday night. Fans in the Superdome let loose with a party a year in the making, and there was a rare feeling of hope in the streets.

Residents will be putting the pieces of their lives back together for years to come, and the city will never quite be the same. For a few glorious hours, though, New Orleans was the Big Easy once again.

"I wish we could have had the entire population inside this dome," said Steve Gleason, who smothered a punt to get the Saints' 23-3 rout of the Atlanta Falcons off and running.

"That's who we were playing for. I was out there playing my butt off for the people of this city," Gleason added. "Like I said man, infinite joy."

Too often, we make sports and the athletes who play them bigger than they are. Players refer to their games as wars. Fans who won't remember who did what to whom five years from now act as if their lives depend upon the outcome.

Sometimes, though, sport does transcend the hype and allows us to show the best of what we can be. This game _ indeed, everything about this whole Saints season _ was one of those times.

When Katrina roared through New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, many figured the Saints would be one of its casualties.

The team had been on shaky ground before Katrina. No way it could come back to a city picking itself up out of the flood waters. The Superdome was ravaged by wind, rain and the thousands who took shelter there. Entire parts of the city were destroyed, and less than half of the population is back a year later.

But those who had the Saints bound for San Antonio or Los Angeles underestimated the people of New Orleans. After decades of delighting in what sets their city apart, they're finding strength in the one thing that pulls them together.

"We need this team," said Dawn Murray, dressed in Saints colors right down to her gold shoes. "It crosses all lines. It's not Democrat or Republican. It's not rich or poor. It's not black or white. It's black and gold."

They've already showed their staying power, buying out the dome for the entire season for the first time in history. On Monday, they showed the country their spirit, shaking the rebuilt arena with their cheers and "Who Dat?" chants.

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