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Where floodwaters once stood, a tide of emotion rises in New Orleans

By Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 2010; D01

NEW ORLEANS

It was a contact drunk. You didn't have to swallow a drop for this NFC championship game to make you feel totally inebriated, like you'd been swilling the cheap well whiskey of Bourbon Street all night. When the action finally ceased, after nearly four hours, the wrenching swings and lead changes, dramatic spirals and swoons left you staggering amid the great geysers of horn music and confetti. The New Orleans Saints, dragging a whole metropolis on their backs, had advanced to the Super Bowl, but only in overtime after one man, Brett Favre, tried to take down the entire city.

The Superdome crowd of 71,276 was incoherent with madness; it was the loudest noise ever, a hurricane in your head. But when you thought it couldn't get any louder, it went up another notch, into a great shrill stratosphere as Garrett Hartley stepped up to a 40-yard field goal with 10 minutes 15 seconds left in overtime. Behind the uprights was a large fleur-de-lis emblazoned on an upper deck of the Superdome, that storm-ravaged facility. Saints Coach Sean Payton told Hartley, "Why don't you just hit that fleur-de-lis dead center?" Hartley did exactly that, sailed the ball through the uprights toward that ornate emblem of a team and a city, to give them the 31-28 victory over the Minnesota Vikings and the greatest moment in franchise history.

Make no mistake: They won for love of their city. They won for all the neighborhoods where the benighted old mansions now peel and sag, like old ladies who have misapplied their makeup. For all the buskers and panhandlers and street dancers, working under shabby, old oaks and palms. They won for the poor, flooded districts where the horns lament on street corners, Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans, I miss it both night and day.

Had a town ever craved a victory more than New Orleans? All across the city, people who had lost everything needed so desperately to win something. Even the cops on street corners chanted, "WHO DAT?" The local paper, the Times-Picayune, threw away all dispassion and ran a banner headline Sunday morning: "Our Team. Our Town. Our Time." One Saints fan outside the Superdome even stamped a fleur-de-lis on the side of his great Dane. Party wagons with Klaxons barreled down the boulevards, imbibers hanging from the windows.

"Four years ago there were holes in this roof," Payton said. "The fans in this region and this city deserve this."

This time, the wreckage on the field and in the streets was sweet, beads and feathers and streamers, as opposed to the flotsam and detritus of the flood. The references were inescapable, and the Saints didn't shy from them. All season, they had announced they were playing for something much larger than themselves. "It's a calling," quarterback Drew Brees said. After all, their home stadium had been the last refuge in the city for 30,000 residents during Hurricane Katrina, and an earthly version of hell during the storm-flood afterwards, strewn with debris and with breaches in the roof. The damage was so heavy, and so emblematic of New Orleans's sense of trauma and abandonment, that city officials nearly decided to tear it down.

Instead it underwent a $200 million renovation, and when the Saints returned to it in 2006, they did so with a new head coach in Payton, and a quarterback the rest of the league had given up on in the sore-shouldered Brees. The renovated dome was a charmless edifice, all gray cinder block, but it was filled with the ghosts of Katrina, and the men who played inside the building never once flinched from the responsibility of that. On the contrary, they took specific, enormous pride in it. "Ninety percent of people who come up to me on the street don't say, 'Great game,' " Brees said back in 2006, when he first got to town. "They say, 'Thank you for being part of the city.' "

Brees and Payton became the guys who came to New Orleans when no one else would. They arrived when the city was still destroyed and there was still junk in the streets. When Payton moved to the city, it was nearly empty, and the franchise was so lacking in facilities it had to hold training camp in Jackson, Miss. "There was a lot of traffic going the other direction, not much going in," Payton recalled. Businesses were so shuttered that at one point, he had to stand in line for two hours at a Walgreen's drug store to get an antibiotic for his daughter, and could only get half the prescription filled. "In other words, it was different," he said. "It was hard to explain if you weren't here."

Brees was looking for a new team after the San Diego Chargers had no use for him. He committed to a city still partly underwater. "There were still boats in living rooms and trucks flipped upside down on top of houses," he said earlier this week. "Some houses just off the foundation and totally gone. You just say, 'Man, what happened here? It looks like a nuclear bomb went off.' For me, I looked at that as an opportunity. An opportunity to be part of the rebuilding process. How many people get that opportunity in their life to be a part of something like that?"

One of these days, football will just be football again in New Orleans, but on this night, it was much more. Everything seemed to have outsize meaning, from the stakes to the noise. Then, as if the game needed anything more, the 40-year-old Favre delivered a living-legend performance.

Time and again, Favre choked off the crowd and the momentum as he directed scoring drives downfield. He struck at the Saints repeatedly, like a rattlesnake, as he threw for 310 yards with an assortment of lasers and fades while enduring a succession of shuddering blows. Gimpy and grizzled, he just kept slinging it downfield. In the final minute of regulation he threatened to bring the entire building down as he drove the Vikings once more, this time to the Saints 38. Finally, with 19 seconds left in regulation, Favre made a fatal mistake. Facing third down and 15 yards to go, he rolled right, then whirled and threw back to his left toward Sidney Rice -- but right into the hands of cornerback Tracy Porter. That effectively sent the game into overtime.

After all that, it came down to a coin toss. That was the break the Saints needed to close the deal. Favre would never return to the field; overtime belonged to the Saints, who won the toss, then got a blazing 40-yard kick return from Pierre Thomas. From there, the Saints inched their way into field goal position. Hartley took aim at that fleur-de-lis and sent the ball up, and the sound came down from the upper reaches of the Superdome like a landslide.

"It's surreal," Brees said. "Coming here four years ago, post-Katrina. . . . It's unbelievable, it's unbelievable. You can draw so many parallels between our team and our city. In reality we've had to lean on each other in order to survive. The city is on its way to recovery. We've used the strength and resilience of our fans to go out and play with confidence on Sundays. It's been one step at a time, and we've had to play through plenty of adversity. Just like this town has."

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