Early Monday evening, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stood on the field at Giants Stadium and spoke to Eddie Compass, the police chief of New Orleans. The two talked amiably about the NFL's efforts to raise money for relief efforts in Compass's hurricane- and flood-ravaged city.
Moments later, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who grew up in New Orleans, trotted past the two on his way from the field back to the locker room. A Giants fan in the mostly empty stands yelled encouragement toward Manning, urging him to do what he could in a couple of hours to overwhelm the team from Compass's city, the New Orleans Saints.
Such was the strange mixture of events here Monday. The Saints played their first scheduled home game of the season at the Giants' home stadium, thanks to Tagliabue's decision to move the game here as part of an effort to use the big New York stage to boost the league's fundraising efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans the Gulf Coast region.
And the Saints, the Giants and everyone else involved did their best to balance the competitiveness of a football game with the feeling of unity toward a greater cause that the evening's surrounding events were attempting to foster.
Tagliabue, as he stood on the field before the game, said any competitive concerns about playing the game at Giants Stadium were meaningless to him.
"To me, it was so far down the list, I said it was inconsequential," Tagliabue said. "There were really three things here that were clear at the time. Number one, New Orleans had just experienced an unprecedented national disaster which the whole country was going to recognize was tragic. Number two, the Saints are all about Louisiana. They are the New Orleans Saints. And number three, the task of rebuilding and recovering and getting the public to support the recovery effort over the long haul -- those were the critical things.
"We discussed alternatives. I talked to half a dozen owners on a conference call. We considered playing the game in Atlanta or Dallas or Houston. But it didn't make sense. New York was the place to do it. . . . The competitive aspects were inconsequential. It's not about a football game. It's about the NFL and the Saints making a statement about what they stand for in terms of rebuilding in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region."
Just after speaking to Tagliabue, Compass said he had no objection to the game being played here.
"The commissioner and the NFL have been so magnanimous making the Saints feel at home," he said. "He's a class act. He's a great guy. We had over 300 policemen from New York come down and help us police our streets, so we appreciate what New York has done for us. The heart and soul of New Orleans is not the buildings that were destroyed. It's the people. They're still standing, and they still love their football and the Saints."
The game, which had been scheduled for Sunday at the Superdome, was made part of a nationally televised Monday doubleheader by Tagliabue. Hall of Fame players were rounded up for a telethon, headquartered in Times Square. Former president George H.W. Bush -- who, along with former president Bill Clinton, is leading nationwide fundraising efforts -- was on the field for the pregame coin-toss ceremony.
The NFL, calling the theme of the evening "Recover and Rebuild," announced that it had arranged for more than 600 hurricane evacuees to attend the game. The Giants and Saints planned to donate about $1 million from the game's gate proceeds to relief efforts, bringing total donations by the NFL, its teams and its players to around $11 million.
There were plenty of empty seats in the upper deck in the game's early stages, but Tagliabue said he was pleased with ticket sales.
"Selling 80,000 tickets on short notice on a Monday night at 7:30 is not an easy thing to do," he said. "I think the ticket sales have been great. Ticket sales were not the issue. Playing the game in New York was the issue. I think a nationally televised event that would underscore rebuilding and recovery -- that's what we were trying to accomplish. We would have been happy if there were 50,000 or 55,000 people here."
One end zone at Giants Stadium was inscribed with the word "Saints," and the Saints wore their black home jerseys and were listed as the home team on the scoreboard. Most of the fans applauded politely when the Saints took the field before the game, then reverted to cheering raucously for the Giants following an opening kickoff on which the Saints fumbled.
Saints Coach Jim Haslett had been critical of Tagliabue's decision to move the game to Giants Stadium, saying he realized what the league was trying to do but he needed to focus on the competitive impact that such a shift might have on his team. The Saints have moved their base of operations to San Antonio and are scheduled to play three home games there this season. Their other four home games are scheduled to be played in Baton Rouge, La.
The Saints were coming off a season-opening triumph at Carolina, and Tagliabue predicted before Monday's game that they'd have "a great season" and continue to be embraced by fans nationwide.
"I guess they'll root for them against other teams but not against their own team," Tagliabue said. "That would be my guess. . . . I think [the Saints] have a challenge, and it's the kind of challenge that people respond to, including football players. I think they're going to have a great year. It didn't surprise me that they won at Carolina because they have a coach who's a tough guy, and you can see how the players are responding. I think from a player's standpoint, putting this game on Monday night with national television, the way we've been able to do it, is about as big a boost as we could give to the team under any circumstances."