Sept. 25, 2006. The clock inside the sold-out Superdome read 13:35. That was the moment Steve Gleason blocked an Atlanta Falcons punt in front of millions of TV viewers on Monday Night Football. Not only was it the highlight of a very special night — the reopening of the Superdome following Hur-ricane Katrina — but it was a play that took a love affair between a city and its professional football team to a new level.
New Orleans has always loved its Saints, but just a year before, in 2005, the relationship between a city and its pro football team seemed strained beyond repair. After Hurricane Katrina and the floods, the Saints played in San Antonio, a city that seemed to hope to make the team its own, and its owner seemed willing to consider the deal.
2006 wasn't just a new season. It was the height of the rebirth movement — a fresh start where the team and city moved forward together, tackling the challenges in front of them. The 2006 Saints team that went on to a 10-6 season and took its first-ever trip into the NFC Championship was filled with players discarded by other teams. It was a feeling to which New Orleanians could relate.
"For us to just be able to come out and put out the kind of season that we did," says Saints receiver Marques Colston, "it's not something you thought about at the time, but you definitely felt that energy."
Sean Payton was a new coach eager to lead his own team and prove he could head an offense after several years as an assistant. Quarterback Drew Brees was no longer the San Diego Chargers' best option; that team drafted Philip Rivers to be heir apparent. The Miami Dolphins, which had been eying Brees, decided not to take a chance on the injured QB.
"It's us versus the world" is how Saints safety Roman Harper, who was drafted in the second round that year, remembers that time. "Everybody in New Orleans after '06 felt like the country had turned their back on them, and it was just us. ... All you had was the person beside you, your neighbor — and I didn't understand that at first until I get here. I see the water line on the interstate, I see the destruction here and I got a sense of how much these fans, this city, loves this team. They leaned on us that whole year. It was really nice to be a part of that and actually see how the city has come back over the last few years."
The 2013 season is shaping up as yet another year in which opponents not only will take on the Saints but the Who Dats as well. Payton's reinstatement acted as a defibrillator, instantly energizing fans and an organization that felt adrift over the last year. The team brought in new coaches like defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to help turn things around, which also fit the rebuilding theme.
"I think we all have a chip on our shoulder after last season," Ryan said shortly after he arrived in New Orleans last spring. "I don't like getting fired. I know I got my feelings hurt, as did our players, and we're looking to do something about it."
Around training camp this year, the team's vibe makes it clear that players have something to prove. More than 5,000 fans endured triple-digit heat for the Black and Gold Scrimmage, an act of loyal determination that didn't go unnoticed by players.
Asked if the crowds were an example of how hungry Who Dats were for the new season, quarterback Drew Brees said, "There's no doubt. It was as tough for our fans as it was for us, and so we're all ready to turn over a new leaf and get this 2013 season started."
"The city was down in '06. We came in and had some success and they kind of leaned on us and we brought up morale a little bit," says receiver Lance Moore, who is one of only six players who remain from that season (Brees, Colston, Harper, Jahri Evans and Will Smith being the others). "Last year, we let them down — didn't have the type of year we wanted, obviously didn't have our coach. Coach [Payton] is back now. [I] feel like the faith and the hope is there and now it's our job to go and deliver on that faith and have a successful year."
The first challenge will be Sept. 8, when the Falcons come to town to open the regular season —bringing back memories of that 2006 night when emotion fueled a city and team.
"You really didn't know it until we had our first home game and that's when you could really sense the emotion and all the feelings," Harper says. "People were crying and you just felt it in the building. There was something a little bit different about that night. It was electric. There was no way we were going to lose that game."
If 2006 was emotional and 2009 was magical, 2013 is personal.
"You have a sense we have a little buzz about us right now. Nobody picked us then and you know nobody ever picks us," Harper adds. "It's OK. When you have a hungry team, and everybody has the right mindset and the right goals, and everybody is headed in the right direction — that's when you can make some magic happen."
— Gus Kattengell is the sports director at 106.1 The Ticket. Catch his "Sports Hangover" show weekdays from 3 p.m.-6 p.m.