Roger Goodell looked a tad uneasy as he stepped off the elevator onto the 23rd floor of the Windsor Court Hotel last Wednesday evening. Every eye in the room turned immediately toward him. Superdome CEO Doug Thornton shook the commissioner's hand and reassured him, "You're with family here, Roger."
Goodell could be forgiven a little apprehension. Just about everyone in the room was a New Orleanian and a Saints fan.
But this event was not about the Saints or bountygate. Nor was it a traditional pre-Super Bowl dinner. It was instead a gathering of old friends, some of whom came to know one another in the fateful days after Hurricane Katrina, to celebrate the dramatic — miraculous would not be too strong a word — post-Katrina reconstruction of the Superdome. Without that miracle, there would have been no Super Bowl in New Orleans this year.
Last Wednesday's reception and dinner, hosted by SMG (the management company that runs the Superdome) and the Saints, was a sincere "thank you" to those who made the miracle happen, starting with Goodell and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Other honorees included Saints owner Tom Benson, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, local business leaders, and the contractors, architects and engineers who collectively made it possible for the Saints to play that memorable Monday night game in the Dome against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 25, 2006.
"The biggest sports story in New Orleans history was not the Saints winning the Super Bowl," said Thornton. "It was that Monday night game, that blocked punt by Steve Gleason, that inspired our city and the rest of the nation. It proved that in New Orleans, anything was possible."
A lot of things had to go right to get to that point. Initial estimates pegged the timetable for repairing the Superdome at two years. Thornton and the contractors got it done in nine months.
It began with a decision by Blanco.
"She did not hesitate," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who was then lieutenant governor. "She recognized that the Superdome was much more than a place where our Saints played football. It was a place where all New Orleanians, black and white, young and old, came together to celebrate, to play, to dream. In many ways, the Superdome is our community center."
Blanco described her reaction to seeing the Dome's roof torn off after the storm: "I just thought, 'We have to do something so that that is not the permanent memory of that great building.' We needed to turn a symbol of despair into a symbol of victory. ... We needed to look past today's misery to see tomorrow's good."
Blanco and Thornton had no choice. Then-commissioner Tagliabue guaranteed the governor that the Saints would not leave New Orleans — but only if the Dome was ready in September 2006.
Tagliabue's protege, Goodell, was his point man on the project. The first time Goodell saw the area around the Superdome he told Thornton, "It's not as bad as I thought it would be." Thornton wondered if they were looking at the same building.
"I told Roger we might not have carpets in all the suites, and we might not have all the bathrooms working, but we thought we could get the Dome basically ready," Thornton recalled. "He told me, 'Doug, just give me some turf and make sure the fans are safe, and I'll make sure we play football there.'"
Both men kept their promises, and then some. Tagliabue called the Dome's completion "the ultimate Hail Mary." He added that one of the main reasons why it got done was that "nobody cared who got the credit."
Following his mentor to the mic, a now-relaxed Goodell joked that the dinner "might be the only invitation I get all week." He then praised New Orleans for its "triumph of the spirit," saying, "You inspired a nation. You taught us all how to deal with adversity and tragedy."
Saints fans who are still smarting from the bounty scandal should focus instead on how Goodell and Tagliabue stood by the city after Katrina. Their faith in New Orleans kept the Saints here. We owe them a debt of thanks for treating us, in Thornton's words, like family.