When Archbishop Philip Hannan got a phone call from Gov. John McKeithen in 1966, right after the NFL had awarded an expansion franchise to New Orleans, McKeithen asked the prelate if the Catholic Church would object to the team being called the Saints. Hannan replied that he had no objections — but he reminded McKeithen that, "from the viewpoint of the church, most of the saints were martyrs."
The story follows with the team's misfortunes for most of the first four decades of its existence. Then again, all those martyrs are in heaven now.
And these days, so are Saints football fans, in a man-ner of speaking.
If sacrifice leads to heavenly reward, then today's football Saints have earned their way in as well. On and off the field in 2010, team members selflessly gave their time, effort and resources. The Saints' stunning Super Bowl XLIV victory on Feb. 7, 2010, lifted the sagging post-Katrina spirits of their hometown, and their year-round work in the community helped lead post-Katrina rebuilding efforts across southeast Louisiana.
More than a dozen Saints players — and two coaches — have their own charitable foundations that have raised millions of dollars for children, schools, playgrounds, the underprivileged, victims of disasters and other worthy causes. The players and their foundations have directly touched the lives of untold thousands and inspired millions more by their example.
For all these reasons, the 2010 New Orleans Saints — led by team captains Drew Brees and Jonathan Vilma — are our New Orleanians of the Year.
It seems impossible to separate Drew Brees the star quarterback from Drew Brees the philanthropist and civic champion. His dedication to both his athletic and altruistic pursuits is so dogged that to single out either as demonstrably more impressive would be neglectful of the other. More than anything, this coupling of attributes explains New Orleans' deep affection for Brees, who blends superhuman athleticism on the field with expressions of utter humanity off it.
New Orleans is fortunate. NFL history is littered with elite quarterbacks who realized little success because of the shortcomings of their teammates. Not only is Brees surrounded by an extremely talented group of players, but many of his fellow Saints also share his commitment to improving their community — and the collective results, in both cases, are exemplary.
Brees' charitable work, much like his playing career, has evolved. He and his wife, Brittany, started the Brees Dream Foundation in 2003 while he was playing with the San Diego Chargers. The initial focus of the foundation was to raise money for cancer research and care for cancer patients. Brittany's aunt, Judith Zopp, died of cancer while the couple was dating at Purdue University.
"Once we got to New Orleans, we broadened the scope of our foundation with the rebuilding process and efforts and everything else," Brees says. "We've always had a very charitable heart between the two of us and just have wanted to give back what's been given us. We feel like we've been blessed with a lot in our lives and just feel strongly about it."
The impact of the Brees Dream Foundation, which expanded its mission to provide care, education and opportunities for children in need, has increased exponentially in recent years. Since its inception, it has committed or contributed more than $6 million to charitable causes and academic institutions in New Orleans, San Diego and West Lafayette, Ind., where Brees played in college.
In 2010, the foundation donated money to local schools, playgrounds and a home for visiting cancer patients. Annual events like Rebuilding Through Brotherhood brought more than 100 fraternity members from around the country to New Orleans to work with Habitat For Humanity, and an Amazing Race-style scavenger hunt in the French Quarter helped raise $100,000. But Brees isn't satisfied just with raising money; he also wants to inspire. His foundation partnered with The Idea Village on an entrepreneurship competition called the Trust Your Crazy Ideas Challenge, which awarded a $10,000 first prize to the high school with the winning business plan.
"Whenever you visit the schools, kids will come running up to you," says Brees, the 2010 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. "You see the sparkle in their eyes and they love the fact that you have reached out to them and that you care about them. A lot of times, people just need to know that there's somebody out there thinking about them and caring about them."
Meanwhile, the leader of the Saints defense has relied on the charity of New Orleanians to help support a cause beyond America's borders. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma started his namesake foundation to raise money for earthquake-ravaged Haiti, the birthplace ofhis parents. Vilma, whosegoal is to build a charter school in Haiti, enlisted the help of his teammates in November 2010 for a celebrity server fundraiser at Morton's The Steakhouse that raised approximately $200,000.
Vilma says few Americans can empathize with the Haitian survivors like residents of the Gulf Coast.
"They can attest to some of the things that are going on in Haiti right now [because of] what went on with Katrina — how everyone tried to chip in early on and then they forgot about New Orleans," Vilma says. "It's the same thing that's going on now. Everyone went and donated their money early and they're just forgetting about Haiti. I'm trying to keep that [from happening]."
Last week Vilma was named the Saints' Man of the Year. Members of the media, personnel in the Saints front office and local nonprofits vote on nominees for the title.
Fullback Heath Evans' crusade is perhaps the most personal of any of the Saints players. He started the Heath Evans Foundation to give hope and healing to those who have suffered childhood sexual abuse. Evans' wife, Beth Ann, was a victim of sexual abuse and Evans wants to make sure the same high-quality counseling that she received is accessible to those who can't afford it.
The foundation, which has built up a network of counselors in Boston (Evans spent four seasons with the Patriots), New Orleans and Palm Beach County, Fla. (where he grew up), also raises awareness about a topic Evans says is often considered taboo.
"I couldn't care less if people ever remember me playing this game," Evans says. "But 10 years from now I want people to know that [the Heath Evans Foundation] is what you run to when your family is walking through this particular abuse."
Saints reserve defensive back Usama Young, who created the Usama Young Youth Foundation, focuses his community efforts on after-school and mentoring programs for middle and high school students in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., where he grew up. In November, he led a group of McDonogh 35 students on a college tour of Dillard University and the University of New Orleans.
"I want to give them a little glimpse of what's to come," Young says. "So I get them out to these colleges and get them acclimated to what might be. I try to let them know you can make it here."
By his own admission, Saints reserve offensive lineman Zach Strief doesn't have the kind of celebrity of many other NFL players who are trying to make a difference off the field. But the former seventh round draft pick's lack of star power hasn't dimmed his desire to be hyperactive in the community. Strief's Dream Big Foundation helps raise funds for organizations such as CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), whose volunteers represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom; and Cafe Reconcile, a Central City restaurant that offers life skills and job training to at-risk youth.
"I really admire programs that help people to change their own lives," Strief says.
Backup tackle or not, at 6-foot-7, Strief makes a big impression wherever he goes. And the sense of compassion he and many of his teammates exhibit has only enhanced their stature in the community.
"I've never played anywhere else," Strief says of New Orleans. "But I can't fathom a team meaning more to a city — or a city meaning more to a team."
As we went to press this week, the Brees Dream Foundation announced a $100,000 contribution to the 9th Ward Field of Dreams, the community athletic space on the campus of George Washington Carver High School. The donation will support construction of a top-of-the-line football field, track and lighting, and will be open to the public without charge.
These Saints cannot be stopped.