The 2006 Saints made us believe in them, despite 40 years of heartbreak and failure. This time, just in time, they were for real. They inspired us with dazzling play against the odds, after so-called experts wrote them off as a pack of losers. As they marched toward the playoffs and the NFC championship game against the vaunted Chicago Bears, they gave us reason to hope not only for our team but also for our city. If a team that had gone 3-13 just a season earlier could reach the conference championship game, couldn't New Orleans likewise pull itself out of a slump?
On one level, of course, football is just a game, a diversion from the serious, hard work that confronts us every day. On another level, for the faithful and the storm-battered, they were the perfect metaphor for post-Katrina New Orleans, a balm for our weary souls. Cast adrift after the storm, like so many of their fans, the Saints returned home a year later with newfound purpose and zeal, lifting our spirits and inspiring us to do likewise in tackling the tasks of recovery.
With each victory, more and more among us came to believe that this team really could, really would, make the playoffs and march toward the Super Bowl. The players' over-the-top performances on the field complemented their acts off the field as well, as newly minted heroes like Drew Brees and Reggie Bush embraced a tired and tattered city as their own with boundless enthusiasm and a heartfelt generosity of spirit. Truly this team, this season, was special. At a time when our elected leaders seemed to let us down at every turn, our Saints gave us reason to hang onto hope, to believe not only in them but also in ourselves.
Yes, they inspired us, but now what? The season is over. The coaches and players have scattered for a well-deserved rest. In the end, it was just a game. Now it's back to work, where much more is on the line than a football game or a winning season. Seventeen months after Katrina, our city still faces fundamental hardships as we wake to a post-season hangover: streets remain in disrepair; stoplights on major thoroughfares still don't work; utilities are on the mend but not always reliable, particularly during frequent thunderstorms; thousands of homes remain ungutted; thousands more residents remain displaced; we're still debating the framework of a recovery plan; insurance companies and public assistance programs drag their feet and wear us down; public schools are struggling to recover, but many seem to be in disarray as a teacher shortage forces the nascent Recovery School District to turn away some students; and worst of all, violent crime seems to have the city in a death grip.
Welcome back to reality.
As long as the Saints were winning, it was easy to believe that better times were just around the corner. Faith and hope are transformative virtues, and the Saints gave us plenty of both. So ... where's the transformation?
If the Saints' enchanted season is to have any lasting impact, if it's to be anything more than a mindless diversion, New Orleanians will have to turn their faith into action, their hope into hard work. The Saints didn't get to the playoffs merely because they believed they could. They got there through hard work, grit, mental and physical toughness and teamwork. They got there by not shrinking from adversity, by finding reservoirs of strength deep within themselves when things seemed most desperate.
Those are the same qualities that New Orleans will have to bring to the task of recovery. Our team made it to the conference championship, but New Orleans faces a much longer and tougher recovery "season" -- one that will last years. There will be difficult times along the way, and even some defeats. But, if we persevere, if we become single-minded in our determination to succeed, if we can count on one another, if we refuse to give up hope, we will see our share of victories as well.
If we can do all these things, then the Saints' enchanted season will have been much more than a magnificent diversion from the depressing realities of post-Katrina life in New Orleans. It will have truly been the spark that rekindled fires of passion for our city within us all.
The Saints now have to build upon their winning ways. Both the team and the city will have to remember what got us this far. Nobody is going to hand us anything. Hard work. Perseverance. Grit. Mental and physical toughness. Never giving up. Being there for one another.
It's a proven formula. We start with faith and hope, but in the end it's the will to overcome that matters most. Do we have that kind of will as a city?