In 1966, the American Football League and the National Football League wanted an anti-trust exemption from Congress allowing them to merge. Senator Russell Long, Chairman of the Finance Committee, and Representative Hale Boggs, House Majority Whip, wanted a professional football team for Louisiana. The leagues got their exemption, and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle announced the New Orleans team on All Saints Day 1966.
The owners wanted to call the team the Saints, but didn’t want to offend the local Catholic community. Archbishop of New Orleans Philip Hannan, nicknamed the “Jumping Padre”, had served as chaplain to the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. He gave his blessing, but warned that most of the saints in the church were martyrs.
The fire Hannan’s warning proved prophetic, as the Saints went 20 years without a winning record, with only two teams hitting .500. One of the team’s few high points came in 1970, when Tom Dempsey threw an NFL-record 63-yard field goal.
The Saints hit a low point in 1980, when they went 1-15. Fans called the team the “Aints” and carried paper bags over their heads. Coach Bum Phillips brought Ken Stabler and Earl Campbell to New Orleans, but they were past their prime and fans joked that their team was the league’s retirement home.
Tom Benson bought the ill-fated Saints in 1985 and hired coach Jim Mora. Mora brought the Saints their first winning season and first playoff appearance in 1987, but the Saints could not win a playoff game in four attempts. Coach Mike Ditka traded draft picks to bring Ricky Williams to the Saints, but neither would last long. Coach Jim Haslett brought the Saints their first playoff win in his first season, but his teams never made it back to the playoffs.
Rebuilding after Katrina
Everything changed on August 29, 2005. Hurricane Katrina made landfall over Louisiana and Mississippi, causing over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage. The Saints did not play a game in 2005 in New Orleans.
The Superdome served as a shelter, suffered physical damage, and became an infamous symbol of government incompetence and human suffering. Experts have questioned the wisdom of rebuilding Crescent City, even as residents struggle to bury their dead and begin to rebuild their homes, businesses and lives.
Benson hired Sean Payton in January 2006; Payton signed Drew Brees in March; everything changed. Brees was recovering from shoulder surgery and the San Diego Chargers were betting on Philip Rivers.
Deciding between the Dolphins and Saints, Brees first visited New Orleans. Payton got lost and accidentally brought him to the Lower Ninth Ward – foreshadowing the important roles the pair would play in inspiring and unifying the devastated city.
Nick Saban and the Miami Dolphins were concerned about Brees’ shoulder and signed Daunte Calpepper. Displaying the risk-taking swagger that would serve the Saints well, Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis offered Brees a big, guaranteed contract. Saban soon left the NFL to win the college football championships.
The return of the saints
On September 25, 2006, the Saints played their first game in New Orleans since the 2004 season, against longtime rivals the Atlanta Falcons. The state renovated the Superdome, and fans sold out the stadium with season tickets for the first time.
The game broke national viewership records, U2 and Green Day played, and fans erupted when Steve Gleason blocked a punt on the first disc. Gleason heroically battles amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and his statue stands outside the Superdome. The Saints won and erased any doubt that they would stay in New Orleans. If the Saints could come back as victors, so could the city.
The rebirth of the Saints under Payton as a better, more successful version of herself reflected what her fans were trying to accomplish. New Orleans had myriad problems — political corruption, failing public schools and a lagging economy — that predated Katrina. Residents were determined to rebuild their beloved homes and community, but better and stronger. Universal charter schools, a state-of-the-art teaching hospital, and better flood protection are among the upgrades.
Payton’s bold offensive play and Brees’ impressive execution quickly produced results. The Saints have consistently won games and set offensive records. As a lifelong fan, I grew up calculating implausible end-of-season scenarios that would see the Saints sneak into the playoffs.
We had back-up teams to cheer on once the Saints were out of contention. I remember the sheer joy of running onto the field with my kids after the Saints beat the Vikings to qualify for Super Bowl XLIV. A dazed Payton removed the visor from his head and gave it to my 3 year old son as a keepsake.
The America Team
Standing on the sidelines at Sun Life Stadium, waiting for the Saints to play the Indianapolis Colts, I told Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels that most Americans outside of Indiana were cheering on the Saints. Payton’s Saints, the league’s perennial losers, had temporarily and gloriously become Team USA.
Fans loved the underdog storyline and applauded the revival of the Saints and New Orleans. True to form, Payton stunned the Colts with an onside kick to start the second half, and never looked back.
While most owners’ boxes are filled with wealthy celebrities, Benson invited retired Archbishop Hannan and nuns to watch his Saints win. He invited guests seated in his box during regular season games to attend pregame mass at the Superdome. Benson’s widow, Gayle, said her estate would sell the team to owners determined to keep the team in New Orleans, with proceeds going to local charities.
Even in controversy, Payton inspired loyalty. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Payton for the 2012 season due to an alleged bounty program run by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, fans donned “Free Sean Payton” shirts and restaurants flaunted signs refusing to serve Goodell. Payton spent the year coaching the offense for his son’s sixth-grade football team, bringing his usual intensity and preparation.
Payton continued to discover breakout skills to help Brees compile winning records and playoff appearances. He drafted record tight end Jimmy Graham, who had played more college basketball than football, in the third round and signed the versatile Taysom Hill as an undrafted free agent.
Payton’s Saints came painfully close to repeating their Super Bowl success. They lost in the playoffs after the 2017 season on a last-second 61-yard touchdown pass, and lost again in the following year’s NFC Championship Game after referees missed an interference call from obvious pass.
Payton’s Saints united fans across racial, socio-economic and political lines. New Orleans residents who disagreed on little else agreed that they loved the Saints. The community loved Payton, and he loved them back. He visited families affected by the BP oil spill and supported countless charities.
Unlike many athletes and celebrities, Payton did not insert himself into all political debates. He sometimes took positions he knew were unpopular in Louisiana, but he was always well-liked and not known as a political firebrand. He spoke sparingly in response to the news, in support of gun control and protesting gamers’ rights, and criticized President Trump. He also provided blurb for my first book and happily attended events when asked.
Payton’s post-Brees Saints have shown great promise this past season, before being overwhelmed by Covid-related injuries and absences. It would have been fun to see him rebuild, but Saints fans are too grateful for everything he gave us to resent him no matter what now that he’s retiring. When we were desperate for something to cheer on, he made us believe again in our football team, ourselves and our community. Thanks, Sean Payton and Godspeed.