The first voice to come booming over the speakers in the Superdome, where a packed crowd 70,000 strong gathered to watch the New Orleans Saints square off against the Atlanta Falcons Monday night, was enough to cause an eruption that lasted, almost uninterrupted, until long after the game's final seconds ticked away.
With all the elements of a classic fable in place faith, unconditional love, a longstanding rivalry and a setting rife with symbolism the Saints' 23-3 victory over the Falcons almost seemed like a foregone conclusion. The festivities started long before kickoff, with gridlock taking over the city's Central Business District by early afternoon, music blaring from stages surrounding the dome and throngs of fans gathering at tailgate parties and crowding onto the stadium's brick plaza.
But for many, the celebration was tempered by memories of the suffering that took place on the same site barely more than a year ago, when the Superdome went in a matter of days from a shelter to a sweltering pit of human suffering after Hurricane Katrina flooded the surrounding streets and knocked out power.
"I'm happy to be here, but it's still a little sad, when you take into consideration what happened here during Katrina," said Jackie Williams, a New Orleans native in a Saints black-and-gold jersey who has been a season ticket subscriber since 1979. Williams and her cousin, Vickie Anderson, were here for the last Saints game to be played in the dome, on August 26, 2005, just three days before the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast; now they were waiting in a long line outside the stadium and wondering how many of the other season ticket subscribers they had come to know over the years, who always bought seats in the same section, would also be returning. "With Katrina, so many people had to leave," Williams said. "I guess we'll see how many of them have come back."
For months after the storm, it was uncertain whether the Saints themselves would be coming back. The franchise maintained the remainder of its 2005 schedule, playing "home" games in Baton Rouge and in San Antonio, where there was speculation fueled, at times, by Saints owner Tom Benson that the team might relocate for good. At a pre-game press conference, new National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell played down that perception. "I don't think that ever came into play," Goodell said, noting that the team returned to its training camp in New Orleans long before it was assured that the Superdome which underwent a $185 million renovation after Katrina would be ready to open for the 2006 pro football season. "We've been here since January, the Saints have been here, and they came back not even knowing if the dome was going to be completed," he said.
The Superdome did open on schedule, and with the fanfare more appropriate to a Super Bowl match. The rock bands U2 and Green Day kicked off Monday's game with a joint performance that included a mashed-up "House of the Rising Sun," with "Superdome" substituting for the titular brothel, and a version of the U2 hit "Beautiful Day." Former president George H.W. Bush was on hand for the opening coin toss, and New Orleans rhythm and blues singer Irma Thomas, backed by Allan Toussaint on piano, turned in a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," the final lines drowned out by deafening cheers.
A short film projected images of Katrina's aftermath. But if fans were reflecting on the stadium's recent history, those sentiments evaporated early on, when Saints safety Steve Gleason blocked an Atlanta punt, leading to a touchdown and 7-0 lead in the game's opening moments. The home team maintained a comfortable lead from that point on.
"It's indescribable," gushed New Orleans East resident Demetrius Smith, as a throng spilled onto the Superdome plaza after the game, whooping and chanting. "It's like you lost everything, and now you're finally getting it back, bit by bit." Smith, whose family temporarily relocated to Arkansas after the storm, said Monday's victory was "part of the rehabilitation" of New Orleans. "These are strong people," he said. "Don't underestimate the will of Louisiana people."
It may be tempting, as with any good fable, to see the Saints' 3-0 regular season record as a harbinger of the city's revival. But even the most devoted Saints fans have learned to temper their enthusiasm. "We love them even when they lose," said Anderson. "I'll be happy if they just finish the season eight and eight."