With about a minute remaining in Sunday's game, when the wind began to swirl and the scoreboard compelled the New Orleans Saints to confront the fact that they were squandering an inspired performance, wideout Joe Horn felt only rage. All the overwhelming emotions he and teammates had experienced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina--agony, empathy, helplessness--gave way to a primal defiance that fuels special football players at pivotal moments.
The Carolina Panthers had rallied from a 17-7 deficit to tie New Orleans at 20 in the season opener at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. The Saints of Horn's previous five years with the club--hell, most of the New Orleans teams throughout the franchise's gloomy 38-year history--would have submitted to a grittier foe. Screw that, the flamboyant Horn thought as he entered the huddle with the ball at the Saints' 22-yard line and 59 seconds to play. We should have put this team away a long time ago. Now it's time to smash these clowns.
Horn strutted to the line of scrimmage, burst into the flat and made an 11-yard reception. Two plays later he fought through cornerback Ricky Manning's bump-and-run coverage and raced downfield, where free safety Mike Minter was lurking. Horn had a split-second decision to make: cut upfield into a seam in the Panthers' two-deep zone or slice across the middle with Manning in hot pursuit. Correctly guessing that Horn would choose the latter option, quarterback Aaron Brooks fired a high spiral that was descending to Horn as he came out of his break. Horn made a lunging catch at the Carolina 37, setting up a 47-yard field goal attempt two plays later.
As the kick by 41-year-old John Carney hooked through a tricky crosswind and sailed just inside the left upright for a 23-20 victory, a plucky team's quest to redefine itself merged with a battered region's need for relief and a nation's soft spot for happy endings. On the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--and a day after fifth-ranked LSU had scored four touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull off a dramatic 35-31 victory at Arizona State (sidebar)--the underdog Saints stunned Carolina, an NFC South rival and perceived Super Bowl contender.
That Louisiana lightning would strike twice, less than two weeks after the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, convinced many of the men responsible that they had in some small way helped the healing process back home. "Everybody on this team is on the same page now--to do everything we can to help the survivors, and to play for each other as a team," Horn said late Sunday night, after returning to the San Antonio hotel the Saints now call home. "Football ain't nothin' compared to somebody who lost a loved one or who doesn't have a house to go back to, but we feel them and they feel us, and we're representing a region that's resilient as hell."
To say the Saints have closed ranks since Katrina hit on Aug. 29 is like saying Cajun cooking is spicy. "We're wary of everybody right now," said 37-year-old halfback Fred McAfee. "We're wondering who's trying to pull one over on us, and we're sifting through all the rumors: They're tearing down the Superdome; they're building a new one; we're playing in San Antonio or Baton Rouge; we're playing all our games on the road. We don't know what's fake and what's real, and all we have is each other."
Thus, few Saints players were surprised--or dismayed--when they learned that coach Jim Haslett had declined NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's request to address the team at its Charlotte hotel last Saturday night. It was Tagliabue who earlier decreed that New Orleans' first home game, scheduled for the hurricane-ravaged Superdome on Sept. 18 against the New York Giants, would be moved to Giants Stadium and played this Monday night. Instead of shifting the game to a site the Saints preferred, such as LSU or San Antonio, the league gave them a ninth road game, which, Haslett later complained, "put us behind the eight ball." (The Saints will play four of their remaining home games in Baton Rouge and the other three in the Alamodome.) As cornerback Mike McKenzie would gently put it, "We didn't need to hear s--- from Tag the night before our game."
Instead, in a meeting room at their hotel that night, Haslett read a letter to the team from New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who recounted horrific scenes he'd witnessed in the days after the levees broke and 80% of the city was flooded. The coach became so choked up while reading aloud that he had to stop; Ricky Porter, the team's director of player development, finished the letter, which reminded the Saints that they were the torchbearers for a city and a region. Teary-eyed and contemplative, some of the Saints unwound by returning to their rooms and flipping on their TVs to watch LSU--playing its "home" opener in Tempe, Ariz.--come from behind and win on a fourth-and-10, 39-yard touchdown pass from JaMarcus Russell to Early Doucet. "That pumped us up," McAfee said. "They've been displaced too, and they went into hostile territory and did their thing."
By kickoff Sunday--after a standing ovation for the New Orleans players from the crowd of nearly 73,000, a prayer in remembrance of Sept. 11 and an F-16 flyover--the Saints were determined to make an immediate statement. Last season they failed to score on any of their 16 opening possessions; on Sunday New Orleans began the game with a 15-play, 80-yard drive that lasted 9:37 and ended with halfback Deuce McAllister scoring the first of his two rushing touchdowns. McAllister carried eight times during the drive, demonstrating new offensive coordinator Mike Sheppard's commitment to a power rushing attack, which also is supposed to take pressure off the talented but mistake-prone Brooks.
The Saints' newfound determination began last December, when they went on a four-game winning streak to finish a second straight 8-8 season. Under Haslett's direction during the past four years New Orleans went 32-32 and came to be known as a talented team that tended to implode at key moments. As an opponent, before signing with the Saints following the 2002 season, tackle Wayne Gandy regarded New Orleans as "the most talented team that didn't win. You always hoped they wouldn't be the team that they could be."
Now, Horn vows, the Saints have a sense of purpose. "Even before Katrina hit," he said, "we had it in our minds from late last year that we ain't having no more. Our motto this year from the start of training camp was, We're grinders. Wherever we've got to go, whatever we've got to do, we'll grind it out. We're not going to use this hurricane as an excuse. That's what people are waiting for, but we won't do it. We appreciate the love that we're getting, but we don't want any sympathy or pity. We want teams to come at us the way they have been--trust me."
With chips on their shoulders and lumps in their throats, the Saints gave many of their displaced fans a few hours of diversion and, ultimately, joy on Sunday. Horn, McAfee and other players said that during key junctures of the game, their thoughts flashed back to the evacuees they'd visited in shelters. But whether that motivation will last throughout the season remains to be seen.
In the meantime New Orleans's faithful fans--and all the new followers the Saints are picking up--can take pride in a team that relishes the opportunity to salve the hurt of a reeling region. "We're playing for everybody who experienced loss and tragedy during the hurricane," McAfee says. "When they see something like what LSU did on Saturday or what we did in Carolina, they say, 'Maybe there is hope.' It's a very small piece, but if we can show people that hope is real, we'll be doing our part."