So much remains tobe done in the city to which less than half of the pre-Katrina population of445,000 has returned. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works around the clockto repair the Lego levees. Charity and Memorial hospitals are still boarded up.The National Guard continues to supplement an overburdened and underpaid policeforce, especially in such notorious neighborhoods as Central City andCarrollton. Thousands of insurance cases still need to be settled. Clearly, thepeople of New Orleans know much about false promises, which makes their embraceof former USC star Reggie Bush--and his of them--a year after Katrina somethingmuch more compelling than the usual preseason optimism. "We just got Jesusin cleats," was how one fan put it to The Washington Post when the Saintsmade the 21-year-old running back the No. 2 pick in the April draft. He wasalso the "Golden Child" or the "Savior" in the local papers. Onhis first trip to New Orleans, in April, citizens from every social stratalined up outside Emeril's restaurant to get a glimpse of the young man whomthey perceive to be a rare sign of something going right.
In late July hedropped his brief holdout and signed a six-year, $62 million contract, makinggood on a vow that he had made in May, when he said, "I want to be in campon time--I think it is important to start off on a good note, not only with theteam but the city."
The city wasalready his. Cash-strapped New Orleans can't properly equip its high schoolfootball teams, but the poorest kid could afford to Scotch-tape a newspaperpicture of number 25 to the refrigerator. "He's the man," a teenager ina saint reggie T-shirt enthused in line at Hansen's Sno-Bliz stand the dayafter Bush rushed for 59 yards on six carries against the Titans in his debut."Nobody can do it the way Reggie can!"
Some 15,000 ofthose T-shirts sold out on the day they were printed. Season-ticket sales standat 55,000--the highest mark in franchise history. Mobs of fans have made thepilgrimage to Jackson, Miss., site of the Saints' training camp, to watchReggie work out. "We're being embraced in cities like Jackson andShreveport and Baton Rouge," says Rita Benson-LeBlanc, granddaughter ofSaints owner Tom Benson. "Our organization is like a symphony. Everythingis building, building. Reggie has embraced our region, and our fans love himfor it."
New Orleaniansalso quickly found out that Bush doesn't just talk the talk. One of his firstmoves was to write a personal check for $50,000 to a local Catholic school fordisabled students. Along with Adidas, he has donated $86,000 to seed andmaintain a city high school football field. And 25% of the royalties fromBush's Saints jersey are going to hurricane relief efforts. Because of itsassociation with Bush, Pepsi has donated $1 million to rebuild homes in thearea, and Subway has pledged to make charitable contributions. What's next?Maybe Saint Reggie statues in the Jackson Square Cathedral gift shop alongsideones of Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases.
This is not thefirst time New Orleans has pinned its future on an NFL star. The town remembersArchie Manning and Ricky Williams and Mike Ditka and how they couldn't stop thelosing. Given the checkered history with supposed saviors, Saints fans mightwant to keep their expectations in check, but Bush is making that difficult. Inthe first quarter of his first game, on Aug. 12 against Tennessee, heelectrified the crowd when, sweeping to his left, he ran into a swarm ofTitans, turned back, shifted gears and gained 44 yards. Nine days laterLouisianans got their first down-home look at him, against Dallas inShreveport. While Bush's numbers weren't gaudy (four carries with a long gainof nine yards, and two catches for 14 yards), he left enough Cowboys defendersin his wake with his open-field moves to justify Saints Pro Bowl wide receiverJoe Horn's assessment that Bush is "an amazing talent."
August 29 marksthe one-year anniversary of Katrina; Sept. 25, the Saints' home opener againstAtlanta at the Superdome, is the official rebirth of the city. "Somethingin the air is magical," LeBlanc says. "Katrina is pulling us alltogether. Every day it feels special to be helping the area recover from thetrauma. We're lifting spirits." If the President of the United States comesto the home opener, as has been rumored, he won't be the most loudly cheeredBush in the patched-up building.
None of this, bythe way, surprises the Reverend William Maestri, superintendent of schools forthe archdiocese of New Orleans. Maestri lately has been reminding students andteachers about a certain follower of Saint Dominic in 12th-century France, aman who lived a life of prayer and generosity and concern for the poor. Theman's name? Blessed Reginald of Orleans.
Douglas Brinkleyis professor of history at Tulane University and author of The Great Deluge:Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf South.
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