New Orleans turns out to welcome Saints home


For the paint store owners in the rest of the world, Monday was Monday. In New Orleans, Sophia Hardy closed down and drove to the airport, joining thousands of kids ditching, employees playing hooky, and fellow entrepreneurs who were more interested in greeting the conquering Saints than making a buck.

They stretched for blocks down the wide expanse of Veterans Memorial Boulevard, waving fleur-de-lis flags and jockeying, Mardi Gras style, for the best spot behind the barricades. Around 3 p.m., a Delta plane thundered over the suburban rooftops.

“That’s the flight! That’s the flight!” said Hardy, 51, hopping up and down like a little girl.

It was the Saints. Soon the Super Bowl champs would be driving through the throng, basking in the adulation of a city hungry for something great. Such reaction is not uncommon in other cities after big games, but in New Orleans, Saints fans have been turning out to greet their team here for years -- even on losing weeks in ho-hum seasons.

A woman in front of Hardy said she had been coming out since the days when Archie Manning was quarterback. Manning, patriarch of the football family, played his last game for the Saints in 1982. In his best season, the team went 8-8.

“It’s one of the unique things about New Orleans,” said Lt. Wayne McInnis of the Kenner Police Department, the suburban force that handles the crowds. “Well -- among 50,000 other things.”

The ritual exemplifies the unvarnished enthusiasm this city has for its football team, something closer to the bond that small communities in places like Oklahoma and Texas have with their high school squads.

A Saints victory parade is planned for Tuesday, which is already being referred to as “Lombardi Gras,” in honor of the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The real Mardi Gras comes a week later.

But it’s not just the natural timing that will make the epic party. There is perhaps no other American city that takes a more Continental view of work-life balance. At the airport, pharmaceutical salesman Laz Seoane, 43, sent a text to his boss telling him he wasn’t coming to work Monday.

His boss texted back: “Duh.”

Throughout Sunday night and into Monday, car horns blared, and drinks were hoisted and spilled -- as they would be in any championship city. But here it was all permeated with a deeply New Orleans flavor.

At a bar on St. Peter Street, a crowd of black, white, old and young -- some holding their liquor and some not so much -- all roared along in unison to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s version of the old gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away.”

On Monday morning, the enduring buzz was as palpable as the trash on the streets. In the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a six-inch headline announcing the Saints’ 31-17 victory over the Colts blared: “AMEN!”

There has been some consideration about the effect these good times will have on a city that’s been down so long.

Respected radio host Garland Robinette -- who broadcast through Hurricane Katrina in a closet, after the windows of his building blew out -- declared Monday that the victory, along with Saturday’s election of a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, ongoing efforts at school reform, and the upcoming Jazz Fest in April, had given the city tangible momentum.

He also spoke of the championship as a final chapter in the Katrina story. “This is the culmination of all of our work, all of our fears, all of our success,” he said.

Out by the airport, a number of fans said that something good had to come of a shared victory that had brought them all out to cheer the same thing. The crowd was indeed a mix of black, white, Latino and Vietnamese: one prominent sign read: “THE NGUYEN FAMILY: Proud members of the WHO DAT NATION.”

Hardy’s friend Stephanie Rodriguez, a real estate agent, saw the victory as a public relations coup: Instead of images of residents pushed to the breaking point in the post-storm Superdome, the world had seen the city’s food, the culture, the sense of fun.

She also predicted many of the displaced were also paying attention, and she expected them to finally begin returning en masse.

“It’s just important,” she said. “It’s history. And we’re gonna party until next year.”