This week, after the New Orleans Saints returned home as victors in their first Super Bowl outing, their city threw them a party. Standing 30-deep on the sidewalk for several miles, men, women, and children shrieked exuberantly when quarterback Drew Brees rolled past dancing atop a colossal papier-mâché throne, on a float loaned by another Mardi Gras parade. "It would have been like this even if they'd lost," said Doris Jones, 60, who didn't mind the crowd. By one estimate, 384,000 people live here now—nearly 80 percent of the pre-Katrina population—but somehow 800,000 showed up for the parade.
The affection (even mania) New Orleanians have evinced for their football team has been well-documented. But less well known is that the feeling is mutual—and uniquely so among professional teams and their hometowns. "We have a tighter bond with our fans than other franchises do," says defensive end Will Smith, referring to the years after the storm. Where else do the city flag and the team uniform bear the same emblem?
There is a psychic connection between residents who chose to return and rebuild (when they could have settled down elsewhere), and the journeyman players who signed on as free agents when Sean Payton took over as coach, trying to restart their careers. This year's championship team was built on these mid-career castaways, and Brees, discarded by the San Diego Chargers, is their most obvious symbol. "With the Saints, a lot of them had to make decisions to come here," says Brian Bordainick, a 24-year-old Ninth Ward teacher who has drafted the Saints' help and money to revive his school's athletic program. "They set out to rebuild the team alongside people who set out to rebuild a city."
And they were welcomed with open arms, especially after Saints owner Tom Benson made it seem like he might move the team in 2005 when the Superdome was wrecked. For New Orleanians, then at their lowest point, it was a terrible scare. Benson and the team reopened the Dome the next year with a commitment to stay put, and season tickets sold out as residents bore a newfound fervor. This time, the Saints weren't just the city's football team; they were a standard that the hangers-on could rally around when others had been destroyed.
Linebacker Scott Fujita says he felt truly needed here, even outside of football: "After I signed here [in 2006, before the season began], everybody in bars and restaurants could tell I was from out of town. Maybe it's what I wore or the way I carried myself. And they were so appreciative I was here that I didn't have to pay for one drink in my first several months in New Orleans. They really adopted me, an outsider, before they even knew I played for the Saints. That speaks to the culture of New Orleans after the storm." For Saints players, it bred a sense of happy obligation.
Brees, as he does on the field, sets the tone. When Brees was a free agent in 2006, Coach Payton drove him around the ravaged city and explained that there was more to rebuild than a team. Brees took the job, and instead of moving to a suburban McMansion or a gated community, he took up in the heart of the city. "This is where I belong," he has said, "and it felt like this was a calling." He shows up at movie premiers in town (New Orleans now has the third biggest film industry in America), playground dedications, and a raft of social functions. He hung out at a local bar after his team's parade on Tuesday, teaching patrons the Saints' pre-game chant. It's not just some man-of-the-people pose, says Smith, who also lives in town. "Most guys on the team came down to this city to play. But then they actually want to live here because they love it that much."
For obvious reasons, that attitude is hard to quantify but easy to see. Since Katrina, New Orleans has been flooded with foundations and development projects dedicated to restoring the city, and the players haven't stood idly by waiting for spirited do-gooders and 20-somethings with urban planning degrees to fix the place up. Brees doles out his largesse—$4.5 million since 2006, more than one-tenth of his contract salary during that period—from his Brees Dream Foundation (whose Web site leads with a banner, "OUR CITY, OUR HOME"). Recognizing the value of his own bully pulpit, he puts in face time at ribbon cuttings and classrooms on a weekly basis. "It sends a really big signal that he's made himself a citizen of the community," says Errol Laborde, the editor of New Orleans magazine.
Running back Reggie Bush helped rebuild a football stadium used by high school soccer and football teams. Smith spends time with Dress for Success, an organization to empower disadvantaged women, and Hands On New Orleans, a group that promotes volunteerism. Jonathan Vilma, the captain of the defense, spends time with an afterschool fitness program and donates $100 to the program for every tackle he makes. Safety Usama Young gets out at least once a week to speak to children about responsibility, setting goals, having a backup plan, and listening to adults. "It's hard to explain, but you can sense the warmth between the city and this team," he says.
Fujita, who lives downtown, has played for three teams during his career. "Guys around the league are all really good and generous," he says of his years in Kansas City and Dallas. (Fujita himself won the 2009 teamwide man-of-the-year award for his work with a local Catholic adoption agency, a center for children with life-threatening illness, and an anti-crime nonprofit.) "But I've never been somewhere where players were so invested in it, where they spend so much time and so much money trying to help people. It's not just donating money to the United Way. It's players on the ground with hammers, helping build homes. The connection between players and the community here, it's unparalleled." That connection extends even to ex-Saints: after running back Deuce McAllister was cut from the team last year, he decided to keep his foundation for underprivileged youths in the Gulf region.
The new football stadium and Olympic track at George Washington Carver High, Bordainick's Ninth Ward school, might not have a shot without the Saints. "Drew [Brees] didn't just cut a check," says Bordainick, who came to New Orleans after Katrina as a Teach for America corpsman. "He came down to the school, toured the site, found out what was going on, and even followed up with e-mails afterward seeing how it was going." The day after the Saints beat the Vikings in the NFC Championship game, Brees was e-mailing with Bordainick about how to raise more money for the stadium during the Super Bowl. The text-message campaign they devised brought in $15,000 in addition to the $1.2 million already raised.
In the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, cornerback Tracy Porter sealed the Saints victory when he intercepted Peyton Manning and scored a touchdown. Minutes later, the streets of New Orleans were filled with exultant fans hugging strangers. So they probably didn't notice. But if they'd been watching, they would have seen that every post-game interview ended with some variation on "This is for the people of New Orleans."