SAN ANTONIO -- I guess we had taken a wrong turn or something, because in an instant, a cop car was racing toward us. It cut off our path and slammed on its brakes, sliding to a halt just inches from our bumper. And just like that, Donte' Stallworth's trip to a San Antonio shelter for Katrina evacuees seemed to be over before it began. An officer hurried up to the driver's side window, leaned into the car and asked who we were with and what the heck we were doing.
"I'm with the Saints," replied Stallworth. "And those are my people in there."
And that was all that had to be said. After a few moments, the cop apologized and showed us where to park. She explained that she wasn't used to seeing pro football players in town.
"Well," Stallworth said, "you better get used to us, it looks like we're gonna be here a while."
Like the rest of the nation, Stallworth spent most of last week glued to his TV watching the unthinkable unfold in living color before his eyes. Then, over the weekend, Stallworth made his way back to the Saints' training facility outside New Orleans and again, it was more of the head-shaking bizarre. On the way there he kept seeing the same eerie sight: billboards, not snapped in two or ripped to shreds, but bent, completely and neatly in half; like a string of giants on the side of the road made to bow down before Katrina.
The team's facility had been taken over by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Soldiers, trucks and helicopters were everywhere. And inside the very meeting rooms the receivers used to game plan and watch film on the Panthers and Falcons, FEMA officers, surrounded by maps, charts and equipment, were working on their own plan.
It was on his way back to San Antonio that Stallworth received a text message from teammate Joe Horn, who had been visiting evacuees at the Astrodome. Horn had gone to try and lift people's spirits, and instead ended up having his own outlook on the 2005 NFL season completely changed.
"I talked to the people," the message read, "they want us to ride we gotta ride let's get a handle on our business and then let's ride for the people."
Stallworth soaked in that message then jumped in his car, drove to the nearest Wal-Mart and cleared it out of all the water and toiletries he could find. Some of his Saints teammates visited the evacuees at KellyUSA Sunday, and the team took an entire busload of players there Tuesday. But after practice Monday at a nearby high school, Stallworth couldn't wait. And he and the Saints' tireless community relations manager, Paul Corliss, were nice enough to allow me to tag along.
"I can't describe it," Stallworth said while driving to the former air force base, where 2,000 of San Antonio's nearly 12,000 evacuees are being housed. "I have to see it with my own eyes. For me, for my piece of mind, I have to see this stuff getting to the people who needed it."
When we arrived, a handful of national guardsmen helped carry in the supplies and Stallworth was given a Red Cross smock to wear, which he slipped on over his Alicia Keys concert T-shirt as he walked inside. Really, the only way I can describe the facility is to say that if the initial emergency response to Katrina in New Orleans was embarrassingly and tortuously slow and mismanaged, KellyUSA was the complete opposite. When word came that the massive warehouse known as the Davy Crockett Building would be home to Katrina evacuees, the first thing workers did, without hesitating, was punch holes in the concrete walls so portable air conditioning could be installed.
Inside was a beehive of help with a kaleidoscope of uniforms -- police, doctors, Red Cross, national guard, volunteers and FEMA -- racing in every direction in response to people's needs. It smelled not of sewage or body odor or garbage, but of the turkey they were serving for dinner. There were phones, toys and food, water and fruit stacked 10 feet high up every available wall. There were help stations set up for every possible need. Nearby, at a desk marked "clergy," a man ate peaches out of a can with a plastic spoon while watching for news of lost loved ones on a large-screen TV.
And although there was a sea of cots, hundreds upon hundreds, laid out in every direction as far as the eye could see, once inside the warehouse it still felt like you were intruding on someone's bedroom. And at first, yeah, I felt a bit silly tagging along with a millionaire wideout as he left his cushy hotel room to drop off a carload full of water and toiletries -- what probably amounted to a drop of relief in an ocean of grief.
In this whole giant, ugly mess, I wondered, what difference could one football player could make?
See, I do believe that there are times when sports transcend the playing field and perpetuate something more than just a silly game. But I figured Katrina would most likely ruin that theory. After such cataclysmic devastation, such chaos, anguish and human suffering, who could possibly care about something as inconsequential as the NFL?
These people, that's who.
The reaction to Stallworth was immediate, warm and visceral. You could feel spirits lifting when people saw a member of their football team or, more likely, just a small piece of their hometown standing before them. Practically knocked over by well wishers, Stallworth kept telling evacuees to "be strong stay strong" and oddly enough, they repeated the same prayer right back to him and the team.
As he walked around, from cot to cot and person to person, the pendulum swung from hope to horror and back to hope again. Stallworth was left nearly speechless by the experience. But later, teammate Willie Whitehead put it this way: "A lot of these folks lost everything. They lost their house. All their possessions. And in some cases, their entire family. The Saints are, literally, all they have left to cling to. We're all they've got."
Stallworth hugged them, shook their hands, signed autographs and, mostly, just listened to their knee-buckling stories -- each one worse than the next.
Like the evacuee the Saints players saw in Wal-Mart, trying to scrounge up enough cash to replace the engagement ring he had lost. (Tight end Ernie Conwell stepped in and bought the ring for him, while the rest of the team pitched in for another $7,000 worth of supplies.)
Like the family of 13 from the historic midcity area who joined hands and waded to safety after the second levy break flooded their neighborhood.
Like Marsha Cannon, who somehow managed to smile while celebrating her 29th birthday inside the shelter.
Like Freda Lee, a grandmother I met who clung to a jar of seedless grape jelly like it was a Faberge egg.
Like tiny little 2-year-old Mykia, who bounced on a nearby cot in a way that sent her six pony tails whirling above her head like helicopter blades. As I passed her cot, Mykia put down her apple drink box and asked me if I wanted to see her Barbie doll. And when I nodded yes, of course, she produced a single, detached plastic leg. That's all that was left. When I promised to bring her back a new doll, she giggled out loud and the sound -- the sound of hope, really -- seemed to turn everyone's head in her direction.
Like Bernell Richardson, 34, of New Orleans' 17th ward, who waded in chest-high water for 10 blocks, pushing dead bodies -- men, women and children -- out of the way to make it to the "safety" of a gas station, where he waited for three days to be rescued. He wore a plastic rosary around his neck, and Stallworth's signature proudly on the back of his gray-green polo shirt. And he leaned in close to me and whispered, "If you could have seen the things I saw."
Buildings on fire. People drowning. Elderly. Children. Everyone, dying, dying, dying, he said. A week after the storm, he was still waiting on word from his 10-year-old son, Bernell Massey.
"The Saints are the only piece of home we have left," Richardson said. "A lot of us are watching and thinking, 'OK then, if the Saints are still fighting, then I'm gonna keep fighting too.' I've watched this team since the moment I could turn on a TV. And maybe we did wear bags on our heads at one point, but even during the tough times we never turned our back on this team. Now they're showing us that even during the tough times they won't turn their backs on us, either."
I just hope before owner Tom Benson or the suits at the NFL office in New York make a decision about the future of the Saints, they come to an evacuee shelter like KellyUSA and see for themselves just how much this team now means to the people of the Gulf Coast. Because it's truly one of those things you have to witness to believe. And maybe with this one team, and for this one season, the NFL could pause for a moment on its way to world sports/marketing domination and gazillion-dollar profits to serve the kinds of fans who were, long, long ago, priced out of the league's economic picture.
Fans like Bernell, who had what I call The Eyes -- the tired, sad, foggy and confused eyes that are now a distinguishing characteristic of the people who have lived through Katrina. New Orleans native and Saints wideout/kick returner Michael Lewis has them. So does coach Jim Haslett, who looks like he hasn't slept in two weeks. Benson, who sported three-day growth on his chin at Monday's practice, has 'em too, as does GM Mickey Loomis and team director of operations James Nagaoka.
In some small sense, the Saints are evacuees like everyone else. They are holed up in a San Antonio hotel with their families, pets and all the belongings they could carry out of town. Normally this time of year an NFL player's existence is about one thing: streamlining their lives so they can focus entirely on the demands of football. For the Saints, that script has been completely flipped. Meetings are two blocks away, past a construction site and inside the San Antonio convention center. For practice, they bus to the Alamodome, get dressed, bus to a nearby high school, work out, then bus back to the Alamodome for showers, before taking one last bus back to the team hotel.
If they want to lift, they have to jump in a cab and go to the local Gold's Gym. Film study? Who knows? Because, right now, the team's playbook seems to be the local Renters Guide magazine. In the lobby, in their rooms, on the bus and in the locker room, any time the players have a spare moment, they spend it combing for a new place to call home and restart their lives. After running down the situation for me, Lewis just rubbed his tired eyes and laughed. "What else can you do?" he said.
One thing the Saints won't do is complain. You know maybe, when it comes to pro athletes, I've just lowered my standards too far, but the one thing I will take away from this week in San Antonio is the Saints' steadfast refusal -- from the GM, to the coach, to the players and all the way down the line to the lowest-paid equipment manager -- to utter one whine or one word of complaint about their situation. "But compared to everyone else " seems to be a part of everything they say.
To be honest, it's hard to picture a scenario where the cumulative effect of all these emotional and procedural distractions won't eventually catch up to the wildly talented but oftentimes erratic Saints on the field. I don't want it to happen. I want to see a made-for-TV Cinderella story unfold, starting in Carolina, as much as the evacuees do. But ultimately, the Saints -- a team and a franchise not known for being, exactly, steadfast -- have already honored their town and their displaced fans by rising to the occasion and conducting themselves with such class and dignity.
The players have every intention of making this a miracle season. And Haz would step on my melon like he was back playing linebacker for saying this, but the Saints could go 0-16 and this would still be the most successful, courageous season in franchise history.
The scores, the record, does it really matter? As one fan put it, just as Stallworth was exiting the shelter, "We just need our Saints now more than ever."
"We marching now, March us back!" came another voice.
"New Orleans might be gone, but the Saints are still here!" shouted another woman.
"Bring us back to life," pleaded one man watching Stallworth leave. "Bring us back to life."
Outside, with the orange sun baking a spot on the horizon, Stallworth slowly made his way back to his car. You could tell he didn't want to leave.
"It's unbelievable man," he said. "Unbelievable. We're playing for so much more now. So much more. We have a purpose now. And we have to get it done. For these people. We don't have a choice, we have to."
Leaning against the blue car, Stallworth was still wearing his red and white volunteer smock. And at that moment I realized he was cloaked in the Saints' new team colors: red, white and blue. Yeah sure, to the outside world conjuring up such an image probably seems like a bit of a romantic stretch. But trust me, from inside the shelter at KellyUSA that's exactly how the evacuees see their 2005 New Orleans Saints.
As America's Team.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in the fall of 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.