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.