'America's Team' finding it hard to feel at home

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- From Belmont, Mass., to Beaumont, Texas, from Atlanta to San Diego, Americans everywhere are giving the displaced victims of Hurricane Katrina more than a mere taste of Southern hospitality.

People are picking up tabs at restaurants for entire families. Friends of friends are writing personal checks for amounts above their means. Anonymous strangers give cash to the pastor to pass along. Buddies offer the use of their apartments, of their cars. So much clothing (new and used) has been collected that a lot of it has to be given away again. Folks are going out of their way to visit -- sometimes just to check on evacuees, other times to drop off a home-cooked meal. They send cards -- gift cards and the Hallmark kind. They hook family and friends up with jobs.

Anything and everything people can do to make residents of the Gulf Coast states feel at home, feel welcome, they'll do. They've basically rolled out the red carpet.

"My wife and I were in line at McDonald's in Atlanta," said Chris Martinez, an officer with the New Orleans Police Department. "My wife ordered, we got to talking, and when the cashier found out we were from New Orleans, she gave my wife her food, her change and $20. Yeah, of her own money. Now I don't know what a cashier at McDonald's makes, but it's gotta be pretty close to minimum wage. My wife was like, 'No, I'm OK.' And the lady said, 'Whatever you've been through, you need it.' That blew me away."

Martinez, who assists NOPD Superintendent Eddie Compass, watched Monday night's Saints-Giants game from a luxury box, along with Compass and several New Orleans firefighters, all guests of the NFL.

They painted the carpet at Giants Stadium for the Saints' "home" opener; the west end zone was decorated with "SAINTS," the east with "GIANTS." The Saintsations led cheers behind the Saints' bench. Saints banners hung from walls around the stadium. New Orleans natives Harry Connick Jr., and Branford Marsalis performed a jazzy rendition of the national anthem, and New Orleanian Irvin Mayfield played "America the Beautiful."

Cajun chicken and bread pudding was the pregame meal in the press box. New York, wearing its road white jerseys (New Orleans wore its home black), called the opening coin toss, though the Saints' captains forgot the Giants would be doing so and wasted time before kickoff debating heads or tails. Giants fans cheered when the Saints were introduced.

Those who remained to the end gave the visiting hosts a standing ovation when the Saints' offense walked off the field after their final drive ended on Shaun Williams' end zone interception, and yet another when time ran out on the Giants' 27-10 win. A young fan held up a homemade sign that read, "We're with you New Orleans."

As America's Team, the Saints, at least for this season, don't ever have to worry about harsh words or being booed. No such thing, for them, as a hostile environment. Martinez experienced the opposite as he observed the Saints walking through the tunnel onto the field -- after the Giants, of course.

"The fans were wishing guys well," Martinez said. "New Yorkers. That blew me away. "Have a good game. We're praying for you.' That was amazing, given everything you hear about the New York athletic market. It was shocking."

Though gracious hosts, truthfully there wasn't anything short of cheering for the enemy that the Giants and the 68,031 fans who paid to attend could have done to truly make their guests feel at home.

The Saints felt a lot like the thousands of displaced from the region they represent, who are finding that air mattresses, cots, and futons just don't sleep the same as one's own bed.

"Anytime I've got to look in at the ball and we're on a silent count, it's not a home game," Saints left tackle Wayne Gandy said.

"We had some [false start] penalties that were crowd noise. That's supposed to be our crowd noise right now," said defensive end Darren Howard. "They can give you friendly gestures, pat you on the back and rub your head all they want to, but when it comes down to it, there's 60,000 New York Giants fans. It clearly wasn't a home game. But if we're at home and we perform like that we're going to lose there also."

The Saints, however, played as though they were in fact at the Superdome, where, since Jim Haslett became coach in 2000, they've posted a 19-23 record, compared to a 25-17 mark in away games. New Orleans fumbled away the opening kickoff, the first of six turnovers. The Saints committed 13 penalties and did not score in any of their three trips inside New York's 20, which offset 422 yards of offense, 350 passing. Coordinator Tim Lewis' defense succeeded in his plan to make the Saints' offense one-dimensional, and that dimension was not the one they prefer to showcase.

It has been an exhausting stretch for the Saints (1-1), who first evacuated to San Jose, Calif., then set up shop in San Antonio and traveled to Carolina to play the Panthers in the opener before returning to San Antonio, then coming here.

"I think our guys are getting a little weary," Saints owner Tom Benson said after the game. "Mentally, they looked tired to me -- and we have to travel next week."

New Orleans plays at Minnesota next week before playing the first of three games this season at the team's temporary home of San Antonio (the Saints' other four home games are at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.).

"Damn right I'm tired," quarterback Aaron Brooks said on his way to the team buses, the frustration over the losses, both the team's and the region's, apparent in his voice. "I ain't gonna front. I'm tired as [heck]. Good thing we played on a Monday night. I laid around all last night, laid around all day [Monday] just to recoup. I mean, travel to San Antonio, go to Carolina, then we come to New York for a home game. Then we go to Minnesota next week and we have to fly back to San Antonio that night. So damn right I'm tired. Damn right I'm tired. The fresher you are, the better you play. But that's the situation. That's what we have to deal with."

Brooks wasn't making excuses. He was just acknowledging the obvious. And keeping it real. "You complain, nobody's listens," Brooks continued. "People are making [decisions] and we don't have no say so. We didn't want to come out here. Don't get me wrong. They beat our [butts]. But who the hell in our organization would agree to a home game in New York?

"I hope they raised enough money for the city and the evacuees. But don't patronize us though, try to make us feel good. Don't do that. That's all it was about. It was a bigger stage than the Super Bowl damn near. We start that game, 60,000 people rooting for the Giants. Don't get it twisted."

What Brooks expressed is precisely why now, more than ever, the Saints represent New Orleans. Because they can relate to their fans. An inherent socioeconomic divide exists between professional athletes and the people who support them. But Katrina did not discriminate. The Saints are dealing with the same concerns and similar inconveniences. "I think they have a lot of empathy for what we're going through," Compass said.

The people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama need their Saints to set an example. To press on. To march on. As they mourn their broken cities and attempt to piece together their shattered lives, the victims are attempting to find meaning, or purpose rather, in this tragedy. You hear a lot of references to God's will and statements like "everything happens for a reason" from them.

The Saints have come to symbolize the plight of the millions of people directly affected by this catastrophe. The Saints always have been looked upon as an irrelevant franchise, the city more popular than its team. Throughout their history, the Saints have been ignored -- much like the victims were by the government in the immediate aftermath of the strongest storm to strike the United States. Much like the city they represent, the Saints are using this experience to transform themselves, to rewrite their dubious history.

For their fans, the Saints aren't just an escape from reality. Right now, they're all that's left of New Orleans.

"The Saints are a godsend," Compass said. "We're trying to get back to a normal life. There's nothing more normal in New Orleans than watching the Saints. Our team is beloved by the city. We view the Saints as a symbol of things getting better."

The game marked Compass' first time away from the devastation. He's risked life and limb for weeks, leading New Orleans' overtaxed police force. Compass recalled residents whom police were attempting to rescue firing upon them, and later showed reporters a scar on his left wrist from a cyst removal that, had it come in contact with the contaminated flood waters, might have cost him his hand to amputation. Compass has had hundreds of officers quit the force and two commit suicide because they had been misinformed about the whereabouts of their families.

"I have six policemen living in my house right now," Compass said. "So I don't have to worry about anybody breaking in." Compass said he'd been spontaneously applauded in the Baton Rouge airport, while in Newark one woman said "she loved me. People were shaking my hand telling me 'Good job.' I was almost in tears."

Compass said he slept a total of six hours over one three-day stretch. He was so exhausted Monday night that by halftime, in the luxury box, he was leaning on the row of seats in front of him, napping.

It was a short rest, as Compass and the other officers had to appear on the field between the third and fourth quarters to accept a donation to the relief efforts.

"I think New Orleans really has a unique opportunity to become a shining example of perseverance and endurance," Compass said.

New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast need their Saints to lead the way.

"The Saints are an inspiration," said Ahmad Jabnei, an assistant to Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans. "Even though they're a sporting franchise, they're inspiring people to want to do better wherever they are."