Commentary

Saints the soul of America's city

Updated: December 19, 2009, 2:21 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- The soul of New Orleans is in a trumpet and a low-ceilinged bar. It's in the free red beans in the back. It's in the art hanging near the food that has two dogs howling at a New Orleans Saints moon. It's in the voice of Kermit Ruffins, two hours into his standing Thursday night gig at a packed club hidden in the neighborhood behind the French Quarter, the place weathered and peeling like the side of a workingman's boat.

He plays a song he wrote, "All I Want for Christmas Is the Saints in the Super Bowl," and the crowd dances and sings all the words. When he takes a break, he calls me in closer. There's something he wants to show me. He undoes his thin black tie, and the top two buttons, then pulls both his collared shirt and T-shirt down just enough so I can see. I notice the top point first, and slowly, the entire tattoo comes into view, a month old, enormous, covering his entire chest. I start laughing, and so does he. A symbol of the city adorned with a symbol of the city. Kermit Ruffins has gotten an enormous fleur-de-lis, the Saints' helmet logo, tattooed on his chest.

"Only in New Orleans," he says, winking. "I'm killing 'em when I take off my shirt at the beach. Especially at the Super Bowl."

Hello, madness

These are strange and beautiful days in New Orleans, and they must be seen to be believed. I've visited the city dozens of times since I was a boy, lived and worked there for a spell and last week, when I went down to experience the mania over the Saints' undefeated season firsthand, I found myself not sure whether every street was a dream. Some moments made me laugh, and others were so full of a desperate love that I had tears in my eyes.

[+] EnlargeRita Benson LeBlanc
AP Photo/Bill HaberRita Benson LeBlanc, front, with Tom Benson and his wife Gayle, left, greet fans near the end of the Saints-Giants game in October.

Where do you even begin? Maybe you describe the couture shops that have replaced the latest fashions on the storefront mannequins with Saints T-shirts? Maybe you tell how vampire novelist and native New Orleanian Anne Rice, never much of a football fan and now living on the West Coast, recently ordered a Drew Brees jersey with "Anne" on the back. Maybe you use numbers: 84 percent of the televisions in town were tuned to the recent Monday night game against the Patriots. Maybe you use bizarre trends, such as an NOPD cop telling me the 911 calls almost stop when the Saints play and there's been only one murder during a game this year.

I like this best, here, at a Christmas party for children at one of the columned and terraced battleships on tree-lined St. Charles Avenue. Everyone calls the home The Wedding Cake House, and it's owned by a prominent local attorney whose family is close to Rita Benson LeBlanc, the owner and executive vice president of the football franchise. The kids are all crowded around Santa Claus … until the arrival of Gumbo, the beloved St. Bernard-costumed mascot of the Saints. The kids flock to Gumbo, and there are screams and hugs and photos and, in the madness, a few of the adults look over to see Santa, totally alone and ignored, trying to figure out what to do.

Eventually, they said, he just left.

These are strange and beautiful days, and there is something being created right now, something that goes well beyond the success of a football team. One night, three of us roll through the streets of downtown New Orleans. LeBlanc is driving her dark Mercedes. In the back seat is the head of the federal government's Gulf Coast Rebuilding team. They are talking about the Saints' perfect season and the things athletic success can realistically mean to a town. We pass reopened hotels and fixed houses, the blue tarps that doubled for roofs for the past four years gone. We pass throngs of tourists who have returned, and local restaurants that are packed, and out there in the night, implicit in everything that is of this place, there is a defiant beating heart.

Yes, there is something happening in New Orleans, a strange and beautiful story not so much about a town that still needs distraction from a hurricane but about a professional sports team changing the nature of the relationship between franchise and fan. "It's the entire city," LeBlanc says as we drive. "Everybody feels it. It's not because we're selling it. Faith or fate, whatever you believe in, you cannot watch this football team and not have faith."

Resilience

The soul of the city is coming off the practice field and headed toward the showers. They are a motley group, undrafted guys and late-round fliers, players cast off from other teams. Brees landed in town after an injury convinced the Chargers that his best days were behind him. "When we came here," he has said, "I was in the process of rebuilding, as well."

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIQuarterback Drew Brees and the Saints' potent offense have produced a 13-0 record heading into their home game Saturday night againts Dallas.

Running back Mike Bell was out of football. So was cornerback Mike McKenzie, who watched the games from the stands with a mouthful of food before getting the call a few weeks ago. Darren Sharper arrived unwanted and has resurrected his career. Running back Pierre Thomas wasn't drafted. Star wide receiver Marques Colston wasn't drafted until the seventh round of the 2006 draft, and his college football program, Hofstra, just folded.

It goes on and on. This is a team of underdogs. "It's a bunch of guys that feel like they have something to prove," McKenzie says. "We have a lot of late draft picks and free agents that are now starting. It is a team full of guys who are probably viewed as overachievers."

It's perfect, isn't it? The expansion team whose first roster was created from players unwanted by other teams has finally found success with a similar group. The past of the team is well-documented. Archie Manning getting sacked. The Aints. The paper bags over the heads. No playoff games until 1987. No playoff wins until 2000. The Saints trudged along, some good years and mostly bad ones, until Rita took control and the team's football people hired Sean Payton, who had also had a rocky past as offensive coordinator for the New York Giants. The team's rise from the weight of the past mirrored a similar rise of the city.

The Saints, always popular, have transcended, now lumped in with New Orleans' institutions -- Mardi Gras, Louis Armstrong and red beans on Monday. They're woven into the fabric of the town … because they stayed. Private girls schools now let the students wear Saints jerseys to class on special days. A friend of mine, who lives in Uptown and grew up going to games, says the feeling about the team has changed. He's an oil-and-gas man, a Republican, not prone to fits of hippieness. "The last four years have been very special in the city's attachment to the Saints," he told me. "I am not one to do a lot of reflecting back on Katrina, but there is clearly a line of demarcation there."

Everyone is welcome

[+] EnlargeAnh 'Joseph' Cao
AP Photo/Alex BrandonAnh "Joseph" Cao with daughter Betsy, then 4, and wife Kate Hieu Hoang, won the 2nd Congressional District in New Orleans a year ago to become the first Vietnamese-American in Congress.

The soul of the city is inside a small man casually dressed in a sweater and blue blazer, smiling as his kids get their picture taken with the Snow Blizzard Fairy. Upstairs in the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, there are hundreds of sugar-buzzed kids running amok at the annual Children's Christmas Tea, surrounded by tables loaded with carafes of milk, chocolate milk and red Kool-Aid, plus towers of cookies and candy.

The amused papa's name is Anh "Joseph" Cao, and he's a rookie U.S. congressman. He came to the United States from Vietnam as an 8-year-old. There were no Christmas teas for him. He came with nothing, not even the language, and he and his family built a new life from scratch. Before becoming a lawyer, he studied for six years to become a Jesuit priest, and the ethos of service sticks with him. Voters elect stories, and his spoke to them: someone who knew what it was to rebuild a future. They voted for him because a city of underdogs pulls for one of its own, be it a man running for high office or a football team composed of cast-offs made good.

"It feels good to root for an underdog," Cao says.

Cao is the first Republican in his district to win a congressional seat in Louisiana since 1890, and he was the only Republican to vote in favor of health care reform. Most of his work is about helping New Orleans recover, and, recently, he started asking people to write in and explain what the New Orleans Saints mean to them. He understands that the team means more to his constituents than other teams mean to those of other legislators. Each week, he'll read one of the love letters on the floor of the House of Representatives.

On Sunday, you'll find him in front of a television.

He never misses a game.

Tradition

The soul of the city has been lined up in front of a curtained Bourbon Street restaurant for the past four hours. It's 9:30 in the morning, and everyone's hoping for a coveted table for Friday lunch at Galatoire's -- a culinary version of a Saints suite ticket. Some wait for themselves, such as the gentleman working the Times crossword or the one in the mustard sport coat and black scarf reading the latest New Yorker. Other people are placeholders -- house staff or local homeless folks -- who earn some cash by doing the hard part of getting in. For big occasions, the placeholder will line up the night before and take home a grand or more.

The Friday lunch takes all day: drinks in the bar, then a long, boozy meal -- "wine-soaked," it's often called. Regulars use the same waiter, who makes suggestions after checking out the fresh stocks. Almost no one uses a menu. Almost no one finishes in less than three hours. It's common for those at a table to look up, find the sun has gone down and order dinner at the same table. The Galatoire's double.

Passion for the 104-year-old bistro runs deep. A few years before the storm, the restaurant fired a beloved waiter named Gilberto for allegedly sexually harassing female employees. As you can imagine, there was outrage. No, not over the awful behavior but because regulars didn't want to eat without their waiter. Customers wrote angry and unintentionally hilarious letters to The Times-Picayune demanding that Gilberto be rehired. Local columnist Chris Rose put together a play titled "The Galatoire's Monologues" in which the letters were read theatrically. Performances sold out. The newspaper reported an incident not long after: "Two slender and well-dressed men, unsmiling and wearing dark sunglasses, burst into the door of the restaurant and released a hundred helium-filled white balloons emblazoned with "WELOVEGILBERTO.COM."

After the immediate shock of the storm, after the city had been evacuated and sat empty, I found myself wondering what was happening to Galatoire's. What was happening to Commander's Palace and to Igor's, the 24-hour-a-day bar, Laundromat, video arcade, pool hall and burger joint I love so much? Those questions were each a proxy for a single, more serious one: Was an entire way of life gone? Not to worry. The sign on a battered Commander's Palace while it was being repaired said it perfectly: "Yes, We Know What It Means."

Four years later, the city's culture remains intact. People still mourn the places that did not return, and they love the ones that did even more intensely than before.

It's getting close to lunchtime. Tourists look at the well-dressed mixed in with the downtrodden -- like a combo investment bank and relief mission -- and try to figure out what's going on. A local writer waiting with friends sees my notebook and turns to me. "You see this line?" Ian McNulty says, pointing. "The way people feel about food, that's the way people feel about the Saints. They wear our fleur-de-lis. That's a deep symbol of this city and its legacy. It's not a made-up animal character."

An organic love

The soul of the city is in the Lower 9th Ward, in the classrooms of Carver High. The school is still rebuilding, and the seniors are the first class to go to high school entirely after Katrina. Students all write the same header for their school papers. It's the same in every class, every day, every year: name, period, date, teacher. This year, they've added a new category on their own. Next to the date, the students write the Saints' record. So, today, it would be: Dec. 17, 2009. 13-0.

Gratitude squared

The soul of the city is in the den of James Carville and Mary Matalin's Uptown New Orleans home, full of intricate crown molding, an incredible collection of art and, periodically, a very famous cackle rising above the hum of conversation. The good bourbon's been poured and chairs have been pulled up and now, with jazz playing in the background, the real business begins: discussing politics. Carville sits with his back to the wide front porch, and on his right is Walter Isaacson, native New Orleanian, best-selling author and former CEO of CNN. On his left is Rita LeBlanc.

[+] EnlargeJames Carville and Mary Matalin
Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the PressRepublican strategist Mary Matalin and Democratic strategist James Carville have an Uptown New Orleans home and love the Saints.

"The hero of New Orleans," Isaacson says when LeBlanc sits down. "She is our own saint."

The three of them lead the conversation; others listen over their shoulders, sliding chairs and ottomans to form a small circle. They share opinions and laugh and take sips from their glasses of Maker's Mark, Carville and Isaacson taking theirs on the rocks. LeBlanc? She's got hers neat, holding court with the big boys, straight up, no chaser. She might be only 32, but she's tough as nails in a pair of Marni Mary Janes.

Yes, she is young. Yes, her grandfather is Tom Benson, who became loathed in those confusing months after Katrina because people felt he wanted to take the team away from them. Just after the storm, abandoned refrigerators full of rotted food appeared with a spray-painted message: Do not open … Tom Benson inside. This is unfair -- he bought the team in 1985 to make sure it didn't leave the city, and what owner of a billion-dollar asset can be blamed for wanting to protect it? Regardless, after that long season of doubt -- "It looked like we were gonna lose them," Archie Manning says -- Benson committed to keeping the team in New Orleans and turned control over to his granddaughter. The Saints immediately sold out all the season tickets for the first time and almost made it to the Super Bowl.

LeBlanc is hopeful, proud, earnest and hardworking, traits the rebuilding city valued, and if fans felt unsure about Benson and his intentions toward New Orleans, they are over the moon about LeBlanc. Rarely is someone loved so universally, from the conservative Uptown side streets to the flamboyant clubs of the Marigny. Suddenly, the face of the team is a young woman who supports local charities, has friends all over the city, and knows how to make shrewd business decisions and shake it to the Ying Yang Twins. She had them at crunk.

Earlier in the evening, when the party at Carville's was jumping, Isaacson and LeBlanc talked in the corner beneath the staircase. Like every other person at the party, Isaacson thanked her for the team's gift to the city this fall. LeBlanc told him about the family Mass they'd had in the Superdome before the Patriots game. "We had three archbishops," she said.

"You can never have too many archbishops," Isaacson said. "The Saints have been the single most important thing to bring the city together and make us realize why New Orleans is magical. And it's why the good Lord is blessing us."

He tells a story about Paul Tagliabue calling him just after the hurricane, asking whether the city could continue to support the team. It might have been the most crucial phone call in the long history of the city because Isaacson told him, "I promise you New Orleans will love the Saints forever, because they will know that act of loyalty kept the city's hope alive."

He turns to LeBlanc, smiles and says, "And I really appreciate your family for that."

Diversity

The soul of the city is on YouTube. Endless local hip-hop songs have been written for this Saints team. In addition to the jazz and food, New Orleans is home to a vibrant rap scene. One of the most popular songs flying around the Internet is a fusion of hip-hop and traditional horn music, a track called "Bring 'Em to The Dome," by Dee-1 and Shamarr Allen. The musicians are lifelong Saints fans and have watched the hits and downloads climb. The numbers go up by a factor of 10 on Sundays and Mondays. (The impact of Saints game day is something all New Orleanians must deal with; this past Sunday, for instance, the Uptown restaurant Patois had 60 reservations before kickoff and one after.)

The popularity of the songs illustrates an important point: The culture and fan base of the team is rooted in the neighborhoods, mostly blue collar and mostly African-American, that were most damaged by the storm. New Orleans has but one Fortune 500 company; regular people buy up all those seats. Many suffered tremendously after the storm, so their excitement and engagement is a sign that things are getting right. Dee-1's lyrics hit on a lot of truths, none greater than the insane decibel level of the stadium: Dome sounds like a 757 taking off.

Allen has played with the Rebirth Brass Band, with Willie Nelson and for Barack Obama. His trumpet is a treasure of the city, like the dining room at Galatoire's. He grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, and his family's home, right in the line of fire of one of the broken levees, was destroyed.

He thinks that the sounds of New Orleans music, like the Saints, cut across all racial and economic lines. New Orleans is a divided city -- with two exceptions. "Music has the same effect as the team does right now," he says. "Brings a whole bunch of different people together. Especially New Orleans brass band music. You could see a whole bunch of different people from different walks of life, from different ethnic cultures. The Saints are doing the same now."

The respect that heals

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSaints coach Sean Payton plays a leading role in the showing of post-Katrina success in New Orleans.

The soul of the city is in a football game three seasons ago, the return to the Superdome, on a Monday night when those of us who love New Orleans first realized the city would be back. It was Sept. 25, 2006 -- Payton's and Brees' first home game.

The Friday night before, Payton gathered his team in the empty stadium. People had died there, just 13 months before. The bodies were stored in a catering freezer. The building seemed unfixable, and now the Saints stood at midfield. On the video board, Payton played a movie about the hurricane. It showed it all, the dark, dark water, the archipelago of rooftops, the fear on the faces of an abandoned city, the slow pan of the Humanity Street sign barely visible above the current. It showed the Superdome with its roof almost torn off. It showed a city that looked as though it would never return. Then the video ended. The players, standing at the center of a rebuilt stadium, all shiny and new, talked about what they had seen and how important they were to the people who would fill these seats the next night.

They understood.

The fans came early. Green Day and U2 performed before the game, performed an old Scottish punk song "The Saints Are Coming," then segued into "Beautiful Day." Bono changed the first verse, calling out neighborhoods, from Lakeview to the Lower 9th, singing "coming home to New Orleans." With each familiar reference, the crowd reaction intensified, going from simmer to full, rolling boil.

The game began and, less than two minutes in, the Saints blocked a punt and recovered for a touchdown. One of my best friends, a chef who grew up in the city, sat on his couch in Mississippi and wept. So did thousands of people in the Dome. For 37 seconds, an eternity on television, the announcers stayed quiet, the only noise coming from the screaming of the crowd. Thirty-seven seconds, while a city went completely and totally insane with joy.

The people in New Orleans would never forget who gave them that gift.

Pride

The soul of the city is frequently misunderstood.

We have all read stories about sports being a distraction for various disasters -- sports satirists make a living skewering this kind of absurdly sentimental over-simplification -- and we are so used to every moment of fandom being choreographed and sponsored.

The cliché narrative about the Saints wraps the team's success together with the ongoing effort to move past Katrina. Last week, I overheard a reporter based in New Orleans complaining about editors in New York adding a clause to his publication's "Saints make city celebrate" story. The added clause, paraphrased to save him any corporate trouble, had an impressive three (possibly four) cliches in 16 words, said the Saints' success lifted a cloud of malaise that had hung over the city since the floodwaters receded and characterized the entire time in the city after Katrina as awful and, for good measure and redundancy, also depressed.

That's not true, he said. The city is not depressed, nor has it been for the past four years. People talk about media bias as if it's some conspiracy, and that's not true either. Media bias comes from assuming and not knowing. And, in the case of New Orleans, people don't know.

The Saints aren't encouraging people to rebuild, or providing comfort to a wounded city, or any of that. They are showing the world what has been rebuilt.

Suffering

The soul of the city is still damaged. That's important to know. Just because Katrina and its impact is misunderstood, that doesn't mean it didn't change a generation, profoundly, in ways most don't even understand.

On Friday afternoon, at a famous French Quarter bar that serves up glasses of that evil, green absinthe, a friend of LeBlanc's told me her Katrina story, the moment when she thought everything she had known would be gone forever.

She's well off, and her family got out, Saigon style, on a private plane just before the airports closed -- literally, they were the last flight to be cleared by the tower -- turboprops thumping, running away from the end of the world. A few days later, while flying back over the city, she asked the pilot to point out New Orleans. So, when the time came, he did. She looked out the window and didn't see anything. Everything was black. The pilot checked the instruments, looked at the radar and confirmed, Ma'am, we are right over New Orleans. Only, there was nothing to see but a desert of black. The city was dead, powered down and full of water, and, for the first time, she felt true despair. Every single New Orleanian has a story like that, and it lives deep inside of them.

"They just don't talk about it," she says.

Love, but not for the tender-hearted

The soul of the city is in white tablecloths, in large flotillas of china and silverware and shiny wine glasses, and in the big, well-lit rooms and world-class menus. It is here, in Restaurant August, the flagship of chef John Besh. The people who know about such things call this the best restaurant in the city, and they call Besh the best chef. He's also the archetype of the modern New Orleans leader. Two things hang next to his bar. One is a piece of art that says: "We Will Rise Again." The other is a story about Besh from The New York Times: "From disaster, a chef forges an empire."

Just before the storm hit, he made a poorly timed decision: to buy out his partner at August. He signed the papers, took on the debt and then watched as the city, his city, began to fill up with water. Had he just lost everything? Maybe. He certainly didn't know how he would pay his bills, or who would work in his kitchen if he could. He fled. "I had a beat-up Land Rover Defender," he says, smiling now, "and I stuffed it full of champagne, crabmeat and caviar."

 Rita Benson LeBlanc
AP Photo/Judi Bottoni"Faith or fate, whatever you believe in, you cannot watch this football team and not have faith," says Rita Benson LeBlanc.

He left in a truck. He came home in a boat, a former combat Marine packing heat. He saw more than disaster. He saw a call to action. If there was going to be a new New Orleans, it would take commitment from the people who loved it. "It was the Wild West," he says. "We were homesteaders in this city. Only the tough are gonna survive. Either you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work, or this isn't the city for you."

So he stabilized his finances by securing contracts to feed the workers who had come to secure and rebuild the city. Then he began opening new restaurants, expanding. Others did the same thing. "We're the young leaders," he says. "The future is for us to decide. You can't do that in any other city in America."

Before the storm, he saw NFL owners in his restaurant. Now, he sees players in all six of his places. Brees brings teammates to a different Besh restaurant before each home game. Team captains host dinners upstairs at August. The O-line knows the ins and outs of the menu, and Reggie Bush, Besh says, knows the chefs working the kitchen.

"Shockey used to live upstairs," Besh jokes, laughing. "We're glad he's gone. We kept losing hostesses."

The point, he says, is that the team is invested in the city -- not just at his restaurants but all over town. The players know that you get roast beef po-boys at Domilise's and that you get fried oyster po-boys at Parkway. They don't just take; they support those businesses that support them. Only in New Orleans is eating an unhealthy meal an act of civic duty. "We have little gems in this city," Besh says. "They've delved into it. They understand it. These guys have become part of the community."

That's not an accident. LeBlanc and Benson told Brees and Payton before signing them up: "You can't come here and not love the city and not understand your part of rebuilding New Orleans."

Brees works tirelessly in the community and, in a simple but powerful statement, became one of the first prominent Saints since Manning to buy a house in Uptown instead of the suburbs often favored by athletes. People in New Orleans like to see if you get it: Are you one of the folks who comes to call Creole food Cajun, mispronounce the name of the city and vomit in Bourbon Street gutters, or do you love the city for the same reasons they do. "Ninety percent of people who come up to me on the street don't say, 'Great game,'" Brees told reporters his first year in town. "They say, 'Thank you for being part of the city.'"

All of them -- Besh, LeBlanc, Brees, Payton, Bush -- they are all part of this first generation of post-Katrina successful New Orleanians. They are building a city from scratch, and people see them every day, working, adopting charities, enjoying life, sitting at the next table or listening to the same band. Katrina almost destroyed the city but, if you look closely, you'll find that it did something else: It strengthened it, made the people who loved it love it even more. Everyone left the city, so no one is here because of inertia. They chose to come back.

"With all of my being, I think the new New Orleans is gonna be the best New Orleans," Besh says. "The hurricane played a major role in the evolution of this city and this culture -- and not only to its detriment. We don't like lukewarm here."

Indomitable hope

The soul of the city is the frame of a foundation on an empty lot. LeBlanc and I are driving through the neighborhoods she knew as a child, and the construction catches her off guard. "Someone's building," she says. "Wow."

This lot is where a red-brick house once stood. Her mom lived there, a friend was engaged there, it was home to many of her New Orleans memories. The storm killed the house, and when she found out it had been torn down, she drove out there and walked through the wreckage. She bent over and picked up a piece of broken tile, a souvenir, a holy relic of a life lost. But something stopped her, made her put it back down and drive away empty-handed.

Now, she slows her car and comes to a stop. She reaches into her bag and gets her camera. Only, she doesn't want a picture of the new house. "Look at the sky," she says. "It's extraordinary."

It is, indeed -- purple and two different shades of blue, rays of pink and yellow, backlit clouds that rise forever. She takes a series of pictures, trying to capture the hope of this sky on film.

Faith

The soul of the city is on the left hand of the statue of Jesus behind the St. Louis Cathedral, arms spread, his thumb and forefinger missing. Men and women of the church see the work of God in those missing digits. In the hours before Katrina made landfall, it churned directly toward the city, the first outer bands of the storm pounding rain and wind, a big Category 5 that seemed intent on -- and capable of -- destroying New Orleans once and for all. Only, something happened. Luck? A miracle? Who knows? But at the last moment, Katrina downgraded to a 3 and turned north, avoiding a direct hit. The only part of the statue damaged was the thumb and forefinger; Jesus, some believe, flicked the storm away.

"For 214 years, Catholicism has existed here," says the Most Rev. Gregory Aymond. "It is part of the city. I don't think it's an accident that the team was named the Saints."

Aymond was born here and was installed as archbishop less than a month before the Saints' first game this season. It's Sunday morning, two hours before kickoff, and he's getting ready for 11 a.m. Mass. The cathedral fills up with worshippers, the organ sending spiritual songs out into the square, blessing the tarot readers and artists and mimes. Ship captains sailing down the river across the street see the three spires, and if they're close enough, they can read the time on the clock.

Aymond sees the Benson family at services, and he has performed the Mass the owners have every Sunday in the Superdome for themselves and guests. "I pray for all the saints," he says, "those in heaven and those who will be on the field."

There is great faith here, and living in the breach, under different flags, has taught each generation that suffering is as much a part of life as great feasts and celebration. The joy of Mardi Gras cannot exist without the sacrifice of Lent.

"In our 214 years of Catholicism here, look what the city's been through," Aymond says. "Yellow fever epidemics. Floods. Significant hurricanes. Some troubled times athletically and politically. We are a people who persevere. We always rise up and start again."

Loyalty

The soul of the city is in the Sunday edition of The Times-Picayune. There are all sorts of ways to measure people's devotion to local, but one of them is that year after year, a higher percentage of residents read the Times-Pic than any other residents in the country read their hometown paper.

This past Sunday, I spread it out on the table before me, listening to the first quarter of the game blaring on the radio from the kitchen of an Uptown pizza joint, and looked at the front page. Above the flag, a tease about Brees being named king of Bacchus, the largest Mardi Gras super krewe. If the Saints win the Super Bowl, the story inside says, this parade would turn into a Saints lovefest. Next to the first installment in a four-part series about the NOPD killing civilians during Katrina is a story about the mayor's race being swallowed up in the excitement over the Saints. "If voters don't know who you are," one consultant says, "you better be running TV ads during those Saints games."

Every section has stories about the team and its impact on elections and Mardi Gras and the economy. My favorite is on the front of the Living section, a list of e-mails they elicited with the question: What's your personal Who Dat theme song?

Yvette Thevenot Netzhammer writes: "Beyonce's 'Crazy in Love' captures how I've felt for the last 13 weeks! I was born in 1967, just like the Saints. I've been a big fan since then. We named our family dog Archie in honor of my first hero -- No. 8. However, no season has ever gotten me so 'CRAZY' about the boys in black and gold! They're all I think about. I just love them so MUCH! What's not to love about Dreamy Drew Brees and Seaniepoo Payton -- the DYNAMIC DUO? You've got to be a little crazy to head out to the airport and wait outside in the cold after a game just to see the players ride by you for a second on their way home, right? But I've been there with pride! This crazy love has even spilled over into my job. I teach 4th and 5th graders. Here are some of my latest assignments: Write an essay about Waking Up One Day as Drew Brees, use a Venn diagram to compare Brees and Bush, write a descriptive paragraph about the Saints, make a list of as many adjectives as you can that describe the Who Dats. The Who Dat Nation is 'Crazy in Love' with the Saints … and that love is going to reach all the way to Miami, baby!"

Amen, Yvette Thevenot Netzhammer.

America's city?

The soul of the city is all around me as I drive out Interstate 10. I've seen the things I came to see, felt what it was like during this time of madness in New Orleans. My wife is with me, and we're listening to the Saints game on the radio. She does not like football, but she loves New Orleans, and this is the first team she has ever cared about.

I think about all I've seen -- in the past week, in the years before -- and about the next game in the Dome. The Cowboys are coming to town. Some marketing guy decided in the '70s that they should be America's Team. It stuck, because they were good and because Dallas represented everything America thought about itself: big, consuming, flashy, bragging, unbeatable.

When I drive into Dallas, I see a place sprawling and bland, loops and rings of interstate and, somewhere over the horizon, a stadium representing a just-gone era of bloat and decay … scoreboard so big it interferes with the game … $60 pizzas. It looks new but is dead inside. In contrast, there is the drive out of New Orleans, through a city still battered, past the exits for the Vieux Carre and Uptown, past the Huey Long, which runs narrow and high out to the leaning oyster and chicken shack. All told, this is a city with the opposite calculus of Dallas: It is decayed on the outside, but inside there is life. Here is a citizenry that believes in the power of the underdog. New Orleanians fell first and see something the rest of America is blind to right now: a way back into the light.

We're running low on gas, and there's not a station for miles, so I ease off the road at Manchac, the bayou town with the best catfish in the world, where my grandparents ate on their honeymoon. I drive toward the dive bars and seafood shacks, turn onto a private road and navigate the railroad tracks, pulling my truck up as close as it will get to the Fuel Dock. This is where the fishing boats gas up, but the owner will run the hose the length of the pier and fill a car up, too, if you're truly in need.

We go inside to pay. A small crowd is gathered around the television. Boat captains and deck hands who tied up here to watch the fourth quarter. These aren't the Uptown moneyed class or even the cool musicians. They work for a living, the oxygen in the culture of the city. The man closest to me can barely watch; the weekend before, he flipped his recliner over. Outside, the fog cuts visibility to nothing; he had to use radar and GPS to find the dock.

The game comes down to the last tense moments, again, and when it is over, and the Saints are 13-0, there is a moment of joy inside the Fuel Dock, and right there amid the beer coolers and tackle displays, tough men hug each other. We can't see the skyline of New Orleans, the silhouette of the Superdome out of view, but even out here on Lake Maurepas, we can feel it.

The soul of the city is alive. And it is everywhere.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. In 2001-02, he covered LSU for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.