NEW ORLEANS — They ain't the Ain'ts anymore. And ain't that grand for New Orleans.
Football's once-hapless New Orleans Saints are on a roll at 11-0, lifting spirits in this hurricane-battered city four miserable, down-in-the-dumps years after Katrina. In fact, folks in the Big Easy are feeling so good about their team's chances that they are actually canceling or rearranging Mardi Gras events to keep Super Bowl Sunday clear.
“The whole city is floating right now. We're all on a cloud. Cloud nine,” said 68-year-old Lynn Compter, standing next to his mustard-yellow 1939 Chevrolet, which was decked out in fleurs de lis with the Saints' record in magnetic numbers on its doors. “The day after a win is like a steroid shot.”
Football is a passion that goes beyond words in Louisiana, where Y.A. Tittle, Billy Cannon, Eddie Robinson and the Manning family are legends. But Saints fever goes deeper than that.
With their come-from-behind wins and gritty play, the Saints have become symbols of hard work, toughness and camaraderie in a city that has seen all too much despair and backbiting.
“This team doesn't give up, even when they're behind. This team has been in every game,” said Lamar Callaway, a 69-year-old retired bridge inspector who lives in Lakeview, a New Orleans neighborhood badly flooded by Katrina. Plus, he said, the Saints offer a “break from the doldrums of rebuilding.”
The Saints were long one of the worst teams in the NFL, playing so badly that they became known as the “Ain'ts.” Since they started in 1967, they have never reached the Super Bowl, and they did not even have a winning season until 1987, the year Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at the Superdome in September.
Since Katrina, the Saints have been a bright light amid the dreariness. The Superdome, where tens of thousands of people were trapped in the days after the storm, was repaired quickly and became a symbol of rebirth in 2006. Then, the Black and Gold did the unprecedented: They went to the conference championship in 2007.
This season, the team has taken it to a whole new level.
Everywhere, people are high-fiving and chanting, “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?!” Huge midnight crowds welcome the undefeated team at the airport after road games.
“I've collected every sports page with their win on it this year. I'm keeping them all. I've got my Saints flag in the window. I'm loving it,” said Annette Corneiago.
Even Mardi Gras is making way. One parade was canceled because it was set to roll on Feb. 7, the day the Super Bowl will be played in Miami. Another parade will be moved to the following Tuesday if the Saints make it to the big game.
When Katrina struck in August 2005, about 80 percent of the city flooded. The population is still only 350,000, compared with the pre-storm level of 454,000, and some neighborhoods are still in ruins.
“We expect corruption, we expect mediocrity, we expect potholes,” said Sidney Arroyo, a local political consultant. “The Saints are showing us that just because it hasn't happened before doesn't mean it can't happen now. Anything's possible. It's bliss.”
The No. 1 bliss maker is No. 9 Drew Brees, the quarterback with the rocket arm.
He is himself a symbol of renewal. Brees got a second chance after suffering a serious injury while playing for the San Diego Chargers. After arriving in New Orleans in 2006, he and his wife restored an old hurricane-damaged house in the Uptown neighborhood, and his “Rebuilding Dreams” campaign raised more than $2 million for playgrounds, athletic fields and schools.
He said he believes it was more than coincidence that he ended up in New Orleans.
“Everything happens for a reason, you know? Seriously. It's a calling,” Brees said.
For long-suffering Saints fans, he looks a lot like a savior.
“If Jesus was on one side of the street and Drew Brees on the other, walking down Magazine Street today, I think more people would mob Drew Brees,” Angela Pate, a saleswoman at Storyville, a T-shirt shop, said with a laugh.
In suburban Metairie, where the Saints practice, Pam Randazza runs the Black and Gold Sports Shop, which specializes in all things Saints. She said the Saints spirit has replaced the sorrow of Katrina.
“We're past being, `Poor us,“' she said. “We're now the strong city and the strong team.”