Saintly Reprieve for a Broken City

The white convex roof of the Louisiana Superdome -- fractured by the lashing wind and water of Hurricane Katrina -- is whole again.

You can see it on this balmy, drizzling January day, hovering above the still-recovering city. Sixteen months ago, the home of the New Orleans Saints, an island floating in the surge of Lake Pontchartrain, became the enduring symbol of shelter from the lethal storm. Today, a yawning sign hangs on the side:

Our Home Our Team Be A Saint

There is still plywood in place of glass in some storefronts on sprawling Canal Street, chunks missing from art-deco building facades. Yet hope is tangible in the black-and-gold "We Believe" signs posted all over in the French Quarter and the Saints flags that fly from the porches of the stately mansions in the Garden District.

After a cathartic (and, in retrospect, predictable) 3-13 season that featured "home" games in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and the Alamodome, team meetings in the San Antonio Convention Center and practices at a nearby high school facility, the Saints have rediscovered their true home.

Drive about 15 minutes northwest of the city on Airline Drive, turn left when you see the New Orleans Zephyrs' stadium, walk past the ticket office in the lobby of the Saints' rebuilt facility, take two quick turns and you're in the locker room.

Michael Lewis, the feisty little kick returner who was born in New Orleans, sits in front of his stall and touches his heart.

"The city believes," Lewis says, with feeling, "because we believe."

It's really that simple.

Amid 40 seasons largely fraught with frustration, the Saints find themselves in the playoffs for only the sixth time. They have a single postseason victory -- a 31-28 wild-card victory over the St. Louis Rams in December 2000. But with a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Saturday night's divisional playoff game, the Saints would march into the NFC championship game, a new threshold for this historically struggling franchise.

"When you can win one football game, and you're playing for the NFC championship..." wide receiver Joe Horn said, savoring the sound of it. "For the Saints, after all we've been through all these years…Man…"

The Saints are the feel-good story of this season's NFL. They have -- pick your favorite uplifting phrase -- revitalized/rejuvenated a battered/beaten city's spirit/psyche. But beyond that warm glow everyone is feeling, there was some frankly brutal work to be done. Sean Payton, hired as head coach 51 weeks ago, was the man who insisted the players hold themselves to a higher standard. He was the much-needed bad cop and, it turns out, a great coach.

Ask the longtime veterans -- there are startlingly few left on the roster -- about Payton's impact and their first reaction is an almost unconscious grimace. In the lighthearted moments that followed an early practice last Friday, several players actually rolled their eyes when the subject of the breakaway choice for NFL Coach of the Year was broached.

"He ran our asses off," said running back Deuce McAllister.

Coming from McAllister, whose given name is Dulymus Jenod, this is saying something. He cleared 1,000 yards rushing for the fourth time in a six-year career.

"The first month was tough," McAllister added. "Really tough."

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