Saturday, September 22, 2007

Stormin' into New Orleans

"I don't came all the way from Israel just to see the Saints?" – time after time I was asked by surprised New Orleans residents to explain what are my business in their decaying city. You can understand their amazement. In the US the city is still mentioned with regard to hurricane Katrina, but not a lot of Americans still occupy their mind with thoughts about it's wreckage, people and football team. Today, a year and four months after the storm.

Once upon of time, things were different. New Orleans was known as the nightlife capitol of the US. The city that care gorgot, they used to call it. That's how it was in the French Quarter, between the Jazz concert and the strip clubs of Bourbon street – Sodom and Amora of America. The alcohol, drugs and sex all over made you forget any care, worry or the wife that stayed behind with the Kids at home. And then Katrina came and changed everything. No only that the care showed it face in New Orleans, since those terrible days, it seems it was the city itself which was forgotten.

Congressional hearings, civil protests and even the well spoken documentary by Spike Lee didn't really managed to attract the attention of the government to the rebuilding process. Although they try to convinse everybody that the Big Easy is back, the scars on it's bleeding streets indicates there is a crisis going on. That's the way it goes when you have Iraq and Afghanistan on the top of your agenda. In our mother empire it's not accustomed to act according to the principal of your poor – first. And George W. Bush knows that in the neglected Louisiana metropolin there are a lots of poor, this year more than ever.

The city is ruined, half of its residents are still refugees all over the country, but the government keeps on with its invisible hand policy, which fits well with it's capitalism principles. In the end, they believe in the White House, everything will fall into its place. The hand is invisible, so is the pocket it needs get money from. The simple people needs to start up their life again with charity and yeah…on the refuge the Saints supplies – Hope, something it need more than money.

I also spent a considerable amount of money on plane ticket and hotel in order to get to New Orleans for the second time in my life and have a chance to watch the Saints in the Superdome – a dream that lasted six years until his fulfillment, six years since I became a die hard fan of the team. Just like that, a result of an unexplained neurotic episode.

Not as in my case, you could attribute the love of the local healthy fans to their local loyalty. There is no other logical reason to relate to the biggest loser in NFL's history. Today they don't any choice left. All of New Orleans look up to the Saints, because they are their only bouy in the pool of mud around them. Mud that nobody cares too much of drying.

New Orleans is a small city in American standards and after the washing it experienced, it even shrunken (only half of its 500 thousand citizens return from exile). Despite its humble territory, you can split it in two – New Orleans of above and New Orleans of down-under (and there's no correlation to Uptown/Downtown terminology). In August 29th 2005 the divide became clearer when the storms water left the French Quarter alone, but wiped out the other neighborhoods, shattering them completely.

Today, except few puddles here and there, the city is not flooded anymore, but the destruction is apparent until today. Overwhelming the visual shocking evidence of shattered homes, are the horrible stories. Everyone has one, although lots of residents of New Orleans of down-under can't tell theirs. More than thousand killed, thousands others still missing. You also know that they won't be back anymore.

In the "Upper New Orleans" life go on, slowly though. The wealthy resident are slowly recovering their homes and businesses. Even the tourists start drizzling again through Louis Armstrong airport, and becoming mist over the beers glasses in the sleezy bars of the French Quarter, where the Neon started shining again, as well as the police cars flashing lights.

Yeah, life is good in Bourbon Street, but if you take a wrong turn, it may end. Crossed the border between Upper and Down-under New Orleans and you might find yourself washed away through the bare sewage of drugs and crime struck Canal street.

In spite of what the authorities try to show with their campaigns, New Orleans is still divided between reach and poor, those who reconstruct their homes and those who invaded others, between working men and murderous drug pushers, and yeah…between whites and blacks. It seems the only things that trickled into the life of all of the city population are the waters of Lake Pontchertrain and the New Orleans Saints - The destruction and hope, that everybody shares.

The Saints are an unusual case of rebuilding. Maybe that's why the local see a glimpse of hope in them, with their ability to change, renew and come out of the ruins. The rejuvenation of the football team gives to the people a lot of feel good atmosphere, but also self confidence and faith in the resurrection of the city. The Saints recovered of the toughest of their 40 years of existence, to charge into the playoffs in the best season they ever had. Now, they even looking forward to the Superbowl. If they can do that, New Orleans can surely rebirth. And the fans, they believe. Sure they believe, as the bunch of signs show from every house or store: "We Believe!".

Three months ago, nobody believed in the Saints. After a catastrophic season they experienced in the shadows of Katrina's clouds, nobody had a reason the believe in them, even the die-hard fans. A week before the 2005 season started, the team was forced to leave to Texas and watch their home court – the mighty Superdome – turn into a giant public shelter for the storm refugees and disintegrated from inside out.

During these days, the team was also disintegrating from one hotel to the other, between one lose, to the second to the third. With no supporting home crowd, with no minimal training conditions, the Saints finished the season with a horrendous record of 3 wins in 16 games. Rumors started to float about Tom Benson, the team owner, intentions to abandon the city and place it in San Antonio for good.

In the End, 185 million dollars that FEMA invested in the reconstruction of the Stadium, and a subtle fiscal pressure that the NFL board of directors put on Benson, brought the Saints back home for 2006. but it wasn't enough to gain the hearts of the fans.

The one that did manage to do just that, big-time, was the 42 years old new coach, Sean Payton, whom in his first year as a head coach in the demanding NFL, decided to tear apart the infrastructure that his predecessor laid, and started rebuilding – a little bit like the recovery effort of the whole city, but full steam. Payton released half of the team's roster and piled in the locker room bunch of veterans with good personalities, Ones that would be ready to devote themselves to the chronic looser, in this extreme impossible situation.

Among those new players, arrived also the new Quarterback, Drew Brees. Like New Orleans, Like the Saints, so is the 28 years old star who needed to recover himself after tearing a ligament in his throwing shoulder. That was the reason he was released by the San Diego Chargers and had some trouble finding a new team. But Payton wasn't afraid to gamble on him, two months after he got out of surgery. It was the best gamble the brilliant-bold-young coach did, one out of many. After a long recovery period, Brees led his new team to the Playoffs, as one of the best players in the league.

Brees story is one of bunch of miracles happened in the Superdome this year. Another big miracle was picking Reggie Bush second in the 2006 draft in April. The USC Running-Back was considered as one of the best gifted players to ever get out of college league, and was destined to be the first pick in the draft owned by Houston. But the Texans passed on him form unexplainable reasons. The Black and Gold blessed their uncommon good fortune, and put their hands on the bright star. Now, with a "President Bush" of their own, the local residents can give up the original one, from Washington DC.

Above all the good performance on the field, Brees leadership and Bush promise, it was their contribution to the community that stood up. Like others in the Saints organization, Brees and Bush dedicated themselves to work with helpless in the real world outside the one again protecting Superdome, and became local heros, real civil servants.

Bush surpassed it all when he put hundreds of thousands of dollars to some of the city's institutes, even before he signed his millions contract. In addition to that he leads a campaign called 'yard by yard' ( to help raise money for his new home town recovery (actually, Bush is from San Diego, California). He also put 25 presents of his 25 Jersey sales to the same cause (needless to say, his jersey is the most popular all over the US).

The Fans didn't stay apathic. They were willing to forgive and forget – the 39 previous years of ongoing failures and disappointments, the agony and broken hearts and even Benson abandoning murmurs. For the first time in the Saints history, all the season tickets were sold out even before the season started - Sold-out which is even more impressive when you think about the dramatic shriveling of the population in the last 14 months. As many as 900 thousands people are living now in the greater New Orleans – 70 thousand of them own a season ticket.

But the love of New Orleans to Saints is much wider and overwhelming than those 70 thousands fans that shakes the space trapped in the Superdome, you can feel it all over, anytime, everywhere – in Upper New Orleans and the Down-Under one.

There are literally no other conversations these days in the city. The horror stories of Katrina were replaced by arguments about the team chances in the playoffs – something nobody didn't even imagined back in the start of the season. Brees, Bush, Joe Horn, Deuce McAllister, Marques Colston and the other surprising starts took complete control on the everyday agenda.

I came to New Orleans to watch the Saints, in their last regular season game in the last day of 2006. on my way to the Superdom I was really happy to see the residents go out to the neglected streets and filling the parking lots with Hip-Hop music and barbeques smell.

People are smiling, enjoying life, surge into the gigantic stadium. Inside the atmosphere is not as calm. Tens of thousands fans are getting actively involved with the game, responding to every step, producing an unbearable sound – a chants for their messiahs, the players. A true genuine love, almost desperate. The Superdome that was altered as a shelter from the storm, became a household for the storm from within, sheltering from the frustrating silence outside.

In the end of a meaningless but very emotional game, the Saints lost 21:31 by the Carolina Panthers. It didn't change much about their chances – the team kept its position and went on to the NFC final. One win away from the Superbowl in Miami – Unbelievable.

The following day, the first one of the new year, the local newspaper The Times Picayune, opened his first 2007 edition with the headline – "Bring on the Playoffs". Touching, optimistic. One that kept on browsing through the inner pages found out that during the night there were three people getting murdered. A reminder of the bitter reality, which New Orleans is still coping with, when it wakes up of its dream, and find out it still in coma.

This article was originaly published on ynet - 13.01.07

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At 10:20 AM, Blogger giftaki said...

Hi from Greece.
I found your blog during a search for Ken Barlow (played for my favorite team, PAOK) and I realy enjoyed your posts.

At 6:29 PM, Blogger Amir Bogen said...

thanks for the kind word. I have a lots of other former players that played in Israel in the project, most of the stories are in hebrew. will try to translate them all eventually


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