Editor’s note: The New Orleans Saints upset Indianapolis, 31-17, on Sunday night, clinching their first Super Bowl victory. For more on their championship season and what it means to New Orleans as it continues its recovery from Hurricane Katrina, check out Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s coverage.
NEW ORLEANS | Driving out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, it’s impossible to miss the giant billboard dedicated to the city’s No. 1 religion these days: the Saints.
“BLESS YOU BOYS,” it reads, spelled out in the football team’s colors of black and old gold, and flanked by fleurs-de-lis.
The separation of church and state may be under constant debate across the U.S., but church and football are closely linked in this still-recovering city ahead of the Super Bowl.
Less than five years ago, the Saints’ home — the Louisiana Superdome — housed around 30,000 New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina. People were stranded in the dome without power or plumbing as temperatures rose to 95 degrees, baking the smells of trash, feces and mold.
But the Saints, the city and the people of New Orleans have been born-again. After a more than $200 million renovation, the Superdome reopened in 2006, and its home team is playing in its first-ever championship game against the favored Indianapolis Colts in South Florida.
Evidence of the Saints’ success lifting spirits is apparent all around the Crescent City. Near the French Market, a crowd gathered around a brass band and a Joan of Arc impersonator near the French heroine’s statue. They solemnly read aloud “A Super Bowl Prayer to the Maid of New Orleans,” which ended “Amen. Who Dat?” — the team’s chant.
On Saturday in the French Quarter, Kenny Williams shouted “Who Dat!” to a crowd dancing to a live band. “The energy — this is what we came home for,” he said. “I’m only in the States for 100 hours but I knew I wanted to be back for this. I knew I’d never miss it.”
Williams and his wife are from New Orleans but work for an oil company in the Middle East. On Thursday, they flew from Saudi Arabia to Miami–home of this year’s Super Bowl — to New Orleans. Williams sported a green, yellow and purple fur Mardi Gras hat, Saints beads and custom black pants.
“I’ve been decked out in Saints gear since Thursday and I hope you like these pants because I’m wearing them every day,” he said, pointing to his pants covered with gold drawings of the state of Louisiana and the team’s name. He had to take the material to Thailand to get the pants made — and he was determined to get good use out of them.
Like many New Orleans families, his family scattered after Katrina. The storm sent his parents to Houston and his brother to Mississippi. None of his family moved back after the storm, but he says that their hearts never really left. “You can take the Yat out of New Orleans but you can’t take New Orleans out of the Yat,” he said. (A Yat is a person who speaks in traditional New Orleans dialect.)
That undying dedication to the city and its football team was apparent all weekend. Second lines — unofficial parades of people enjoying a band’s music — broke out on just about every downtown corner. Every few blocks another band was playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with crowds gathering in front of them to dance and sing along.
Next to buildings decorated with Mardi Gras beads and streamers, a crowd at the corner of Rue St. Peter and Rue Royal shouted, “Who dat say gonna beat dem Saints? Who Dat! Who Dat!” as they danced.
“It’s one of those cities [where] you walk out the door and pick a direction, and the day will entertain you. It’s magical, and this is just part of that,” said Christine McMurdo-Wallis as she danced along with the music.
She and her partner Tom Anderson have lived in Baton Rouge for eight years and were gleeful about the city’s transformation after the hurricane. “It’s like a healing here in the city. Everybody’s talking about it and saying ‘Oh my god, we’ve already won. The healing’s begun,'” Anderson said.
Pamela Flow credited the city’s spiritual traditions with helping along its rebirth. “There’s something about this city and all the voodoo and big spirituality that it really is … like New Orleans resurrecting from the dead,” she said.
With Mardi Gras just around the corner, the city is on celebratory overload. Flow grew up in New Orleans but now lives in Florida. She makes it a habit to come back to Louisiana for Mardi Gras, and this year she said the Super Bowl “turned up the volume on everything.”
Matthew and Lynette Causey live in the Ninth Ward — the part of the city that was the hardest hit by the hurricane. Their home was invaded by seven feet of water during the storm, then by thieves in the aftermath. For a year and a half they lived in Baton Rouge as they rebuilt their house and their lives in New Orleans.
“I think it’s a survivor spirit,” said Lynette Causey, her face framed by a black and gold tinsel boa. “Katrina will always be a part of our lives. But to see that you can survive it and you can come back better and stronger–that’s a great feeling.”
And with that, the Saints and the city of New Orleans go marching on — win or lose.