Even before riding along with the New Orleans Saints with a police escort from the team hotel to Sun Life Stadium for Super Bowl XLIV, I gained a better understanding of the love affair Saints fans have for their team, and the love the team has for its fans.
While reporting from the team hotel the morning of the game, I observed the growing number of fans, friends and family members who were already in full celebration mode while congregating in the hotel lobby. I asked Saints general manager Mickey Loomis why the team didn’t follow the customary procedure of moving to another hotel the night before the game in order to avoid the pregame distractions of rooming with family and friends.
Loomis explained how, after Hurricane Katrina, the Saints had become accustomed to living in makeshift conditions while easily creating a home away from home. He further explained how his team was perhaps the most prepared in the league to handle these potential distractions.
I saw Saints fans who weren’t cocky, arrogant or taunting. Instead, I saw fans who loved, hugged and embraced total strangers. Once I arrived at the stadium with the team, it became clear that the majority of the fans in the stadium belonged to the beloved New Orleans Saints.
As a sideline reporter for CBS Sports, I used my opening comments to explain what I had witnessed from the team throughout the day. I also wanted to foreshadow how I thought the game would play out based on the intel gathered during my production meetings with the Saints coaches and players earlier during the week. My pregame report went as follows: “I spent the entire month of August with the New Orleans Saints, and today they appear to be just as comfortable and confident as they were then. The coaches and players told me they plan to launch an aggressive attack and they also plan to come after a banged-up and wounded Colts DE Dwight Freeney. Maybe their head coach, Sean Payton, put it best when he told me that it is going to take an aggressive mindset to win this game.”
Payton stayed with his game plan of aggressive play-calling, which ultimately decided the outcome of the game.
While The Who performed during halftime, Payton was hatching a caper that would allow him to steal the Vince Lombardi Trophy away from Peyton Manning and the Colts. Before displaying the nerves of a cat burglar by calling for an onside kick to start the second half, Payton told me in our halftime chat that his team would have to go out and take the game from the Colts by being even more aggressive in the second half. “It’s going to take balls to win this game,” said Payton.
When Chris Reis recovered the onside kick, he put the New Orleans Saints in the driver’s seat, and the result was a Super Bowl championship. As I huddled with the celebrating Saints at midfield, surrounded by flying confetti, heavy security and fist-pumping players who hugged one another, I saw enough love pouring out that could last a lifetime.
I saw Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer hugging his two beautiful daughters and his son, Adam Zimmer, who is an assistant linebackers coach with the Saints. Their heartache and tragic loss of Mike’s wife earlier in the season had to subside for at least a moment during what was a terrific family celebration. I noticed Harry Connick Jr. — then he noticed me and we embraced with a roaring man-hug as I, too, was swept up in the emotion. As the game analyst for the Saints’ preseason games, I couldn’t help but feel as though I had been adopted into the family. That’s just the way it is with this team and its fans. They are more than just a feel-good story. They are the real deal.
I saw a people, a city, a coach and a quarterback achieve its very own version of manifest destiny. Just as the late Reggie White made a divine declaration when he chose to sign with the then-struggling Green Bay Packers, Drew Brees said he felt it was a “calling” that compelled him to sign with the Saints after he had been abandoned by his former team, the San Diego Chargers. Payton said the proudest part of leading the Saints to the Super Bowl is that when the Saints are playing, the crime rate in New Orleans is zero percent.
I felt like I had seen it all. From Katrina to the Super Bowl’s center stage, where an estimated record-setting 106 million viewers watched, the New Orleans Saints gave the world one big hug.