Sunday, November 02, 2008

How the Saints saved New Orleans ...

From an article by Martin Fletcher, timesonline.

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, help for the people of New Orleans came from a surprising source: the city's football team.

Slender young cheerleaders skimpily dressed in black and gold are dancing on the sidelines. A man revs up a Harley-Davidson before leading the New Orleans Saints on to the field through clouds of dry ice. The noise from the huge crowd in the Superdome is deafening. Amid the bedlam, three middle-aged nuns stand serenely in their long white habits singing the praises of their beloved football team.

“You can't imagine their devotion to this city,” beams Sister Joan Marie. Sister Mary George enthuses: “Each player goes out into the community and does good things.” Sister Mary Andrew declares: “They couldn't be more appropriately named.”

The Saints have worked a minor miracle. They have contributed as much to the recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as any political leader, government agency or corporate entity. The way they came marching home 13 months after Katrina wreaked such destruction brought hope and inspiration where there was only misery and despair.

“They saved the city, big time,” says Humble Levar, 31, a limousine driver. Keith Joiner, 46, a paramedic, agrees: “That's what brought the city back to life, the Saints coming home. They gave everyone hope.” Mary Beth Romig, of the New Orleans convention and visitors bureau, says: “The Saints saved the city - emotionally, spiritually and, to an extent, economically.”

“For me and other guys who came here we saw it as an opportunity to help to rebuild. I felt truly like it was a calling,” says quarterback Drew Brees, a staunch Christian who bought a storm-damaged New Orleans house as a gesture of solidarity. “No question it was an attraction to help rebuild the city and start something from the ground up. A lot of people thought I was crazy,” says Scott Fujita, a linebacker who joined from the Dallas Cowboys.

Since June of last year Brees, 29, has raised $1.6 million for a dozen such projects to help schools and children. About $500,000 of that money has come from marketing and sponsorship fees he has donated. He has made gifts from his own pocket, such as $50,000 he gave to Lusher School when told that its fledgling football team had no weights room. He also spends time at the schools chatting to or playing with the children. “He's been inspirational to the students and the teachers. He's a hero,” says Kathy Reidlinger, who runs the Lusher school.

“I do it because I care about the city,” says Brees, who has a $60 million six-year contract with the Saints. “I am very blessed. I feel I've been put in this position for a reason.”

Other Saints players are giving freely of their time and money to help the city. A dozen have set up charitable foundations. They go out as a team to rebuild people's homes; organize charity golf tournaments; buy a bus for the city's Children's Hospital and bikes for hundreds of needy children and take them out on fishing trips. Reggie Bush, the star running back, gave $86,000 to resurface a high school football stadium. Payton, the coach, organized a fundraising dinner at the Superdome for 1,000 guests this month.

All this is good PR, of course, and the NFL encourages every American football player to help the sport's image by doing work in their communities. But the things that the Saints have done more privately suggest that it is sincere.

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