Aside from going grocery shopping for the first time since August, the only other bright spot about the NFC South ending early this year is that I’ve had time to catch up on some reading.
I actually started reading “From Bags To Riches’’ on the plane ride to Washington for the playoff game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints. I read another big chunk of it on the ride back home. But I finally got around to finishing the book in the past few days.
It’s written by Jeff Duncan, the fine columnist for The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Let me be clear up front, Duncan is one of my best friends in the business. We got to know each other more than a decade ago when he was a beat writer covering the Saints and I was a beat writer covering the Carolina Panthers. When your teams are in the same division, you talk back and forth a lot and you hang out at league meetings, the scouting combine and the Super Bowl. Duncan and I even were able to find a taxi in a rural part of Maui after the “Fetzer Valve’’ went out on our rental car during a league meeting.
If Duncan had written a horrible book, I’d like to think I’m professional enough to tell you that. Or maybe I just wouldn’t even mention his book. But, the fact is, Duncan wrote an absolutely tremendous book, so I don’t feel like I’m being partial in singing its praises.
“Bags To Riches’’ isn’t the first book to tell you the basic story of how the Saints and the New Orleans region helped each other heal after Hurricane Katrina. But it is the most complete, honest and heart-felt book that’s been written on the topic.
That’s because there’s not a better qualified person on the planet to write this type of book. Duncan was covering the Saints when Katrina hit. He lived through the entire tragedy and the aftermath and he also had the inside view of what New Orleans and the Saints were like before the storm.
I remember calling Duncan’s cell phone when the reports started coming out about how serious things were in New Orleans. I couldn’t reach him for days because the 504 area code was basically out of commission. Besides, Duncan was too busy trying to survive.
He jumped back to his job and asked for a transfer to news side because he believed covering the aftermath of the storm was more important than football. He was right. That experience and later jumping back to Saints’ coverage gave Duncan a unique perspective.
That’s why he was able to write a book that reminds me a lot of “Friday Night Lights’’, my favorite sports book ever. Duncan wrote about a lot more than football. He wrote about humanity, politics and the dedication of a region to its football team. He also brings up a fact that a lot of people have tried to forget -- the Saints, at the very least, explored the option of leaving New Orleans forever and setting up permanent residence in San Antonio.
The book takes you through the storm, its immediate aftermath and some other dark times. But Duncan also chronicles one of the greatest sports stories ever. That starts with in-depth looks at how coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees came to town and how they faced what might have been the most daunting tasks any coach or quarterback have faced.
The book is loaded with details and is extremely well researched. You know how it ends -- with the Saints winning last year’s Super Bowl. But, even in that part of the book, Duncan reveals a lot of behind-the-scenes anecdotes that now will live forever in Saints’ lore.
What makes this book so special is that Duncan covers every angle. That’s the kind of work that doesn’t always come when someone writes a book on something they weren't all that involved in. In this case, you could feel every chapter, every sentence. That’s because Duncan lived every chapter and every sentence.