Saints, city taking steps toward normalcy

METAIRIE, La. -- When he began the 4½-hour drive from his home in Prattville, Ala., to his first NFL minicamp Friday morning, safety Roman Harper, who had never visited the New Orleans area despite growing up only about 200 miles away, knew he was embarking on a life-altering adventure.

What the New Orleans Saints' second-round draft choice didn't expect was the eye-opening epiphany that he experienced motoring through sections of I-65 in Alabama and much of I-10 in Louisiana.

"Nothing you've seen on TV comes close to describing it," said Harper, clearly taken aback by his encounter with the post-Hurricane Katrina landscape. "It's hard to process. I mean, you think to yourself, 'Wow, it's been almost a year, and there are places that still look like this?' It's a rude awakening. All the stuff you've heard? Well, the reality is a lot worse. You wonder, for some people who are still there, if things will ever get back to normal."

"If you don't see it for yourself, you can't understand it. Cars on top of cars. Houses on top of houses. Like a battle zone. It really hits you. It's hard not to come away thinking, like, 'OK, what can I do?'"
-- Reggie Bush

The Saints took a step back toward normalcy over the weekend, conducting a three-day minicamp at their facility here, a practice site some New Orleans veterans and franchise officials weren't sure, only six months ago, they would ever see again. Certainly the workouts, principally for rookies and a few free-agent veterans auditioning for training camp contracts, were nothing compared to the quantum leap the entire Gulf Coast still requires. At the same time, the presence of the Saints in a place abandoned by even some of the heartiest locals, and where the McDonald's just a few blocks down Airline Highway closes at 6 p.m. because it doesn't have sufficient manpower to staff a night shift, represents another scintilla of hope for the future.

On Saturday morning, as the ping of aluminum colliding with horsehide signaled the start of batting practice for the Tulane-Southern Mississippi baseball game, the public address system at Zephyr Field, next door to the Saints complex, blared the Bruce Springsteen anthem "Glory Days." The Saints haven't exactly had a lot of glory days, with just one playoff victory in 39 seasons, and two division championships in that mostly miserable stretch.

More significant, though, is that the Saints are actually back for a 40th season. And the symbolism of their return wasn't lost even on the callow rookies assembled here.

"It's sad, depressing, whatever you want to call it," said sixth-round draft choice Josh Lay, a cornerback from the University of Pittsburgh who grew up in Aliquippa, Pa., a community devastated when the steel industry bolted Western Pennsylvania. "I've seen some tough times at home, but nothing compares to the feeling around here. But you know what? People at the hotel where we're staying were so happy to see us, even us rookies, that it made you feel good."

One gathers that they accept such feel-good moments here as they come. And that they don't come nearly often enough.

Late Friday night, a visitor couldn't help but note the sparse number of jets parked at the airport. Even at 9 a.m. Saturday, the airport was all but deserted, the rental car kiosks still closed. Along Airline Highway, the long surface street that meanders from the airport into the city of New Orleans, businesses are either boarded up or sporting "Help Wanted" placards. At the sports bar in the hotel where the Saints had bivouacked their rookies for the weekend, there were just three patrons at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

For a Saturday night, the crowd on Bourbon Street was notably sparse, and by any past standards, subdued.

But nothing can prepare a person for a trip, even a brief one with a longtime friend who knows the ropes and every backstreet of the city, to the lower Ninth Ward. In the dusk, it's a little more difficult to discern shapes and objects, but there is no denying the carnage of a neighborhood all but washed away when the nearby levees were breached. The silence is deafening and the despair palpable.

"If you don't see it for yourself," said first-round draft choice and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, "you can't understand it. Cars on top of cars. Houses on top of houses. Like a battle zone. It really hits you. It's hard not to come away thinking, like, 'OK, what can I do?'"

There mere presence of Bush, and even some of the far less celebrated rookies, seems to have provided at least a temporary elixir of sorts for the ravaged area.

On Friday night, one caller to a local sports talk show employed the term "divine intervention" in referring to the Houston Texans' myopic decision to choose defensive end Mario Williams with the first selection in last month's draft, allowing Bush to slip to the Saints with the second overall pick.

A tight hamstring, and a cautious New Orleans training staff that might insulate Bush if he complains of so much as a hangnail at this point in his career, intervened to keep the instantly iconic star off the field for all but the first practice of the minicamp. But that couldn't keep the fans away.

The sign on the façade of the team facility reads, "Welcome Back Saints Fans." But in fact, fans were not invited to the rookie minicamp. Still, they crept up to the chain-link fence that surrounds the practice fields here, just for a glimpse of the charismatic Bush and the other rookies.

"Mostly to see Reggie," said one fan, Lawrence Craft, who wandered over from the college baseball game. "But also, just because it's football, and because the Saints are back. And because we need 'em."

It might be hard for some to fathom that a football team, particularly one that has experienced so little success in its four-decade existence, could represent any degree of hope to a ravaged city. But former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, now a sports-talk radio host in New Orleans and a visitor to minicamp on Saturday afternoon, understands the significance of the team's return.

It may have been a minicamp, but the weekend's activities were of maximum importance for an area that is seeking even an atom of business-as-usual optimism.

Said Hebert: "I was here for a lot of bad times, and some of the few good times, but the one thing that never changed was how much the fans love this team. Outsiders don't understand. I mean, the seasons that I spent in Atlanta, there are a lot of [transient] fans there. But people in New Orleans, they're born here, they live here and they die here. And the Saints have been a constant for them and they have been a constant, too, for the Saints. You want to talk about kicking somebody when they're down? That's what it would have been like had this team not come back here. In the big picture, looking at everything that needs to be done here and how long it's going to take to do it, the Saints are just a part of it. But it really does mean something having them back."

That feeling that the franchise has to elevate itself to new heights off the field even more so than on it, clearly permeates the organization.

After Saturday's practice, first-year coach Sean Payton spoke of the "unique chance" that Bush has here to "help this area more than football-wise." Bush announced that he is spearheading an effort to have an artificial surface installed on one of New Orleans' oldest inner-city fields. And he is making a donation, and having some of his new corporate partners ante up as well, to Holy Rosary Academy, a school that serves children with special needs and was in danger of closing its doors.

None of the other players on hand for the minicamp has the kind of wherewithal and influence that Bush already possesses. But they certainly possessed, by the end of the weekend, a keen understanding of their place in the community.

"It just seems like people are looking to us to help lead the way," Harper said. "That's a lot to take on for a rookie. But it's part of the job description here."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.