New Orleans needs the Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- My grandfather wasn't just a Baptist minister but a church pastor here for most of his life. Which means he could talk for a while. Grandpa never was one to check his watch during Sunday morning services. Except in the fall. In by 10, out by 12:30, maybe a few minutes earlier, plenty of time to make it to, most Sundays, my grandparents' home for the last three quarters of the Saints game. In the car on the way, we'd watch through Jim Henderson's eyes.

We'd stop at the Popeyes around the corner from Grandma and Grandpa's house, the one at Paris Avenue and Mirabeau Street, for the 10-piece special, which came with a large side of red beans and rice and biscuits. Grandma didn't particularly like that my younger brother and I preferred Popeyes' chicken over hers, but, really, it was only during football season. And so my brother, grandfather, stepfather and I would spend the rest of the afternoons in my grandparents' den in front of the TV, cheering for Bobby Hebert, Dalton Hilliard, Eric Martin and the Dome Patrol, all while begging the women to keep it down.

When I was growing up, that was our family's tradition just about every Sunday the Saints played, home or away.

My grandfather's gone now, but my grandmother called 4721 Bancroft Drive home until Aug. 28, 2005, or the last day PK, as in pre-Katrina. Hurricane Katrina victims now refer to moments in time in terms of pre-Katrina and post-Katrina, like BC and AD. Saturday, I visited my grandparents' home for the first time since the flood from the levees' breaking ruined it. As I drove up, I felt like I did at my grandfather's funeral 10 years ago. I felt like you do when it's time to go up to the casket and say goodbye for the last time.

The house is hollow now, empty, no walls, gutted to the studs. Like a dead relative lying in state, it isn't the place I grew up in. It has been sold, so I couldn't get in. I could only peer through the dirty windows and try to picture where everything used to be. My parents' home, at 7617 Mackenzie St. in New Orleans East, same thing. Lifeless inside. A shell of what it used to be. All that's in there are a few things my mother, who loves to decorate, has left on the mantel. It's still her home, you know?

I'm in my hometown for the first time since it flooded, and I feel like a tourist. I'm not complaining, just telling you how I feel. I'm in a hotel, and I can't crash at Mom and Pop's crib for a night or take a nap on my grandmother's sofa because I just can't. My friends, those who are still here and those who are visiting for the weekend, and I can't do many of the things we used to, go to many of the places we used to go. And I don't even live here anymore. It's so much worse for the flood survivors who are in this still-devastated area and for the hundreds of thousands, like my family, who are displaced.

The homes, the possessions, the priceless photos -- losing those hurt, but that's not even the worst part of this tragedy. And since death is a part of life, that isn't what hurts the most, either. And maybe that's easy for me to say because I was fortunate enough not to lose anyone close to me in the flood. What I believe Katrina victims are struggling with the most is not the loss of belongings or even the loss of life but the loss of a way of life.

Pardon the unfortunate pun, but these people are like fish out of water. Separated from family and friends. In strange places, like this new New Orleans. They're cut off from their natural surroundings, from everything that's familiar. It's impossible to understand what that feels like unless you're among those experiencing it.

But this, this game Monday night, this whole weekend, this feels familiar. New Orleans is an event city and, especially downtown in the CBD (Central Business District), it has been like old times -- pre-Katrina times -- the past few days. It has been busy, almost like it is for a Super Bowl or Bayou Classic or Essence Music Festival. We party in New Orleans, and the Saints' returning home to the Superdome has given the city a reason to do so again. People here get to go to a game in the Dome again. They get to tailgate again. In some cases, they get to gather with friends and loved ones again. A handful of my boys from high school are going to the game together. Saints fans scattered across the country can sit and watch their team play an actual home game. No, watching a "home" game played in New York or San Antonio or even Baton Rouge ain't the same thing.

This game is more than the first of eight four-hour distractions this fall. For many, it's the rebirth of ritual. The Saints are as much a part of New Orleans as Mardi Gras, jazz, Cajun cuisine. Just like with Mardi Gras in February, the Saints' playing here again is another step toward normal, whatever this city's new normal will be eventually. As the Saints go, so goes the mood of this city. It's on a high through Wednesday when they win. Sunday -- or Monday -- nights are quiet when they lose.

Often, we try to make sporting events more meaningful than they really are. We try to attach some real-world social significance to them when in fact they are just games. This is different, though. Sports are this country's great escape, but the moment those thousands of people filled the Dome to escape Mother Nature's fury, that building became more than just an arena. This game is about life and death. I honestly cannot think of a more important sporting event. Ever. You try. The Saints are coming home to a building thousands actually called home during the flood.

And the Superdome was a real-life house of horrors in the days after Katrina. I toured the renovated, refurbished Dome last week with New Orleans City Council president Oliver M. Thomas. It was his first time in the Dome since the storm, when he saw firsthand the suffering that went on in that place. He could still see it, hear it, smell it as we walked each level. Councilman Thomas knew right then how difficult emotionally it would be for the people who were trapped inside the Dome a year ago the first time they walk in again as Saints fans. Thomas predicted we'd see some fans applauding and others weeping Monday night. Thomas himself couldn't fight back the tears any longer when he told me, "They'll be cheering in here Monday, but those cheers are about the people that were here screaming to be rescued. Screaming because they're lying in their own waste, screaming because they're dying in their own waste."

Downtown, the French Quarter, Metairie, they might be up and running again, but you drive around the rest of the city and it looks like a sci-fi movie in which machines have driven humans underground in the year 2050 or something. Entire neighborhoods -- I'm talking blocks and blocks and blocks in areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Lakeview and New Orleans East -- are ghost towns. My buddy tells me the Ninth Ward looks 100 times better now than it did a few months ago. I can't imagine. Right now, it looks as though somebody dropped a bomb there. There isn't any rebuilding going on there, in part because the local and federal governments aren't giving the residents there a chance to do so. I sat in on a city council meeting Thursday, and there were Ninth Ward residents there protesting the fact that they don't have certified potable water, which means they can't even get their FEMA trailers.

A United Way representative stood before the council and informed its members that there were 271 child care centers in Greater New Orleans before the storm. Now, there are 61. People can't work and they can't rebuild if they don't have adequate child care.

So yes, there are bigger issues in New Orleans than the 2-0 Saints and their chances against the 2-0 Falcons. But trust me, as a native New Orleanian, I'm telling you: Emotionally as well as economically, this city needs its football team. The Saints bring families together. Hopefully, having an NFL franchise here will help bring New Orleans' families home.

The Superdome, the Saints' being home, they're more than just a symbol of the region's recovery. In the fall, once a week, New Orleans residents get to travel in time, back to PK days.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.