ESPN The Magazine’s Wright Thompson embedded himself in New Orleans for the summer and bared the city’s soul in an ambitious story as we approach the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The sprawling epic was a first in the history of the magazine, which dedicated all of its feature story space to one single story.
The story is about much more than sports. But the New Orleans Saints were featured prominently in sections built around owner Tom Benson, coach Sean Payton and former special-teams standout Steve Gleason.
And everyone in the story is tied together by the “tentpoles of biography” since Katrina. “All New Orleanians can describe three moments from the past 10 years in cinematic detail,” Thompson wrote. “Their escape from the storm, where they were when Gleason blocked that punt and where they were when the Saints won the Super Bowl.”
Among some of the other highlights:
The story opened and closed with Gleason’s battle against ALS, which he was diagnosed with in 2011. Thompson captured Gleason's role as one of the city’s many “hyperlocal folk heroes.” He joined Gleason and son, Rivers, for one of their “Tuesday Dudesday” sessions at Sector6 and included the great description of Rivers “flying through the air toward a pool of foam blocks, looking oddly like a grown man laying out for a punt.”
The story delved into Benson’s courtship with San Antonio during the months after Katrina and detailed some of the steps that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue took to help ensure the team’s return to New Orleans. That included a private meeting with New Orleans business leaders set up by Houston Texans owner Robert McNair. Tagliabue recalled telling Benson, “It takes three-fourths of the owners to move a team, and there’s no owner out there who is prepared to abandon New Orleans.” The Saints fiercely denied that the team ever tried to move, saying, “It was the priority of Tom Benson to get the Saints back to New Orleans as soon as feasibly possible.”
The story also detailed Benson’s bitter family feud that played out in the courtroom this summer, including glimpses of the discontent between Benson’s wife of the past 10 years, Gayle, and his estranged daughter and grandchildren.
There were some great nuggets from Payton, including the fact that he had an assistant gather a list of everyone remaining from 2006, when they arrived together in Katrina’s wake -- a total of four assistants and four players, Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief. Payton was planning to buy each a Rolex and host a surprise dinner for them. Payton also shared some great memories from when he coached his son’s sixth-grade football team during his Bountygate suspension -- including the band member who scored a touchdown. And Payton talked about how he has fallen in love with New Orleans even more since buying a condo Uptown a year ago. Payton said he realized recently that he will never sell the condo, no matter where he winds up once he’s done coaching.