Panthers offer tickets to New Orleans evacuees

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are giving 350 tickets to Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints to
Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

The tickets will be distributed to evacuees who are registered with the Red Cross at the Charlotte Coliseum. The Panthers are also giving out $10 food vouchers for each person to use at the game.

The tickets came out of the players' allotments and the unused portion that the Saints returned.

About 800 evacuees are in Charlotte, with about 400 staying at the Coliseum.

In addition, the Panthers will have 24 stations set up around the stadium to receive donations to the Red Cross/Hurricane Relief Fund as part of their "Beads for the Bayou" campaign. Fans making a donation during the game will receive Mardi Gras beads.

The Saints, meanwhile, still don't know where they will play home games, although sentiment for San Antonio is growing.

Coach Jim Haslett, reaching for much-needed optimism in
these trying times, half-joked that the Saints' recent tendency to
perform better on the road than at home might come in useful this season.

"If they think they're playing on the road every game, they'll probably win more games," said Haslett, whose team was 5-3 on the road last season and 3-5 at home. "We will play all of our games [away from New Orleans] and it will be a first and it will be interesting. Our guys like playing away."

Team officials have stated a preference for home games played in Baton Rouge at LSU's Tiger Stadium, less than 90 miles up the Mississippi River from the water-logged Louisiana Superdome, where holes were torn in the roof during Hurricane Katrina nearly two weeks ago.

Rain water poured into the Superdome's electronic guts, likely ruining new video boards, as well as the public address system and so many other critical functions, stadium officials said. Mold began spreading all the while. Sewage overflowed bathrooms that were useless without running water, prompting tens of thousands sheltered there for nearly a week to relieve themselves elsewhere on the premises, further contaminating the stadium. The odds of the
dome being used this season are zero.

More likely the distinctive sporting landmark will be completely gutted or torn down. Fans looking to hold on to some sense of their devastated community are hoping the stadium will be rebuilt to modern NFL standards, allowing the Saints, a beloved, four-decade-old institution here, to come home in a few years.

By playing in Baton Rouge in the meantime, the Saints could draw countless fans who've always loved going to Tiger Stadium for college games, but who were apprehensive about driving into New Orleans. Those fans worried about crime associated with New Orleans long before Katrina caused the Big Easy's uneasy social ills to explode into chaotic looting and gun violence.

Tiger Stadium holds about 92,000, including 70 private suites, and this year underwent a renovation to replace one upper deck while adding more than 3,000 amenity-laden club seats.

But there are logistical problems stemming from the campus being used for storm relief. Even the LSU Tigers had to postpone their first home game and move the second to opponent Arizona State.

So the Saints, who've relocated offices to San Antonio and will practice there, could play in that city, as well, at the 65,000-seat Alamodome. Nearly a quarter million storm evacuees are currently sheltered in Texas, including the San Antonio area.

"I think this football team needs to play here," Coach Jim Haslett told the San Antonio Express-News.

"This where we're practicing. [The players] know we're practicing here, so we'd like to play here," Haslett said. "They would like to see their families on Saturday. They would like to be around their families one day a week, because you don't see them at all [the rest of the week]. So, more than anything, I think that's the most important thing for them."

The indecision creates a dilemma for the local Fox television affiliate, which might have to decide between Cowboys and Saints games -- if its hand isn't forced by the league, the paper reported.

The teams never play, but five of their games are direct conflicts and two fall on Sundays when Fox is limited to one game.

"This is a Dallas Cowboys market and will be whether the Saints are here or not," KABB general manager John Seabers told the Express-News. "It will always be a Dallas Cowboys market."

And many Louisiana natives who grew up Saints fans have lived in Texas for years because their careers took them there. So Texas would be the closest thing to a home-away-from-home for the Saints outside of Louisiana.

"We would like to get as close to our fans as possible, because
that's our 12th man on the field," quarterback Aaron Brooks said.
"The more we can do that, the better we feel we have a chance of
winning, because the crowd can play a huge role. We don't want to
have to feel that we play on the road every Sunday, but that is a

The upheaval has changed the story lines for this talented yet
underachieving team. Haslett's job was widely seen as being on the
line if the Saints failed for a fifth straight season to make the
playoffs. Time will tell if current hardships have temporarily
lowered ownership's expectations.

But Saints players remain confident they will break a cycle of mediocrity. Star running back Deuce McAllister has an offense designed around him that includes a deeper offensive line.

And the Saints were optimistic the defensive lineup that helped carry them through a four-game winning streak to close 2004 would be even stronger this season with the addition of free-agent safety Dwight Smith.

With top defensive ends Darren Howard, Charles Grant and Will Smith, the Saints' defense could be strong on passing downs, although stopping the run has remained a concern through the
preseason, especially with a nagging knee injury to expected
starter James Allen thinning depth at linebacker.

"We expect to get the job done," Brooks said. "There won't be any excuses being made."

This report includes information from The Associated Press.