A loss? Not to Saints fans in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS -- When it was finally over, a woman walked down Hillary Street and she cried. Her makeup was gone. Her eyes were red and puffy. A few blocks away, a lifelong Saints fan named Stan Gelpi looked up from his empty glass of beer at a stunned Uptown bar. An hour earlier, he'd been plotting a trip to the Super Bowl. Now, he was lost.

Then it hit him, like it hit thousands around this heartbroken town.

"I'm going to the airport," he announced. "They brought hope to this city when nobody else could. The mayor sucks. The governor sucks. The legislature sucks. The president sucks. The only thing that doesn't suck is that team. They brought hope to this city, and I'm going to the airport."

Men, women and children poured out of bars and houses, from Uptown to the Quarter, from New Orleans East to Metairie, and they piled into their cars. Only this time they weren't evacuating. They were going to meet their team. Some stopped at drugstores and made signs. They wrote "Thanks for an awesome season" and "We Believe" and, simply, "Bless you boys."

So much in professional sports is canned, and this was something real, something spontaneous and pure. Through a neighborhood they drove, down a winding, dark road to a private terminal where the team's charter would land. Cars parked, one after another, the headlights looking like that scene from "Field of Dreams." Fans brought coolers and bottles of wine, standing in the pouring rain, giving something back to the team that gave them so much.

"Two miles, 'til the end of the road, it's bumper to bumper," said Saints fan Colin Ross, pointing at the people lining up near the runway. "There's little kids down there yelling 'Who Dat?' on the hoods of cars."

The people who stayed all night will never forget it. Some arrived as early as 7. Others trickled in over the next few hours as word began to spread: Ice had delayed the charter flight. The team was still in Chicago.

In New Orleans, they had a little time to think about the year. Some cried. Karen Porche wiped a tear away and laughed a bit at herself. Most know it's crazy to care so much for a team. You had to be there, on the side of the road in a rainstorm, to understand.

"They brought us a lot of hope," she said.

"We had six feet of water in our house," her husband, Charlie, said, "and they helped."

"You can't be mad at these guys for losing this game," Karen said.

As people waited, the craziest thing happened. What started as a funeral turned into a celebration -- a celebration not just of a team, but of themselves. The beers they raised were toasts to their own resiliency. Fans screamed. They chanted. They sang that U2 song "The Saints are Coming."

"I feel like we won," Ross said.

Liquor flowed. A man showed up with a trombone and began playing "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." The guy with the "We Believe" sign, who lost his house in St. Bernard Parish, swayed in time to the music.

When a cop turned on his loudspeaker at 10:40 and announced, "The plane has left Chicago," the party went to another level. Size estimates vary. There were about 500 or so right at the gate; but with cars lined up for miles, the number was surely higher.

A young man named Michael Mulé began running up and down the street, leading the wave. The crowd responded, people raising their arms as he sprinted, finally falling to his knees in the pouring rain, the loudest damn screaming you've ever heard embracing him, his hands raised toward the sky, feeling the drops land on his face. He pulled out his asthma inhaler and took a deep breath.

"I think the momentum and the hope that they've given us," he said, "is going to carry over into the whole rebuilding process. Everybody's counting us out, but we still have that hope. It sounds so corny. It sounds so cliché, but they're getting us going."

Eleven o'clock turned into midnight; 1 a.m. inched closer until someone spotted an airplane. The trombone started playing again.

"There they are!" a woman yelled.

"We believe," another screamed.

Players and coaches cranked their cars. To get out, they had to drive down a street lined with people. The fans took pictures of the Saints. The Saints took pictures of the fans. A man chased after Drew Brees' car with a black and gold flag. One drunken fan bummed a light from a member of the caravan. Head coach Sean Payton rolled down his window to soak up the scene. One after another, fans told him, "Thank you." He looked out at the screaming, frothing mass of people.

"Unbelievable," he said.

Defensive back and fan favorite Steve Gleason signed autographs and gave high-fives. It was well past 1 in the morning, rain coming down hard again.

"It makes me proud," Gleason said. "It makes me proud to be a part of this city."

So many things in New Orleans are still wrong; but on this night, one thing was right. More than right. It was perfect.

All things end, of course. Even Mardi Gras has a morning after. When the last Saint pulled away, the crowd dispersed. Some of them were going back to FEMA trailers. Many still haven't rebuilt their homes. Most have family members spread from coast to coast. The city remains battered and beaten, entire swaths of it empty. It's half the size it was before the storm.

Three young men walked through the rain toward their car. One carried a Saints flag. Another looked around and sighed.

"Now," he said, "back to reality."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.