Tom Benson laid to rest with jazz funeral procession

NEW ORLEANS -- Tom Benson went out in classic New Orleans style.

The New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner was laid to rest Friday with a private funeral mass inside the historic St. Louis Cathedral in front of loved ones and dignitaries such as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

The ceremony was immediately followed by a jazz funeral procession through the French Quarter in front of thousands of onlookers.

Benson's wife, Gayle, the new owner of both professional sports franchises, waved and blew kisses to the crowd during the emotional march, which was accompanied by a full brass band.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who joined coach Sean Payton, Pelicans star Anthony Davis and general managers Mickey Loomis and Dell Demps among the pallbearers and honorary pallbearers, shared a video of the unique mix of dignitaries, fans and New Orleans culture. Brees added, "Mr. Benson wouldn't want it any other way. Only in New Orleans. We love you, Mr. B. God bless you."

Benson died last week at the age of 90 after being hospitalized for flu-like symptoms and spending weeks in the intensive care unit.

The list of attendees who came to pay their respects to Benson was as impressive as you might expect for the man who is widely credited for rescuing both sports franchises for his hometown of New Orleans against the threat of out-of-town ownership moving them away. Benson purchased the Saints in 1985, and he purchased the former New Orleans Hornets in 2012.

Goodell and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue sat next to each other near the front of the church, near Silver, former NBA commissioner David Stern and Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards. Former governor Bobby Jindal and New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu also attended.

Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone and Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace, both former Saints employees, were on hand along with several current and former coaches, players and executives from the Saints and Pelicans, such as Alvin Gentry, Jim Mora, Joe Vitt, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, Jonathan Vilma, Deuce McAllister, Willie Roaf and Jrue Holiday.

It was a continuation of the outpouring of love and respect that began with a two-day visitation in New Orleans. Gayle and other loved ones spent hours greeting everyone from countless fans to a list of NFL owners that reportedly included Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder, Art Rooney III, Clark Hunt and Jerry Richardson.

Benson's estranged heirs, whom he denounced before a bitter legal feud in recent years, paid their last respects in a private visitation earlier in the week.

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond recounted Benson's life and accomplishments, as well as some of the tragedies he experienced, while giving Benson's eulogy. He injected several moments of humor, such as when he recounted the time Benson compared rings with Pope Benedict and how often Benson told the story of how he met Gayle.

St. Louis Cathedral is the place where Tom and Gayle first met after a mass in 2004. They were married later that year.

Aymond stressed that Benson was as "rich in faith" and "rich in love" as he was financially wealthy and talked about his deep connection to the Catholic Church and his charitable ways. Aymond said Benson was truly a "New Orleans Saint" and asked the Lord to make him a saint in heaven as well.

"Tom loved the city of New Orleans. And he gave so much to help the city, as he brought the Saints and Pelicans here, as he kept the Saints here in New Orleans as part of the rebuilding after Katrina and as a sign of hope to the city. And in his New Orleans style, he even brought back Dixie Beer and returned it to New Orleans," Aymond said. "You live on in our hearts. And we promise we will do our very best to keep your spirit and your faith alive."