Still struggling to rebuild in the wake of the disastrous floods spawned by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans has taken inspiration from its National Football League franchise. The Saints have never reached the Super Bowl in their 42-year history until now. The team, once derisively dismissed as "The Ain'ts," faces the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 44 on Sunday.
The Saints resurgence has been led by quarterback Drew Brees, who joined the team from the San Diego Chargers in March of 2006, just months after Hurricane Katrina crashed ashore.
The hurricane destroyed or severely damaged more than half of the city's 200,000 homes. Last November, 29 percent of residential properties were still vacant or uninhabitable, the highest rate for any American city.
The aftermath of Katrina is still visible around the city. But equally obvious is the din of jackhammers, and sights and sounds of construction as little by little, New Orleans moves toward recovery.
Brees has done his part on the football field, helping to resurrect the Saints franchise. When he joined the team, the Saints were coming off a 3-13 season. With the Superdome wrecked by the storm, the team played its "home" games in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and San Antonio, Texas.
Saints coach Sean Payton says the Superdome, the Saints and New Orleans have come a long way since Hurricane Katrina. "Four years ago, there were holes in the roof. The fans in the city and region deserve it [i.e., to go to the Super Bowl]. And like I said at the beginning, I am just proud to be part of it -- to be part of something that's special. And it's pretty special for the city," he said.
But Brees, who felt it was his calling to go to New Orleans to help make a difference, says the city and the Saints have helped each other recover.
"You can draw so many parallels between our team and our city. But in reality, we've had to lean on each other to survive and in order to get to where we are now. The city is on the way to recovery. And in a lot of ways, it's come back better than ever. For us as a team, we've used the strength and resiliency of the fans to go out and play every Sunday and play with the confidence that we can do it," he said.
Since coming to New Orleans on a six-year, $60 million contract, no NFL quarterback has had more completions [1,572], thrown for more yards [18,298] or passed for more touchdowns . But as remarkable as his performance has been, it has been Drew Brees the humanitarian who has had the biggest impact on rebuilding the city.
Brees and his wife, Brittany, have started the Brees Dream Foundation, which has raised $1.85 million for its rebuilding Dreams campaign. Through his foundation, Brees donated $450,000 to help refurbish the storm-ravaged schoolhouse and football field at the Lusher Charter School. Additional money goes to Katrina-related causes, while other funds go to youth organizations and help with the Katrina recovery effort.
Can Brees and the Saints complete their season of destiny with a victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 44 on Sunday? While it would make a nice storybook ending, in a larger sense, it really does not matter. Brees and New Orleans have already proven that they are winners.
Related Report by VOA's Brian Wagner