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New Orleans revels in its old self

For one day, at least, New Orleans looked much as it did before Katrina blew in and turned life upside down for anyone who's ever called this city home.

NEW ORLEANS (Sept. 25, 2006) -- For one day, at least, New Orleans looked much as it did before Katrina blew in and turned life upside down for anyone who's ever called this city home.

The sun was shining, and streets were filled with happy people with smiles on their faces, beads around their necks and drinks in their hands. A sidewalk saxophonist delighted tourists with a rousing rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In" and business in the French Quarter was brisk.

Everywhere you turned, there was a party in the making. And if ever a city was in need of a party, it's New Orleans.

The New Orleans Saints reopened the Superdome in grand fashion, with U2, Green Day and even the first President Bush stopping by. For anyone who questioned whether it was the right thing to do or thought the Saints would be better off in Los Angeles, the "Who Dat?" cheers that shook the dome when the Saints took the field is your answer.

"It's like the rebirth," resident Clem Lescale said. "It reminds us of what the city used to be like."

Too often we make sports and the athletes who play them bigger than they are. Players refer to the games they play as wars. Fans who won't remember who did what to whom five years from now act as if their lives depend upon the outcome of a game.

Sometimes, though, sport does transcend the hype and show the best of what we can be. This game -- indeed, everything about this whole Saints season -- is one of those rare times.

While there are parts of New Orleans that don't look any different than they did before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, most days remain a struggle. The Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas hit hardest, remains a wasteland, with piles of rubble where houses once stood and spray-painted utility poles passing for street signs.

In places where the cleanup is further along, there's an emotional fatigue that comes with the endless rebuilding.

"We need this team," said Dawn Murray, dressed head to toe in black and gold. "It crosses all lines. It's not Democrat or Republican. It's not rich or poor. It's not black or white.

"It's black and gold."

After decades of delighting in what sets the city apart, the citizens of New Orleans are reveling in the one thing that pulls them together.

Aside from the few Atlanta Falcons fans, it seemed as if everyone was wearing Saints colors. Fans in Reggie Bush, Drew Brees and Joe Horn jerseys. People sporting "Rebuild New Orleans" T-shirts. There was even a baby decked out in Saints paraphernalia, right down to his bib.

On any other day, there's little traffic in the neighborhood around the Superdome. Several buildings remain shuttered, the mall next to the arena is like a ghost town and there isn't much else to entice anyone to visit.

On this day, though, the place was party central. Bands played and fans milled about several hours before kickoff, happy to be killing time again before a game. Scalpers paced the sidewalks, asking if anyone had extra tickets.

Traffic ground to a halt, and not even Brees was spared the hassle. He finally made it to the Superdome two hours before kickoff, only to find he didn't have a spot to park. He pulled his car up onto an island and appeared ready to leave it there until police and parking officials yelled at him.

They eventually found a place for him to go, and he drove off to the cheers of fans.

Inside the Superdome, it was more happy bedlam. Every seat was filled 30 minutes before the game began, and fans danced and sang while U2 and Green Day rocked out. High up on the facade below the top deck, a simple black and white banner read, "Thank You America! New Orleans & Saints Are Here To Stay!"

"Tonight the word homecoming will take on a new meaning and will forever be redefined by what is happening here in the Superdome," former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "Most of the credit for that redefinition of the term 'homecoming' goes to the people of New Orleans and the people of Lousiana and the Gulf Coast region who have been, and continue to be, New Orleans Saints fans."

One game doesn't mean, of course, that all of New Orleans' problems are solved. The rebuilding will go on for many more years. Even the goodwill surrounding the team and owner Tom Benson will surely be tested.

There's no guarantee fans will continue to sell the Superdome out as they do year after year after year in Green Bay, New England and Indianapolis. It remains to be seen, too, if there will be the wealth to fill the luxury boxes that are the lifeblood of pro sports.

Those are problems for another day. For one night, the Saints let New Orleans forget its troubles and feel like the glorious Big Easy of old.

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