METAIRI, La. — Long before 2020, the sports world was facing an unprecedented upheaval, so much so that the New Orleans Saints appeared in 2005.
We were literally the Bad News Bears of the NFL. Recipient Lance Moore talked about a stray team that had to evacuate New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina and then bounced for a year between the different training fields in the home games in three different cities in San Antonio.
Uniquely it probably doesn’t do any justice, said Deuce McAllister, a native of Mississippi who noticed how the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the Saints’ long-term future affected him and others when it was unclear whether the team would ever return to the Southern Gulf or move permanently.
It was the 30th. December 2005, when the Saints announced that they would return to New Orleans for the 2006 season – where they would make one of the biggest comebacks in the history of the sport, hiring coach Sean Payton, signing quarterback Drew Brees and surprisingly reaching the NFC championship game that season.
But this 2005 season has largely gone down in history.
Fault! The file name is not specified. New Orleans was flooded and the Super Bowl, damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was left standing; the refurbished stadium will be presented a decade later, in 2015. AP Photo/David J. Hughes. Philip (left) and Gerald Herbert (right).
There was a fierce battle behind the scenes when San Antonio officials tried to lure the owner of the saints, Tom Benson, to Texas for good, while the union tried to make sure that didn’t happen. This led to a deal that will see the Saints play three home games at the Alamodome de San Antonio and four at the Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. In fact, they played their second game. First round home game against the Giants in New York.
The Saints won the first game of the season in Carolina when they were still on adrenaline. But their nomadic existence eventually got the best of them, as they finished 3-13 and separated from coach Jim Haslett, quarterback Aaron Brooks and almost half of the team.
I try not to think too much about it, said Haslett, who now coaches linebackers for the Tennessee Titans. Of all the years I’ve played and coached, I thought it was probably the worst thing I’ve ever experienced, for 42 years. It was bad for the players, it’s hard to win in these situations. And not being surrounded by family. It was hard for everyone.
Haslett and a number of players stated that they try not to complain too publicly. It didn’t escape any of us, as difficult as it was for us, it was much more real and much harder for everyone in New Orleans and the surrounding area, said recipient Donte Stallworth.
But their frustration grows as the season progresses, especially towards the end of the year, when the Saints are unable to train at the Alamodome due to pre-planned events.
Instead, they organized walks and meetings in the old aqueduct and trained in the high school sports complex, where the changing rooms were located in the baseball dugouts. Energy classrooms have been set up under the tents of the car parks. Their hot and cold baths were made of large garbage cans.
They’d just sit there and talk: Wow, are we really in the NFL? We’re kind of numb here, said quarterback Mike Carney, who was hit like a hammer by the memory when he saw the San Francisco 49ers have to move to Arizona for the last month of the season due to COVID-19 protocols.
There are clearly many parallels with what happens to some of these teams. You sympathize with them. But it’s all over the place instead of a team doing it, Carney said. But I have to give credit to the staff and the players we had. Basically, every week assholes are put in our hands with all kinds of imaginable obstacles. And I think we did our best.
ESPN met with some members of this team 15 years later to hear their thoughts:
That’s what gives me hope
The Saints evacuated New Orleans on August 28, 2005, the day before the storm, and left three days earlier than expected for a trip to Oakland. The players and staff said they felt helpless as they watched the destruction from their hotel rooms.
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In the past, the team was evacuated during a storm. But it was a different story when New Orleans’ bank system failed and much of the city was flooded. More than 1,800 people are believed to have died in the region. The Superdome was one of the countless buildings and houses that were destroyed, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate to places like Houston and San Antonio.
San Antonio was also a natural destination for saints because of Benson’s extensive family and business relationships.
Stallworth: We just met with the actors. … A lot of people wanted to go back to Louisiana and just said: Ф… Season. We have to help. Whatever resources we have, we need to be there. And the others are like that: The NFL is gonna do what they’re gonna do, and they’re not gonna stop us from playing. … It was a pretty intense encounter. But I remember we finally agreed to play because the city of New Orleans needed us. And the best thing we can do is play these games, destroy our ass, and give the city something to be proud of that it will distract from the harsh reality it has to deal with.
McAllister, who had access to New Orleans as part of a Sports Illustrated report: In those days, they were literally saving people. And I will never forget this man. That’s not the man I’m so grateful to live with. You know what the first thing that guy said? We beat the Raiders? Pre-season game! And that’s me: Don’t worry about the Raiders.
Stallworth: The evacuees from the San Antonio center asked me how I was doing. How’s it going with Joe [Horn]? How’s Deuce? How’s Aaron? And I’m like: What? ! I mean, I’ve always understood that sport is important. I think that even as a child, just by being immersed in football, I was able to avoid some of the realities of my own upbringing. But it really touched me.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Former President George W. Bush tosses a coin for the Saints’ home match against the Giants at Giants Stadium. Vincent Laforet/Getty Images
Wayne Gandy defensive: I remember Carolina couldn’t beat us [in the first week]. They didn’t stand a chance, because we had to see people sleeping in the barns, handing out food and stuff.
The big receiver Joe Horn: That’s what gave me hope. … This gave me the opportunity to train and drive 35 to 40 minutes to my house in San Antonio. We were evicted, but we were still millionaires. We had the financial resources to help the people in those shelters. And these fans hear talk about football, that’s all they wanted, they wanted to see football, they wanted to know that their team was playing.
Is this still high school?.
When it was decided that the saints would stay in San Antonio for the season, the players were informed that they could stay in the team hotel for two weeks. Some have bought or rented houses, but many others have lived in apartment complexes. Several players thanked the Director of Player Development, Ricky Porter, and other team leaders for their help in organizing the game. But Porter usually didn’t have to coordinate all this at once across the roster, and each staff member had to make his or her own accommodations.
Carney: It’s total chaos. Go away and find a place to live. Without our cars. Our cars are still parked at the construction site. Mr. Benson brought all of his dealer’s vehicles. But it was madness to find a place to live at the time. And, you know, we were just told we had to pack a few days, so no one had any clothes.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Saints players will arrive early September 2005 to train at the San Antonio Independent School District Spring Sports Complex. BAHRAM MARK SOBHANI/San Antonio Express News/ZUMA Press
Haslett, whose family was in New Orleans: It was like players, people in the building, secretaries, everyone. They couldn’t just move to San Antonio because they didn’t know what they were getting in six months, and they had a mortgage and rent in New Orleans. Can they afford it? So it was hard. Several people gave up and decided to go home, which is understandable.
McAllister: Usually you see five or ten guys hanging around in the NFL, but for us it was just like in college. Every time you went out, it was like this: Okay, guys, tonight we’re going to the Fox and Hound or the Buffalo Wild Wings. And there were literally 30 people because no one knew where to go.
Carney: It wasn’t like the brotherhood we all grew up in together. Once we were in the field, it became something like a normal life. But it was nice to know you had teammates around. We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas together because a lot of the boys there had no family.
Gandy: The first thing that strikes you is that they have set up an adapted parking lot for the road. It was just like the Ringling Brothers, an old circus tent. … Rinsing out ice baths or warming up in garbage cans. … …when you’re on those yellow buses, and that’s what you do: Dude, is this still high school?
Carney: We had all these electric scooters because the Alamodome parking lot was so far away to get to the conference rooms. … It was like a biker gang.
Fault! The file name is not specified. The Saints played three home games at the San Antonio Alamodome in 2005. Photo: Eric Gay/AP
Stallworth: We’re used to warming up and playing the game in a certain way, and that wasn’t really difficult. There was no ordinary chiropractor. In fact, I would ask Dr. Rob [Lizan, from New Orleans] to come to San Antonio, and he would stay in my place. The boys came to my house and Dr. Rob cut them up.
Moore: It was funny, because when I was traveling at the end of the season, it was like we were playing the Jets. And in the locker room, the boys were all excited because they had a little hot tub.
Haslett: The building of the water treatment plant has been without electricity for some time now. We walked across the parking lot, and when it rained, I took the boys to clean up the puddles. During training Joe Horn and two other boys got lost because they couldn’t find the practice field. So we practiced without the three starting laps.
Gandy: Being good at something includes minimizing distractions and being able to concentrate. And if all aspects of this attempt are interrupted – you have to come along, take a bus here, take a bus back, two buses too late – you might see that people start to leave at some point. Especially if you’re starting to lose.
Carney: When we drove on the track to our house or exit – which was the case for us anyway – it always caught my attention: Dude, the whole plane fell asleep. And we didn’t even take off.
Morale is gone.
The players were angry that Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other senior NFL officials didn’t come to San Antonio before the end of the season – and they let him know in an explosive meeting. (Tagliabue, who did not respond to a request for an interview, reportedly offered to meet the team twice on the road, but was rejected by team officials who did not want such a meeting the day before the game). The players were also frustrated not to be able to play all their home games in San Antonio because of the stability and the home advantage in San Antonio. And many estimate that late payments, up to $40,000 per player, were too few, too late.
Brooks, who rejected the request for an interview, was one of Tagliabue’s most vocal critics and the competition in an interview with Westwood One Radio in December 2005. Brooks also said that Benson could have done better to make the players feel comfortable – and he later suggested that the performance contributed to his final dismissal. The officials of the saints also refused to comment.
Fault! The file name is not specified. After an emotional victory to open the season, Aaron Brooks and the Saints fought to the end and ended 3-13. AP Photo/Rick Feld.
Carney: There was always anger. I think people started talking after the New York Giants’ home game: That’s a lot of bullshit, man. It’s not about what’s good for us or this team. And after that, we didn’t visit anyone. I remember Paul Tagliabue coming at the end of the season. And Wayne Gandy, Kendyl Jacobs, Aaron Brooks, these guys just hammered him. How can you..: This is a joke. You’re a joke. What are you doing here? Where were you the second week, the first week?
Moore: You let him have it. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Gandy: I was 12 or 13, so a salty old vet. And I didn’t understand the logistics. It was like we were anonymous.
McAllister, who ripped his ACL in week five: The team’s morale disappeared long before December. We were angry and abrupt from the beginning. And look, I respect the work of Paul and the commissioner, but it was really an insult to us.
Hoorn: I had no illusions. We were professional footballers and were paid by the Benson family. Of course the Saints fans also paid for the tickets. And I had no illusions the NFL would have to keep working because it’s a multi-billion dollar company. So practicing on the school grounds, driving 35, 40 minutes across town to an area with a basketball court was not that difficult. Of course, it made it difficult to win because we lost a few games. But in the end, we still had work to do.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Fans of theSaints at the LSU Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge have expressed their feelings about a possible trip to New Orleans. AP Photo/Bill Feig
Gandy: The [official saints] have experienced the same as we have. It’s hard to tell someone to do better when he’s in a storm. They got on the same plane as us, those buses, and they couldn’t go home. That’s why I thought the NFL was gonna get a little tougher.
Carney: Benson gave us a speech [in advance]: Heavy times don’t last long, but they do for heavy people. We are. I remember Haslett’s shirts: We are. It was hilarious because he was a man of few words. But it made us cry a little.
You heard the screams
Benson got a lot more negative feedback from the fans because he was able to rebuild the team. While the saints are embraced in San Antonio, the welcome in Baton Rouge is harsh.
Moore: Alamod waved. And then you get to Baton Rouge, and apparently the whole area has been hit by the hurricane. So there were 10,000 or 15,000 people. Sometimes it was like a school play. Some things were out of our control, like talking about staying and moving to San Antonio or what the NFL is doing. But if we’d won, I don’t know if the reception would have been the same. … And the fact that we could not win these games has certainly contributed to the frustration of the fans.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Players ofSaints go to the field to warm up the game at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. AP Photo/Travis crossing
McAllister: The fans were upset, we were upset, and there was nothing we could do. I’m sure you heard what happened.
Hoorn: It was a beautiful place. They took the best care of us. But in the end, our house went back to Louisiana. That was my first goal in the soccer team. And some people didn’t care… Most of them wanted to stay in Texas, that’s true. I was against it. I was on the other side of that line.
McAllister: For some, it was just a town where they played soccer. But for me it was home. I remember the day [when the Saints announced their return to New Orleans] when they said, Man, let’s go home. But it still was: What does the house look like? What services are available? What does the drinking water look like?
He built this unit.
The team would be different, too. Haslett and Brooks arrived in 2000 and led the Saints to a 10-6 record and win the first play-off of the franchise. But over the next four years they went to 7-9, 9-7, 8-8 and 8-8 before bottoming out in 2005. Haslett was fired and Brooks was released.
Haslett: Frankly, I don’t think it’s fair that staff have been laid off after this year – and I’ve probably provoked it myself [by looking for a long-term extension rather than a shorter commitment]. I don’t know if that was a fair assessment.
Stallworth: I don’t think Haslett’s getting enough credit to keep the team together as long as possible.
Moore: Honestly, I’m sorry about Hes, I really am. Because he was in an impossible situation. I think he was a great soccer coach.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Emotional Mike Carney is comforted by Ernie Conwell after the victory of the Saints in 2006 in the first race in the renovated Superdome. Alex Brandon/AP Photo
Gandy: The following year, I was traded to the Falcons, so I played the first game in the Superdome [a legendary victory of Monday Night Saints that started with a U2 and Green Day concert and ended with a block kick from Steve Gleason]. And there seemed to be applause and cheers for the 2006 team and the striker. I’m supposed to be some kind of witness: Wow, you’re talking about Sean Payton, Drew Brees and the new saints. I still have a little cayenne on the boys from 2005, [who] deserved a little more applause.
Moore: That’s right. After all, what we experienced in 2005 certainly played a role in the success we achieved in 2006.
Carney: That’s why I was so moved [on the picture that made him cry on the sidelines during Monday night’s victory]. I’ve been thinking about everything we’ve been through.
The late defensive end Will Smith, after the victory of the Saints’ Super Bowl in February 2010: 2005] was not a happy time to be a soccer player at this level. But the players had a good time. It brought the team together and everyone wanted to play for each other. He created that unity and that bond that you don’t see in professional sport.