Tom Benson was moved to tears.
Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, was honored Tuesday with a statue of himself on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s grand staircase, overlooking Champions Square.
The statue is of Benson in a suit smiling and holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft after the Saints won the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, 2010. The statue is to serve as a lasting reminder of his longtime commitment and contributions to the New Orleans community and the people of Louisiana as a sports owner, businessman, environmentalist, philanthropist and leader in civic matters.
“That’s real nice,” said Benson, 87, sobbing while sitting in a wheelchair with his wife, Gayle, by his side. “I never thought this would happen. I’m so pleased. Thank y’all very much.”
The bronze statue was sculpted by artist Brian Hanlon, who also did the Steve Gleason statue at the Superdome and one of Shaquille O’Neal at LSU.
Mounted on a granite base, the tribute is 13 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 10,000 pounds. The statue of Benson stands about 10 feet and weighs 1,500 pounds. The statue was paid for by civic donations of those wanting to show gratitude to Benson, a Saints/Pelicans spokesperson said.
After Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Gov. Bobby Jindal, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Saints coach Sean Payton and Hanlon spoke, the stature was unveiled by Payton and Saints Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis.
Benson and the Saints are credited with playing a big part in the renaissance of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005. The team returned one year after the storm with an iconic win in the Dome against the Atlanta Falcons that inspired confidence in the recovery and helped unify the area.
“Tom, you helped this city believe in itself again,” Landrieu said. “Coach (Payton), on that day when y’all won that first game when we came back here, the people were needing to know that things could get back to normal and that we could actually be the best.”
Benson is credited with keeping New Orleans as an NFL city when he purchased the team in 1985. During his ownership, the city has hosted five Super Bowls, each bringing a tremendous economic windfall, including the last one here in 2013, in which New Orleans reaped $480 million.
Benson made sure New Orleans remained an NBA city, also, when he purchased the former New Orleans Hornets, now Pelicans, in 2012. Keeping those two teams has had a big impact on the state in terms of employment, tax revenue, and national and world status, Jindal said.
Jindal, however, said he will never forget Benson’s commitment to the state after an environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico that damaged Louisiana’s economy and more importantly threatened to end a way of life for the residents of the southern part of the state.
“I’m reminded that when we faced the BP oil spill off our coast, our communities were hurting,” Jindal said. “I remember Tom bringing the team down. And they spent hours with the folks that had been hit hard, who were worried about their livelihoods, worried about whether they could live in their communities again.”
Under Benson, the Saints annually make $15 million in charitable contributions to restore the Gulf South and the New Orleans area. As a cancer survivor, Benson has worked with the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans, establishing the $20 million Tom and Gayle Benson Cancer Center. And he has supported the efforts of former Saints player Gleason, who made an iconic punt block in that Falcons game in 2006, by recently committing $5 million to the Team Gleason House. He also has contributed to projects in education, including at his alma mater, Loyola University.
Payton said he kept trying to guess what the statue would look like.
“I’m not sure what it’s going to look like,” Payton said, “but I know it’s going to represent wisdom, it’s going to represent leadership, it’s going to represent a cool, collected mindset through sometimes adverse conditions.”
The statue had been in the works for two years, and it took 10 months to actually sculpt. Hanlon said he searched for the right image and was tempted by the Benson Boogie known to Saints fans after a victory. After much continued research, he found the right one from a photo.
“My first impulse was to sculpt him with the umbrella over his head, sort of dancing,” Hanlon said. “But then, as you read more about Mr. Benson, you can’t avoid the overwhelming characteristic of dignity in his life. And, I thought that this image is much more dignified. And it is sort of iconic.”