While it’s a given that a sellout Superdome crowd will be loud Sunday when the New Orleans Saints play the Houston Texans, it won’t come close to matching the noise level five years ago to the day.
On a festive Monday night on Sept. 25, 2006, the Superdome was packed with 70,003 screaming fans who welcomed the Saints back for the first time since Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the stadium 13 months earlier.
The game against the Atlanta Falcons could have been an afterthought for many people who had their lives turned upside down by that storm, but they, along with world-class entertainment, made sure it was a night to remember.
“This represented the coming back and the return of not just a team,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, “but more importantly, a region and a city.”
Sufficiently inspired by their boisterous fans, who were happy to have their nomadic team back, the Saints did their part to make it an even more memorable night with a 23-3 shelling of the Falcons.
It was the first home game for Payton and many of his players on their rebuilt roster, but it wasn’t one he or any of them would soon forget after four preseason games and their first two regular-season games were played on the road.
“I think as we got closer to that game, all of us began to recognize the significance of it,” Payton recalled this week. “I don’t think any of us were caught off guard. We understood just from the week leading up to the game in regards to media requests and the attention that was drawn to that game — along with the fact that it was a Monday Night Football game.
“That all being said, there’s still that three-hour experience that you, as best we could, try to prepare for. Yet, it was still something that was entirely different or even bigger than you imagined.”
After an emotional pregame ceremony that was highlighted by musical performances from U2 and Green Day, the Saints made sure to do their part.
After stopping the Falcons cold on their first possession and forcing a punt, special teams ace Steve Gleason blasted through to block the kick by Michael Koenen and Curtis Deloatch scooped it up and scored.
The touchdown, which would be the only score of Deloatch’s brief NFL career, came just 90 seconds into the contest.
By the time John Carney booted a 51-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, the Saints had a commanding 20-3 lead and the Falcons never had a chance.
Gleason, Deloatch and Carney are gone, but nine players — Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans, Roman Harper, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, Scott Shanle, Will Smith and Zach Strief — are still with the club.
Payton said he remembered telling his team, for an entire week leading up to the game, that it was going to be a significant night. But there was a caveat: he told them it would only be a special night if they won.
“I think 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now, as those memories fade, I don’t think we will ever lose track or not remember Steve Gleason blocking a punt,” he said. “That won’t be the trivia question. It might be who recovered it for a touchdown: Curtis Deloatch.
“But if there was one moment, it would be the first punt of the game and Gleason hitting it just right and us coming up with it. That was a significant play and probably the loudest I’ve ever heard any stadium … ever.”