LEWISBURG, W.Va. — A group of children, all dressed in football gear, stood among the crowd of 60 or so people at the Greenbrier Valley Airport holding various signs and pictures welcoming the New Orleans Saints to town.
This small town, which boasts only a handful of hotels, a Walmart, and various chain restaurants, suddenly become one of the country’s epicenters of football, and the excitement among locals was palpable Wednesday afternoon when the Saints arrived to town.
“I didn’t know there were this many Saints fans here,” said Dale Usey, a Thibodaux native who relocated to Lewisburg about 25 years ago. “I used to offer people gumbo to come watch Saints games with me.”
Judging from the initial reception, Usey will have no problem finding people to watch his favorite team practice over the next three weeks.
Training camp opens Thursday, though the first day will consist of physicals, strength and conditioning tests, and meetings. The first practice, which will be conducted without pads, will be Friday morning at the Greenbrier Resort.
After landing at the airport, the Saints were greeted by a band that played “When the Saints Go Marching In” as they loaded a caravan of buses, which was flanked by several SUVs, one of which contained owner Tom Benson, a few police cars, and a fire truck.
After exiting the airport, the caravan drove through Lewisburg and then continued on to Sulpher Springs, where the Greenbrier Resort is located. On their way to the resort’s main entrance, the team drove by its temporary headquarters, which contains a 55,000 square foot training facility and three practice fields.
The facility did not exist a little more than three months ago and cost an estimated $30 million to build. But the price is irrelevant to locals.
They’re exited to have the opportunity to watch an NFL franchise prepare for the upcoming season in their own backyard.
“There’s a lot of excitement brewing, of course,” Tonja Ridgeway, a local who was wearing a Brandin Cooks shirt, said. “The performance facility at the resort is one of a kind -- it’s amazing. That creates a lot of excitement in itself.”
Perhaps the most excited person in town is the Greenbrier’s owner, Jimmy Justice. He is one of the men responsible for bringing this together, and was not afraid to share his excitement when speaking with a local news outlet Wednesday.
“Everybody here is excited,” Justice said. “I think our state, we ought to be out of our minds to think about having an NFL team here.”
It was easy to spot those most out of their minds Wednesday afternoon. It was the gruop of kids holding their signs up near the fence.
They screamed to the players as they stretched to hold their signs up just a little bit higher, hoping to catch the eye of one of their heroes exiting the plane. As they did so, their mother, Janelle Vanfosson, stood back and smiled.
“They are Saints fans, and they’re local football players, too,” Vanfosson said. “They’re really excited to show them that they are football players, and they get to see professionals. There’s a lot of excitement. This is a small town. Having them here is huge for us.”