For New Orleans Saints fans and lifelong residents of the city known as the Big Easy, becoming Super Bowl champs is more than just about football and winning a big game. It's also about hopes and dreams, about rebuilding and recovery and most importantly it's about surviving what New Orleans and its people endured four and a half years ago when Hurricane Katrina pounded the city.
"This championship is for you, New Orleans," said Drew Brees, Saints quarterback and Most Valuable Player. Brees led his team to a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
It was the Saints' first time ever winning a Super Bowl trophy in the team's 42-year franchise history. It was considered the underdog next to Colts superstar quarterback Peyton Manning and his team.
"Four years ago whoever thought this would be happening," said Brees after the game. "When 85 percent of the city was under water, all of its residents evacuated all over the country. Most people were wondering if New Orleans would ever come back or if the team would ever come back."
When Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005 it devastated the city, killing 1,500 people in its path and left thousands more homeless. Today the city and its people are still trying to rebuild and recover. Vast stretches of houses remain vacant and unfit to live in due to flood damage.
Brees along with head coach Sean Payton joined the Saints team in 2006, six months after Katrina hit. At the time, Brees said, the players decided to lean on each other and rebuild like everyone else.
The Saints, formed in 1967, were for decades one of the worst teams in the National Football League. But against all odds this year the team transformed into a powerhouse high scoring offense dominating football fields consistently all season long.
At halftime during the Super Bowl, the Saints were trailing 10-6 against the Colts. At the beginning of the third quarter the Saints made a risky but effective and aggressive move with an on-side kick that perhaps set the tone for the rest of the game. After the kick the Saints recovered the ball followed by a touchdown and the team never looked back. The Saints went on to win. Brees completed 32 passes and threw two touchdowns.
Many saw Brees and the Saints as a symbol of hope for the city and its residents' ongoing path to recovery.
Brees told reporters, "Along the way, people have asked so many times, ‘Do you look at it as a burden or extra pressure, do you feel like you're carrying the weight of the city on your team's shoulders?'"
He continued, "I said, ‘No, not at all, we look at it as a responsibility. Our fans, our city, gave us strength, and we owe this to them. That's made all the difference."
Joy and celebration were in order Sunday night throughout the city of New Orleans.
"Our spirits are lifted," Peggy Fuselier told Reuters, as she and thousands waited outside the airport in New Orleans to welcome home the Super Bowl champs. "It's the greatest thing that could ever happen to this city."
For Robert Green, an African American survivor of Katrina, the Saints winning was more than just sharing a high five. He lived in the Lower Ninth Ward when Katrina struck the city. His family was among the thousands fighting to survive by piercing holes through the attics of their flooded houses, hoping for help from their rooftops.
Green's mother died while waiting to be rescued. So did his 3-year-old granddaughter.
Like hundreds of others Green was eventually rescued and taken to the Superdome, home to the Saints.
"We saw people crying, and we saw people starving," he told a CBS reporter.
"For kids, for adults, for old people, it was just a horrible place to be," said Green.
Even after the horrific memories and tragic losses of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints winning the Super Bowl in many ways reflects a triumphant return for the people of New Orleans, he said. "It's not about football. It's about showing that we are survivors, we are achievers and about how we are going to be champions."
Photo: New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush, center, celebrates with fans after Sunday's NFL Super Bowl XLIV football game against the Indianapolis Colts in Miami. (AP/David J. Phillip)