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When the Indianapolis Colts returned home from their loss in the Super Bowl at Miami, there were 11 people at the airport to greet them.


Heck, the Minnesota Vikings had more people than that in their huddle near the end of the NFC championship game against New Orleans.

According to a story in The Indianapolis Star, “Each plane’s arrival was a little different than the arrival of a scheduled flight at the main terminal across the airfield. The planes rolled onto the ramp, and the passengers trudged down air stairs and onto waiting buses, while crews unloaded equipment into rental trucks. The buses left the ramp without a word from anyone on the team. The closest any of the 11 fans got to the Colts was the other side of a security fence several hundred feet away.”

I realize it was cold in Indianapolis on Monday afternoon. I realize there was snow.

Still. . .

Even had the Saints lost to the Colts in the Super Bowl, I can assure you there would have been thousands of fans at the airport to greet the team. Perhaps it’s the difference between Southern passion and Midwestern reserve. It’s the difference between a bowl of gumbo with plenty of Tabasco sauce and a slice of Indiana pork loin with just a little pepper.

In New Orleans on Monday, there were an estimated 20,000 people present when the team landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Fans ran alongside Coach Sean Payton’s Mercedes-Benz as he lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy through the sunroof.

The Times-Picayune described it this way: “As they do after every away game, throngs of fans met the Saints at the airport, a tradition that is unique among National Football League teams. Members of the Saints organization line up their cars in a caravan and drive past a mile of screaming fans. On Monday, fans were five and six deep for most of the route.”

On a cold Tuesday night, I sat on my couch at home and listened to WWL-AM, 870, as the Saints held the largest parade ever for a Super Bowl champion. It’s estimated that between 500,000 and 800,000 people showed up for the parade. That dwarfs the estimated crowd of 350,000 people who attended a similar parade last year in Pittsburgh.

In a town accustomed to huge crowds for Carnival parades each year, parade organizer Barry Kern said, “It was more people than we ever had downtown.”

The crowds were as deep as 40 people at major intersections along the 3.7-mile route. All of the area’s major krewes — Bacchus, Rex (my favorite for some reason), Zulu, Endymion, Caesar, Alla, Tucks, Babylon, Orpheus, Muses  and others — provided floats.

According to a Times-Picayune story, “The crowds were as large as any Carnival parade has seen; the traffic leading up to the parade was worse. An hour before the parade, major highways leading into town were backed up into Jefferson Parish, and city streets were impassable. Fans hoping to catch a ride across the river on the ferry had to be patient — very patient. Lines were at least an hour long at the Algiers terminal, and some people were told they might wait three hours for a boat.

“In fact, it was so crowded downtown that outlying areas were empty. As the parade rolled at 5 p.m., parts of Metairie were as empty as they’d normally be on a Sunday morning. Supermarkets were nearly empty. … The parade made Tuesday a quasi-holiday in and around the city — the second in a row. After celebrating late into the night Sunday, many residents in the metro area took Monday off; some schools reported attendance was down by nearly half. On Tuesday, many businesses shut down early — both so that their employees could get home, or so that they could get to the parade.”

Next Tuesday is Fat Tuesday. Yesterday was known in New Orleans as Dat Tuesday and Lombardi Gras.

It has now become trite to write that for New Orleans, having the Saints win the Super Bowl is something that transcends sports. But never has that cliche been more true. As those who read this blog on a regular basis know, I love New Orleans and its people. My honeymoon was there. My family was on vacation there just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Many business trips have been taken there since the storm.

A Times-Picayune editorial put it this way: “Building an NFL championship team is a gargantuan undertaking. It requires vision and resources, the right mix of talent, serendipity and a dedication to be the best. Thirty-two franchises try every year, as the Saints had done unsuccessfully for more than four decades. But those past failures, monumental at times, are forever redeemed. … Metro residents resolved to rebuild better after the storm and we remain a work in progress. But the Saints’ success at reinventing themselves shows we can do it.

“The Saints have given more than a little bit of something to everybody already. They’ve given us a sense of hope and of civic pride, putting New Orleans in the national and international spotlight as victors rather than victims. They’ve given us an example of how to build a team, aim for a goal and work together. They’ve unified us as citizens of the Who Dat nation. All of that, taken together, can help us in the job of rebuilding this great place we all love. Maybe it’s not possible to maintain the pitch of delirium we’re feeling now, but our heightened hope in the future can and must remain.”

As if it weren’t enough to have the Super Bowl and a number of Carnival parades on the same weekend, New Orleans residents also elected a new mayor Saturday. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who had lost two earlier campaigns for the office his father held from 1970-78, won with 65 percent of the vote.

He will be the city’s first white mayor since his father left office. In a city so often divided along racial lines, it’s encouraging that Mitch Landrieu had heavy suport among both black and white voters. Having blacks and whites on the same page politically is just as historic for the Crescent City as the Saints winning the Super Bowl.

One of my favorite New Orleans writers is Errol Laborde, who holds a doctorate in political science from the University of New Orleans and is the editor of New Orleans magazine and Louisiana Life magazine. Laborde believes last weekend may have been the best in the city’s long, colorful, sometimes tragic history.

“Since the founding of New Orleans by Jean Baptiste La Moyne Sieur de Bienville in 1718, the city has experienced approximately 15,184 weekends,” he wrote Monday. “Of those, this past weekend was surely the best. During a 48-hour period, New Orleanians elected a new mayor and then watched their Saints win the Super Bowl, all happening with the backdrop of Carnival.

“Most significant about Mitch Landrieu’s overwhelming mayoral election is that it showed a city that is politically united. Despite the ministers, commentators and old-school politicians who have tried to stir up race as a means of clinging to power, the voters knew better. This weekend black voters and white voters were united behind common issues. They settled for the same candidate whose win was so lopsided that it left those who would divide the city like the Indianapolis Colts stopped near the goal line as time runs out. Because of the Super Bowl, the election did not get the attention it deserved, but it spoke volumes of New Orleans’ maturity as a city.”

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, I shed many tears as I watched the television coverage, fearing that we had lost New Orleans for all practical purposes as a great American city.

There’s a lot of hard work still ahead. But with a new mayor and citizens who feel good about themselves thanks to the Saints, there’s now hope. Listening each night to WWL radio from icy Arkansas, it has been a glorious past few days.

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