Big Easy copes by rooting for Saints

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW ORLEANS

Tue, Jan 16, 2007 - Page 18

It seems the more blows New Orleans absorbs, the more it turns its affections toward the Saints.

Deanne Aime, 69, sipped merlot in a parking lot across from the Superdome before the Saints defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-24, on Saturday in a NFC divisional playoff game. She has lived in New Orleans for 66 years. She wore a Saints bandanna.

"When you're here, and you see everybody being peaceful and loving and together, it gives you the picture of how life can be here," Aime said.

But melancholy is never far.

"I cry a lot," she said.

The struggling, half-filled city, hit a little more than 16 months ago by Hurricane Katrina and now in the midst of a spree of murders, has found an escape route. This time it was toward the Superdome, not away from it.

The sidewalks, concrete balconies and pedestrian overpasses around the iconic building are familiar to millions, largely through the televised and photographed scenes of heartbreak in the days after Katrina struck New Orleans in late August 2005.

But in the mugginess of a January Saturday, a broken city was festooned in black and gold and the walkways and sidewalks were jammed with Saints fans. Many waited outside the players' entrance, cheering each time someone recognizable stepped from a car, jeering playfully when a fan in a green Eagles jersey caught their attention.

Thousands filled a raised plaza between the stadium and the New Orleans Center, where the top of the glass rotunda has still not been repaired. A stage was placed there, and the towering Hyatt hotel served as a backdrop. Many of its dark, broken windows are covered in white plastic, making parts of the skyscraper look like a vertical checkerboard.

On the stage, an MC thanked the band and then introduced the Saints' owner, Tom Benson, who seemed on the verge of moving the team before the hurricane struck and is now riding the momentum that the first-year coach, Sean Payton, the rookie running back Reggie Bush and the rejuvenated quarterback Drew Brees brought in the form of a 10-6 regular-season record and a division title.

"We'd really like to thank Mr. Tom Benson," the MC said, "who really stuck by the Saints "

The sound cut out, as if it was unplugged by a Benson critic. But a few minutes later, the problem was corrected and the owner was introduced.

"We're going to be dancing tonight," he said in his easy drawl. The crowd cheered.

The Superdome had never been the host to a divisional playoff game and New Orleans rallied around the possibilities, not the expectations. Saints fans have never expected much and the city's denizens have largely learned to treat life in the recuperating city the same way.