September 25, 2006.
Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the day the Louisiana Superdome reopened its doors for business after undergoing an extensive, costly renovation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
In hindsight, the $336 million spent in helping restore the centerpiece of the sports landscape in the city of New Orleans was worth every penny.
And while the passage of time has dulled my senses to many things, the playing of that Monday night game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons on national television still resonates loudly in my heart, soul and mind.
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I hope and pray that I will never forget that night.
For that night had more meaning than a mere football game, although the Saints’ 23-3 victory produced a moment for the ages when special teams’ ace Steve Gleason blocked Michael Koenen’s punt and Curtis DeLoatch recovered the loose ball for a touchdown.
The game and the refurbished venue symbolized the rebirth of a city and surrounding communities and a region that had been left for dead by a weather-related phenomenon — a furious Cat 3 storm that wreaked death and destruction all along the Gulf Coast and a faulty, outdated levee system that failed to contain the rising water in and around New Orleans.
For those in attendance the night of Sept. 25, 2006, and those who watched from around the world and understood the significance of the moment, it was a historical event in every sense of the word.
No sporting event has evoked the wide range of emotions I felt that night 10 years ago.
Others share that sentiment.
“I will never forget that day,’’ said SMG executive vice-president Doug Thornton, who oversees the daily operation of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center and was the last SMG employee to evacuate the dome in the days following Katrina.
The Superdome served as a refuge of last resort for tens of thousands who remained in the city during Katrina’s frightening approach in the Gulf of Mexico and the tumultuous days that followed in the city.
“To this point in my life,’’ Thornton said, “it is the absolute pinnacle. It represented so much — the 850 men and women who put this place back together, who came together to make the sacrifice with one common purpose and that was to open the Superdome for the Saints.
“We were one team with one purpose and that was to open the building and play a football game. The Superdome is a one-of-a-kind facility. And to think we almost lost it.’’
To commemorate the game’s 10-year anniversary, ESPN will return to the Superdome for a Week 3 matchup at 7:30 p.m. Monday between the Saints (0-2) and Falcons (1-1).
Inside the stadium, spectacular new HD video boards curve around each end zone. Outside the stadium, a larger-than-life bronze statue features Gleason’s likeness and stands in Champion’s Square in commemoration of his blocked punt. Gleason has raised both worldwide awareness and millions of dollars for ALS research since first being diagnosed with the disease in January 2011.
As fate would have it, Gleason provided the impetus for victory that night against the Falcons and their third-year head coach, Jim L. Mora, a former secondary coach with the Saints under his father from 1992-96.
“Because of my family’s history in the city, it was an emotional night but it was also daunting,’’ said Mora, now in his fifth season as head coach of the UCLA Bruins. “You felt like the whole country was lined up against you. I understood why. It certainly made sense.
“I don’t remember every single play except Steve’s blocked punt. But the night is still very fresh in my mind. I remember the environment — the electricity in the stadium and the energy of the crowd. I remember the emotion. I remember the pre-game in the locker room when I could hear U2 and Green Day singing ‘The Saints Are Coming.’ I remember the post-game press conference.
“I think about it a lot. I can still remember all those feelings. I still draw from those feelings. I can still stir them up easily even now. You can hear it in my voice.’’
Mora paused and collected himself.
“We went there with an agenda to win a football game,” Mora said. “And I — we — wanted to win. But there were so many mixed emotions because of what the city meant to me and my family and knowing the struggles the people had gone through and were still going through. People who haven’t lived in New Orleans don’t understand what the Saints and LSU football, football in general, mean to the people in that area. There is so much pride in their teams.
“Hey, I’m still a Saints fan,” he said. “I love the city. I love the people. I clapped for the fans as I came off the field that night. That environment was like nothing I’d ever experienced before in terms of the electricity and the energy. This was a historic moment in the arena of football. I wanted to embrace the moment and remember it, and I have. I’ll remember it forever.”
Won’t we all.