The Saints: the team that really hit home

Danny Spatchek, Sports Editor

When the day Jeff Schwehm had waited his entire life for came, the New Orleans Saints first appearance in the Super Bowl, he took a nap. A lifelong Saints fan, he was too nervous to watch the pregame.

Schwehm, a Lakeland associate professor of biochemistry, grew up in the New Orleans area, and like all Saints’ fans in their early history, endured the torment entailed in rooting for one of the worst teams in the NFL.

“A lot of people went to the games and the fans always had a good showing, but that didn’t mean that the fights in the stands weren’t more interesting than the game,” Schwehm laughs, going on to recount the times when fans wore bags over their heads at the time the club earned the unflattering “Aints” nickname.

It’s no wonder Schwehm experienced jitters as the team he was married to prepared for battle, or that he spent a third quarter in which the Saints pulled within one of the Colts pedaling furiously on his stationary bike rather than relaxing on a sofa.

For Schwehm, this wasn’t a game, but the most meaningful of symbols, one much heavier than his team shedding their losing reputation.

When Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc through the Gulf Coast in 2005, New Orleans, the city with which Schwehm has so many intimate memories, was devastated.

More pressing than the sustenance of his memories were the fates of his family and friends in the area, whom he didn’t hear from for more than a week following the storm.

“My brother lives in North Carolina so he drove down to the city—which was hard to get into because the entire area was blocked off. He knew the area and got in through back roads and then I didn’t hear from him for while. It was nerve-wracking until my brother called to tell me our parents were fine but without electricity,” Schwehm said.

Schwehm’s parents weren’t his only reason for worry as one of his friend’s houses was located a short walk away from a broken levee.

“Everything she owned was inside of her Honda Civic,” he says of his friend, Tamara, who drove to Wisconsin and stayed with Schwehm for the next three weeks.

The storm nearly resulted in the end of Schwehm’s beloved Saints. The team was forced to play their 2005 games in San Antonio, Baton Rouge, and even the Meadowlands. Talk circulated that the Saints, likely unable to attract players to their ravaged city, might leave New Orleans for good.

Schwehm talked about the acquisitions of Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, the catalysts, according to Schwehm, for the rejuvenation of the team and the city.

“Sean Payton was an assistant coach in Dallas and had the choice to be the head coach at Green Bay or New Orleans. He went to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for advice. Jones said anyone can rebuild a football team, but rebuilding a city is a unique opportunity.

“Some doctors said Drew Brees wouldn’t play again after he left San Diego with a bum shoulder. I think he really connected with the city. He said he was rebuilding personally, just like the city and the team were.”

Schwehm’s personal experience with the franchise’s early struggles, and his ability to empathize with the people of New Orleans, gives him particular satisfaction in the Saints’ accomplishment.

“They’re a symbol of hope and unity in the city, almost telling people: the city’s back, you can come for business again and for fun stuff, like the Saints,” says Schwehm, clearly delighted to be saying these words. “Games are sold out for years to come, and thousands of people wait at the airport gate for the team to get off the plane every game. That’s unheard of in the NFL. It’s a story that transcends football.”

Conceivably, he’s not the only one who thinks so.


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