NEW ORLEANS -- Coming off a career-threatening injury, Drew Brees had little choice but to sign with a downtrodden franchise in a disaster zone. Sean Payton became coach of the Saints only after being passed over for the job he really wanted in Green Bay.
Receiver Marques Colston and linemen Jahri Evans and Zach Strief all arrived via the 2006 draft, wondering what they were getting into as New Orleans struggled to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
In the decade since the August 2005 storm, the Saints helped the region find something to celebrate, and the longtime Saints are humbled and proud to have been part of the recovery.
"When I went there, it was like, 'Man, sorry that you're stuck going to New Orleans,'" Strief, who played at Northwestern. "Now I think the city's had such a renaissance, and the growth is kind of exploding right now. It's fun to be a part of it, and it's fun to see that city you feel like you kind of grew up with expand and get so much respect."
The 10-year anniversary of one of the most devastating hurricanes in U.S. history is a time of reflection for many connected to the Saints, whose return to New Orleans in 2006, following one season of displacement to San Antonio, became one of the biggest feel-good stories in NFL history. Rebuilding residents, who'd been worried they might lose the team for good, widely credited the club's triumphant return for lifting spirits at a time when life was particularly hard.
"What happened was you saw people come together, you saw the city come together. It made us as a team want to do something great for them," said Evans, who helped out on Habitat for Humanity projects in flood-ravaged neighborhoods where many residents otherwise couldn't afford to rebuild. "It just felt good to see those people happy, to see the people of New Orleans happy when we have success, and just by doing what we love."
Payton was hired to his first head coaching job in New Orleans about five months after Katrina, when some traffic lights at what had been busy intersections still didn't work, and lines were long at the few pharmacies which had reopened. Children were relatively scarce, with many finishing the school year in the communities they had evacuated to, while local neighborhoods and schools remained in various states of ruin.
"There were still so many questions with the infrastructure, the schooling, hospitals," Payton said. "You recognized very quickly that it was much bigger than football."
Payton's first team wasn't his best, but arguably was his most extraordinary. Not only was Payton a rookie coach, but he'd replaced more than half the roster of a team that had gone 3-13 a season earlier.
New Orleans improved to 10-6, earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC and winning a playoff game against Philadelphia to advance to the franchise's first NFC Championship game.
The season began with two road victories, followed by an emotional homecoming to the Superdome -- which had undergone fast-tracked repairs in less than one year to replace its storm-damaged roof and mitigate mold infestations caused by gaping water leaks. The stadium, which had been used as a storm shelter, also had to be sanitized because tens of thousands of evacuees were stranded in sweltering conditions there without electricity or plumbing for nearly a week.
Renovations weren't entirely finished, but enough was done to host football when the Saints thrashed rival Atlanta, 23-3, on Sept. 25, 2006.
Strief still vividly remembers looking into the faces of Saints fans as he savored a celebratory walk to the tunnel.
"The amount of emotion in those people -- and those were the ones you could see, so you've got to imagine it was behind them as well -- it was so evident," Strief recalled. "Who's emotional after becoming 3-0 -- like really emotional? And I think in that moment you realized, man, this is so much more."
Three seasons later, in 2009-10, came the Saints' only Super Bowl title, which set off raucous block parties rivaling anything seen during Mardi Gras.
The MVP of that Super Bowl was Brees, whose success was hardly assured when he first landed in New Orleans because of the surgery required to repair the torn labrum in his right shoulder.
"As confident as a person as I was, I knew the severity of that deal," Brees said. "I was like tricking myself into believing that I was going to come back, and it was kind of like, 'Fake it 'til you make it.'
"I needed somebody to believe in me, and Sean was that person, the Saints were that organization and the City of New Orleans was that place," Brees added.
Brees and his wife settled in New Orleans' historic Uptown district, extensively renovating their new home while their foundation poured millions of dollars into ambitious projects providing area children places to learn and play.
Brees' charitable legacy includes the Lusher Charter School, whose high school football team plays at Brees Family Field.
"New Orleans empowered me by bringing me in to say, 'We believe in you and we need you.' So I felt a great responsibility to the city, like Brittany and I can be a big part of this recovery," Brees said. "There were all these people waiting to come back and there was nothing to come back to and they needed to know that somebody cared.
"I don't know if I could have gone anywhere else and had the same results, or the same feeling or become the same player," Brees said. "So I'm very much indebted to the city of New Orleans."