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Storm-tossed team

Resilient Saints have been forced to weather a season unlike any other

SAN ANTONIO -- Not minutes from the airport, just off of Interstate 281, there is a section of town called ''The Quarry," where trendy shops breathe life into a glitzy mall and plush golf courses offer year-round temptation. There are comfortable living accommodations, and it is here that many members of the New Orleans Saints have come to rest their beleaguered spirits in this most unforgettable of NFL seasons.

A short ride to departures.

A short ride from arrivals.

How perfect for a group of men who can't tell whether they're coming or going, only that home is not at the end of either direction. They may not be wandering as aimlessly as the legendary tumbleweeds of these parts, but surely the 2005 Saints have had their resolve tested like no other NFL team in history.

''If we were 16-0 and won a Super Bowl, I don't think it would be as memorable to the players as this season," said offensive lineman Wayne Gandy. ''We'll remember all kinds of things, but I guarantee you a Super Bowl team will only remember two or three moments of that season."

A massive man with a soft smile, Gandy knows that life has been turned upside-down for hundreds of thousands of people because of the devastation inflicted upon the Gulf Coast some 12 weeks ago. On Friday, Aug. 26, Gandy and the Saints lost to the Ravens in an exhibition game in the Superdome, then promptly left town for San Jose, Calif. On Monday, Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina landed with a horrific ferocity, and while this is why Gandy and the Saints have lived like vagabonds this NFL season and have a 2-7 record to show for it, he implores that the story be put in perspective.

''This is just a temporary situation [for us], five or six months of uneasiness," said Gandy, an All-Pro with the Rams and Steelers before joining the Saints in 2003. ''Fortunately, the sport pays a good wage, so people who have the means will recover from what happened faster than people who don't. From that point of view, we suffered less."

His teammates echo those sentiments.

''It's been hard to maintain our focus," said wide receiver Donte' Stallworth. ''But we are not the victims here. The victims are the ones back in New Orleans struggling and fighting to keep their lives. We are just doing our job."

That job will take the Saints to Gillette Stadium today for a game against the Patriots, but it's doubtful any of them will be thinking about their last visit here, in mid-August when they earned a 37-27 exhibition win. The odyssey since then has been just too wild, the story of the homeless Saints unlike anything in pro sports.

An Alamo home
Gandy had only one suitcase packed for the trip to California. Some teammates had two.

''We figured we'd be gone a week, maybe two," said Gandy. ''Who knew?"

By the time the Saints played the Raiders Sept. 1 in the exhibition finale, the scope of the devastation left by Katrina was understood. The Saints knew they weren't going back to New Orleans; they just didn't know where they were going to land. None of them really cared.

''Football was the last thing people were thinking about," said running back Antowain Smith, the former Patriot.

Two days after that game, the Saints went marching in . . . to San Antonio. It had been agreed that they would be based here in 2005, a decision that was hardly a shock. After all, while team owner Tom Benson is a New Orleans native, he has had a high-profile business presence in San Antonio for years, owning several car dealerships and a couple of banks. He has a home in the Texas Hills an hour from town, and it was no secret that he used the possibility of relocation to this fast-growing city as leverage to get a sweeter deal at the Louisiana Superdome.

Besides open arms, San Antonio offered a mandatory component: a place to play. It is called the Alamodome, and it stands as a testament to this community's desire to be a big-time pro sports city. Opened in 1993, the 65,000-seat arena grew out of the desert dirt on a philosophical foundation: ''If you build it, they will come."

The NFL, that is, but that dream has yet to be realized. The Spurs did play their NBA games there for a few years before moving into their own arena, so now the Alamodome is used for concerts, conventions, various home and auto shows, and high school and college sporting events. It's a multipurpose facility that may not be state of the art, but it sure did come in handy.

Of course, in the multibillion-dollar world of the NFL, you do not simply pick up an entire franchise and move it on a few days' notice without clearing some serious hurdles. The task of uprooting more than 70 players and coaches, dozens of front-office people, a bottomless pile of equipment, and boxloads of office necessities presented sizable logistical headaches.

The weights, for instance. You can't have a pro football team without them, but the relocated Saints realized that theirs were back in Metairie, La. Rock Gullickson, the team's strength and conditioning coach, oversaw a moving project that involved 10,000 pounds of free weights, six power racks, 21 selectorized weight machines, and six cardio machines, all loaded onto a pair of 24-foot-long trucks for a nine-hour ride. At the receiving end, Gullickson's assistants, Adam Bailey and H.J. Adams, were in charge of unloading the trucks and rigging a makeshift weight room.

While the Saints waited for their weights, they enrolled at the local Gold's Gym, busing over in shifts.

''Imagine that," said Gandy, shaking his head. He offered a soft chuckle and suggested that his teammates got a kick out of pumping iron in front of the ladies and gents down at Gold's. Then his laugh grew deeper because so much about this transition has been bizarre. ''What else can you do? It's been a season of uncertainty and flexibility. Every day is a different day."

Facility, but no stability
For the first couple of weeks in this city of 1.2 million people, the Saints lived in a hotel across the highway from the Alamodome, and it was weeks before any of them had their own transportation. As for the only pure day off they had from football, that would be every Tuesday, but the first three or four Tuesdays were spent securing housing.

Then there's the football side of the equation, from the weight room that finally got up and running, to the practice schedule, to the locker room, to the actual games. In each case, the Saints have been thrown one curveball after another. If they want to ice down their bruised and battered body parts, they have to use trash barrels. A hot tub? Fill your bathtub at home, because one isn't available at the Alamodome. The locker room is what they would be used to -- at least on those practice days when they can use the facility, because the Saints then can spread out and use both rooms. During game day, however, the visitors get one of the rooms and the middle door is shut.

''We just pick up our stuff and move to the other side," said Gandy.

They're getting good at that, because even at their home away from home, the Saints still face daily changes. The deal with San Antonio officials was made in a matter of hours, and prior commitments with the Alamodome had to be kept. Thus, the team had to move out of the Alamodome for five days in late October so the Builders Showcase Expo could take over. In early November, the Marching Bands of America Super Regional Championship took over for four days, though the Saints at least got to use the conference rooms.

''Every once in a while you'd be in a meeting and you'd hear a trumpet or a trombone playing," said Gandy.

The day that a local ROTC program occupied the Alamodome? Coach Jim Haslett took his guys out on the concourse for a walk-through, easily viewed by thousands of people racing by on Interstate 37. Many of his colleagues would go into convulsions at such a thought, thinking someone would spy on them from a passing car, but Haslett has been the glue that holds all these pieces together. The 2-7 record pains him, but he still lives in New Orleans and recently has gone home to witness the devastation. In other words, he has perspective.

''Obviously, we haven't done a good job on the football field," said Haslett. ''When you're back at your place and there's stability -- that's what people want, that's what players want, that's what kids want, that's what anybody in the business world likes, stability. We just haven't had any of it this year."

When the facility has been unavailable, the team has had to use the sports complex at Burbank High School; players dress at the Alamodome, then pile into two buses for the 20-minute ride. While it's a situation no other NFL team is dealing with, the Saints know they have no choice. They also know it's the way things will be for a good part of the time at the end of the year, because the NCAA Women's Volleyball Final Four will be held inside the Alamodome in mid-December and soon thereafter, the annual Alamo Bowl will be played.

Players and coaches hate to even think about it, but they will have to move out of the Alamodome for good by Dec. 8, except for one last game Christmas Eve. And while they have new office space picked out, they're scrambling to find a locker room and, yes, another weight room. Gold's Gym is still an option.

All their practices from Dec. 8 on will be at Burbank High School.

The Baton Rouge factor
The players are adamant that San Antonio officials did everything possible to make a bad situation somewhat bearable. ''I don't feel like this is home," said Gandy. ''The people here have been great, outstanding, but at home, I don't have to keep moving my locker."

He paused, then said what most of his teammates believe: ''The [NFL] didn't help us out with the schedule."

Few of the Saints understand why this uprooted team had to be uprooted yet again when it landed in San Antonio. The team's first ''home" game of the season, against the New York Giants, was played in East Rutherford, N.J. Four other ''home" games were given to Baton Rouge, La., where the Louisiana State Tigers are the only game in town. In all, only three games were granted to the Alamodome, two of which already have been played; the final one will be Christmas Eve.

''I think it would've been better for us to play all eight [home] games here in San Antonio," said Smith. ''The two games in the Alamodome felt like home games. We had great fan participation."

''Our two best games were here," said Gandy, a reference to a win over Buffalo and a last-second loss to Atlanta. There was a crowd of 58,688 for the first, a sellout of 65,562 for the other. The two in Baton Rouge? There were 61,643 against Miami, but just 32,637 against Chicago. Games against Tampa Bay (Dec. 4) and Carolina (Dec. 18) are still on the docket for Tiger Stadium, a fact that the Saints players aren't happy with. The Saturdays before home games are usually a time of rest for NFLers, but the Saints spend their ''home" Saturdays flying to and from Baton Rouge and staying in a Holiday Inn Express.

''When we leave the game [in Baton Rouge], so does the other team," said Gandy. ''We're all at the airport together."

The players are trying their best to focus on the game at hand, but they are not oblivious to the swirling controversy regarding the team's future. San Antonio would like to have an NFL franchise -- officials don't deny that -- but when San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger said after the Oct. 16 game with Atlanta, ''I'm pretty comfortable in saying [Benson] wants to be [in San Antonio]," folks in New Orleans reacted angrily and the volleying was under way.

''For [Benson] to be openly talking to other cities about moving is disrespectful to the citizens of New Orleans who have hung in with this franchise through 30-something years," responded New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Christian Archer, special assistant to Hardberger, said criticism of his boss and his city's efforts was unwarranted. He said his city took in 20,000 evacuees from New Orleans and offered to help the football team because it was in a position to do so. ''We're not stealing the team, we're accommodating them," he said.

Interstate tug of war
Certainly, San Antonio officials would have made further accommodations to have all eight games played at the Alamodome, but NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue felt it was in the best interest of the franchise to play when possible in Louisiana. When Tagliabue chose not to attend either of the two games in San Antonio, folks here were offended; when he showed up at the Oct. 30 game in Baton Rouge alongside Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and told reporters, ''The Saints are Louisiana's team and have been since the late 1960s," there was even greater offense taken. But Tagliabue appeared to be making a statement to Benson.

The fact that after the Oct. 30 game Benson got into an altercation with a fan who heckled him and pushed a camerman who worked for a Louisiana television station added even more bitterness. Benson -- who bought the team for $70.204 million in 1985, though Forbes estimates its current value at $715 million -- vowed never to attend another game in Baton Rouge and he subsequently fired Arnold Fielkow, the team's executive vice president who staunchly supported Tagliabue's wish to play games there and keep the team anchored in New Orleans.

Jeff Wentworth, a state senator from San Antonio, kept the flames burning when he told reporters, ''The [New Orleans] economy is in a shambles. It's a matter of Mr. Benson making a sound business decision for himself and the NFL." Finally, Tagliabue's muscle apparently took over. He apparently urged Benson to extend contractual deadlines he had in place that could have given him wiggle room to move the Saints out of New Orleans, should the Superdome be deemed unplayable.

Obviously, that is the case right now, but officials are optimistic the situation will change.

''It appears that there are no structural problems to the major systems, not enough to warrant tearing it down," said Tim Coulon, chairman of the Superdome Commission. Like others in New Orleans, Coulon holds out hope that perhaps a few Saints games could be played there in 2006, that the other home games would be held in Baton Rouge, so the team would remain Louisiana's.

''Economically, for us to lose this team would further frustrate the region," said Coulon.

Economics? Politics? It's all at the heart of a very big picture, but you'll excuse the Saints players if they try and stay out of it.

''My focus is on winning a football game," said Joe Horn, a 10-year veteran who warns that his teammates cannot be consumed with worrying about where the team is going to be in 2006.

''What guys ought to be worried about is whether their future is going to be here with the record we have," said Horn. ''There may be guys in the locker room who may not be New Orleans Saints, no matter where the hell we're going to be at."

Gandy listens, nods his head, and agrees. But as he glances around the locker room, he smiles.

''Even though we're 2-7, you do see effort," he said. ''You see a team that despite everything still plays hard. We haven't quit. We haven't shut it down."

And they've kept the suitcases open, too.

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