Lifting up New Orleans: City rising in unison with Saints

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints’ road to Sunday’s NFC Championship Game — and to helping repair this Hurricane Katrina-battered city — began with a wrong turn.
Coach Sean Payton might have facilitated the most fortuitous drive of his NFL career — one that delivered community-conscious quarterback Drew Brees— by getting lost.

In early March 2006, the first-year head coach made a rookie mistake while showing Brees and his wife, Brittany, potential neighborhoods, just seven months after Katrina hit.

“The only problem with this whole plan I had was I hadn’t really been around here too long to know my way around,” Payton said. “I thought I was heading in one direction, except I was heading in another. I’m not talking about 15 minutes. I’m lost for an hour now, and Brittany’s dozing off. I thought, ‘We’ve got no chance of signing this guy.’ ”

Payton didn’t know it at the time, but that ride awakened Brees, then a free agent, and his wife.

“I felt it was my calling that God was leading me here for a reason to help make a difference,” said Brees, who signed a six-year, $60 million contract.

A league-best 122 touchdown passes later, they have the top-seeded Saints hosting the NFC title game for the first time, facing the Minnesota Vikings.

Nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina hit the area Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and leaving unprecedented damage, things are getting better little by little thanks in part to three Saints who have been a city’s saving grace — Payton, Brees and running back Reggie Bush.