IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Saints face logistical nightmare this season

WP: Team tired of being nomads, but know situation pales compared to victims'
Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks talks about the Hurricane Katrina damage. Brooks and his New Orleans teammates likely won't play in the city all season.Paul Sakuma / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Wayne Gandy was watching television in his room at the New Orleans Saints' hotel on Friday when a sports news item flashed across the screen and caught his attention: The Saints were going to play their first scheduled home game of the NFL season in their opponent's stadium.

That's how Gandy, the team's veteran tackle, found out that the Saints' Week 2 game against the New York Giants would be played at Giants Stadium. And it underscored the recent ground rules for being a member of the Saints: Get your information wherever you can. Be flexible. And don't feel sorry for yourself.

"You can't just be thinking about yourself now," Gandy said. "Watching what's going on back in New Orleans just makes you thankful you're not in that situation."

The devastation of New Orleans literally has left the team without a home. The Saints spent last week in California and then hurriedly set up a home away from home in San Antonio, where they plan to live, practice and run their business all season, and perhaps, some people believe, beyond this season. Club officials are in deliberations with the NFL about where to play the other seven home games.

The logistical problems the Saints face are virtually unprecedented in pro sports history. A group of 16 team employees spent Friday packing as much equipment as they could into trucks at the club's training facility in the New Orleans area, then drove here in a caravan. The team is staying at the Marriott Rivercenter Hotel, where the trainer's room will be. Meeting rooms for players and coaches are set up across the street at the convention center. Many families are staying, for now, a little over a mile up the road at an extended-stay hotel. The players will use the locker rooms and weight room at the nearby Alamodome, and drive a few miles along the highway to practice at Burbank High School.

Everything was set up hastily between Friday and Sunday, and the Saints began practicing here Monday afternoon to prepare for their season opener Sunday at Carolina. Coach Jim Haslett is doing his best to keep players to their routine, with the exceptions that they'll lift weights in the afternoon instead of at 7:30 a.m. and they'll meet with media members after practice instead of during lunch hour.

"We're short a copy machine," Haslett said. "We're kind of crammed in some quarters. But actually we're not behind at all" in preparations for the Panthers game."

But if Haslett won't admit to being more than slightly unsettled, his players will. They spent the weekend wondering where they would live, wondering whether they should find a house or apartment in San Antonio, wondering when they should bring their kids to town and where to enroll them in school. General Manager Mickey Loomis alleviated some of the uncertainty Sunday evening by announcing that the team planned to be based in San Antonio all season, no matter where it would be playing its home games.

Still, most players have homes in varying states of ruin in New Orleans, and don't have much of a wardrobe on hand in San Antonio. Many of those players who were here over the weekend went to the mall attached to the team hotel to buy clothes.

"Lucky enough, I kind of figured if it did flood, I was going to be gone at least a week," guard Jamar Nesbit said. "I have about a week's worth of clothes. Hopefully, I'll find a washer and dryer before then so I don't have to start wearing the same clothes over and over again.

"It feels like I'm a rookie who just found out you made the team, and now you're trying to get your life situated again and start over. The only difference now is I have a family and two kids to worry about."

Nesbit and his wife, Tara, were at the hotel over the weekend. He said his kids were staying with their grandparents in New Jersey. "I figure I've got about another two weeks until the oldest starts getting upset with me for not being here," he said.

Nesbit's oldest child is 3, so he doesn't have to worry about finding schools. But he did spend the weekend gathering real estate information, and he said he plans to find an apartment or house soon. "I'm going to bring them down here as quickly as possible and try to get them back to some sort of normalcy," Nesbit said.

Back in New Orleans, Nesbit said, his teammates used to kid him about his 45-minute commute to the practice facility, wondering why he lived so far away. But Nesbit was lucky. His house escaped major damage. Even so, he didn't return to gather any belongings.

"Getting in there was pretty difficult," he said. "And then it's still kind of dangerous. Unfortunately, there's a lot of dangerous stuff going on there. It's only possessions, so it's not that important. I'd love to have a lot of my things back, some pictures and some documents I need, but it wasn't worth risking going back and running into someone who might do something crazy."

Gandy felt the same way, saying he would check on his house when order was restored in New Orleans. "For now, there's a little mall here," he said. "I'll get a T-shirt or something. I don't think we'll have a dress code on the road trips. I had enough T-shirts and shorts in a bag. You just have to make sure you have enough clean socks."

Gandy lived in New Orleans only during the football season, making his home in Atlanta. His daughter came in from Atlanta over the weekend, and he took her out to explore the town. He said he'll probably move out of the hotel soon. "You can't live in an 8-by-10 room," Gandy said.

"It's a tough road, playing football out of a hotel, especially now that we don't have any home games," he continued. "It's going to be a lot of traveling and buses and hotels. Even if we play games somewhere in Louisiana, you're not at your house. You can't go to your stove and turn it on and get something to eat."

The Saints are not griping, however, especially after a group of players visited Katrina evacuees Sunday and saw them living practically shoulder to shoulder on cots in two buildings at a former Air Force base that is now an industrial park in San Antonio. There, the story hit especially close to home when they metLester Vallet Sr., 82, a longtime Saints employee. He returned with the team to its hotel, attended practice Monday and said he had reached his wife Carolyn, who was at a shelter in Lafayette, La. Vallet had been unable to locate his wife since they were rescued from their flooded home in New Orleans two days apart last week.

"If we have to jump on a plane every weekend or whatever, yes, it will get tiresome," Nesbit said. "Yes, it will be a burden. But it really won't be that big a deal compared to what others are going through. I know that sounds real cliche, but it's true and that's the way you have to look at it. Okay, fine, we have to jump on a plane to go play a football game. So what? You're staying in a hotel. You've got air conditioning. You've got food. You've got lights. You've got water. What are you complaining about? Yeah, you'd like to complain. But as soon as you catch yourself complaining, all you've got to do is turn on the TV and find out what real hardship is."

Said Loomis: "There's no [complaining]. Our guys know there are bigger issues than the New Orleans Saints. It's hard to feel sorry for yourself when you see what we've seen. In a lot of ways, football is kind of a relief, that period of time when you're focused just on football and can keep that other stuff out of your mind. Then you get back to your room, you turn on the TV and you're making phone calls and trying to find out about your personal situation and take care of that. That time with football, on the field or in meetings, is kind of a respite."

The Saints continued to conduct their football business in San Antonio over the weekend. They cut players. They pursued free agent wide receiver Peerless Price, although he signed with Dallas instead. Loomis said the team had "a pretty good handle" on how to pick up and move quickly after spending three days in San Antonio last year because of Hurricane Ivan.

"It's not dissimilar to when you move away for training camp," Loomis said. "That's not quite this magnitude, but there are some similarities. The main difference is, we didn't have months to plan it."

Learning lessons from their experience with Ivan, the Saints urged players and staff to get their families out of town two days before Katrina hit. The team left the day before the hurricane struck the city and practiced in San Jose last week, leading up to Thursday's preseason finale in Oakland. The club flew to San Antonio immediately after that game, landing around 4:30 a.m. Within hours, 16 team employees were in Baton Rouge, La., having flown there -- eight at a time -- on the private jet of Saints owner Tom Benson.

They piled into six 24-foot U-Haul trucks and made the 90-minute drive to the Saints' complex in Metairie, La., which hadn't been flooded but had been taken over by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The trucks passed a security checkpoint, and got to the facility around 9 a.m. The 16 Saints employees loaded the trucks until dark. They were unable to get any equipment out of their weight room; one machine had been damaged by FEMA workers.

"I'm sure there were things we left behind, but we got the majority of what we needed," said Greg Bensel, the team's director of public relations, who was on the trip. "Each department had a specific list of what they needed to function, at least for a week."

While the trucks began the eight-hour drive to San Antonio, Bensel remained behind. His car was in the parking lot and he wanted to drive it back to San Antonio. But first, he asked some New Orleans police officers if he could accompany them on a trip they were about to make downtown to provide security for those bringing provisions into the city.

"I wanted to get a sense of the magnitude, a sense of what was happening," Bensel said. "This was my opportunity, and I jumped on it."

He rode with the police to a staging area where the officers put on helmets and flak jackets and readied rifles to accompany 10 Wal-Mart trucks delivering aid to the convention center.

"All you saw was smoke billowing up from the fires," Bensel said. "All you heard was the roar of helicopters. It was surreal. . . . There were pockets of devastation -- trees down on houses, trees down on power lines. There were pockets of flooding. But there were buildings standing. The city is not completely leveled. I saw hope in the potential. It's a daunting task, but I think there's hope."

There is less hope for Bensel's home. As they passed his street, he asked the officers if they could try to make it to his house, five blocks away. After two blocks, they ran into waist-high water and stopped. "I couldn't go any further," Bensel said. "It wasn't a good sign."

Like other Saints employees, though, Bensel couldn't feel bad about his personal situation for long. His family was safe and there was work to be done.

By Saturday, the Saints were operational in San Antonio. The convention center was manned by a front-desk clerk who was nodding off and security guards who waved just about any visitor into the team's new inner sanctum. But at least the team had an inner sanctum. A handwritten sign posted outside each room indicated which group of players would meet there. Trunks of gear were gathered in an open area at the bottom of a stairway. Computers, walkie-talkies and stacks of videotapes were on tables. A coach was watching game tapes on a big screen in one darkened room. At the hotel, which sits alongside the city's popular Riverwalk, some team employees huddled in small groups in the lobby to conduct business or just make dinner plans. Others pushed around baby strollers.

Most players didn't return to town until Sunday. Tailback Deuce McAllister spent the weekend delivering provisions to shelters in his home town of Jackson, Miss. Wide receiver Joe Horn made good on his promise to visit evacuees in Houston. Kick returner Michael Lewis told the tale of tracking down his grandparents in New Orleans and then trying -- unsuccessfully -- to convince them to leave. By Sunday afternoon, the fitness room at the Marriott was filled with players, who had nowhere else to work out. Loomis estimated that the Saints' contingent in San Antonio will include, with families, 400 to 500 people.

Benson said Monday he should know more Tuesday about where the Saints will play their seven remaining home games this season, but declined further comment. Benson apparently is pushing for San Antonio, and Haslett said after Monday's practice that San Antonio would be the site most convenient to the team but he feels an obligation to play some games in Baton Rouge if possible. Los Angeles reportedly was raised as a possible site but is not under active consideration. A Louisiana state senator who has been in contact with the Saints told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Benson might move the franchise to San Antonio permanently. The team's future in New Orleans was murky even before Katrina hit, and San Antonio, Los Angeles and Albuquerque had been mentioned as prospective future homes.

Monday night, ABC News reported that, according to an executive for the company that manages the Superdome, the stadium will have to be torn down and rebuilt.

But the Saints have enough worries to fret too much about the future. Haslett made it clear that he was irked with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's decision to put the Giants game in New Jersey.

"I was kind of surprised, to be honest with you, because I thought we would play here or at LSU [in] Baton Rouge," he said. "I don't think any of us really understand why. . . . If I was Dallas, Philadelphia or Washington, I'd probably be more upset than I am because it gives the Giants nine home games."

Haslett pointed out that the Saints had a better record on the road (5-3) than at home (3-5) last season. "If they think they're playing on the road every game," he said of his players, "we'll probably win a lot more games."

The Saints are clinging to every shred of optimism that they can find but say they won't be lacking motivation.

"This isn't about football," Horn said. "This isn't about the NFL. This is about somebody who's sitting on a cot with their kids trying to give them a bottle of water. . . .

"The games will mean something to me because these people need something to grasp on to. There are still Saints fans out there. There are Saints fans in the Astrodome, in Texas. Playing against the Carolina Panthers will mean something to me in my heart. . . .

"When it's over, the aftermath, is when it hurts, when you ride on a bus to get to a plane to fly back. But during the game? Oh, I'm going to fight my butt off, knowing there are people who can't afford to eat and they might not have anything to do but watch a football game. I'm going to play my heart out for them."