- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

Plight of others concerns players

SAN ANTONIO — Amid the mess, they pondered what they’ll miss.

Said New Orleans Saints linebacker Sedrick Hodge: “I used to walk my dog on the levee.”

Charles Grant left his classic Chevys back in the flotsam and jetsam created by Hurricane Katrina.

“Off days, a couple guys, we’d get our old-school rides and drive through the countryside of Louisiana,” the defensive end said. “We’re going to miss that.”

Hodge’s dog was sent back home to Atlanta, and Grant won’t be taking a Chevy to the levee any time soon because the levee hasn’t been dry for weeks and San Antonio is home for at least the next four months.

So the Saints are singing the blues, albeit softly. They’re more inclined to express sorrow for tens of thousands of less fortunate Gulf Coast residents displaced by the Aug.30 hurricane than lay open their wounds.

“I had just got a house, so I wasn’t really too attached to it,” said rookie right tackle Jamal Brown, who believes his home was ruined. “I have insurance. People shouldn’t feel sympathy towards us. The people in New Orleans, the people who were in the Superdome, that’s who you should feel sorry for.”

The Saints, who will play their first “home” game of the season tonight against the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., have been lockering, debriefing and eating twice a day in San Antonio’s Alamodome since Sept.5.

Wednesday was the first time they lifted weights there after working out at a nearby Gold’s Gym previously. Friday, the Saints finally practiced in the dome, meaning they did not have to take three buses to and from a nearby high school. These were baby steps toward normalcy — a relative term.

“I have two pairs of slacks, and two [training] camp shirts,” said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, sitting at a folding table in his Alamodome office, a cinder-block room with a concrete floor, bare walls, a TV on the floor and little else. “You kind of feel like a derelict after a while, wearing the same shirt every other day. Through all this, no one is complaining. Everyone sees the plight of others and we know we’re fortunate. We have incomes.”

A new esprit d’ corps

The Saints’ new chemistry is unmistakable.

“They’ve actually kind of bonded because they do things together,” coach Jim Haslett said. “It’s probably a good thing.”

Guard Kendyl Jacox said, “In my four years with this team, our team has never bonded better.”

Return ace Michael Lewis, a New Orleans native whose great satisfaction has come in not losing loved ones, said, “During offseason workouts, we just kind of had a lot of guys who left at the end of the day. This has really made us closer.”

The Alamodome, however, is a house of pain.

Many are separated from families. Some, including Haslett and his wife, Beth, have struggled with decisions about children. His family is in San Antonio, but not for long.

“My kids enrolled here, but we’ve decided they’re going to go back with my wife,” said Haslett, who disenrolled his two daughters and son. “They’re going to go back around the first of October, when school starts.”

The Saints are closer but still fractured.

“I had my little brother [Jamal, 17] living with me, and he had to move away,” said cornerback Fakhir Brown. “We’re not sure where he’ll end up.”

Defensive lineman Johnathan Sullivan’s brother, Bernard, was living with him, “but he went back to Atlanta,” the player said.

Jacox’s wife and daughter are in Houston.

“You got to think about Thanksgiving, Christmas. … We’re going to be in a new environment,” Grant said. “We’re used to going over to each other’s house and eating. That’s going to be the hard part.”

The wife and daughter of Saints media relations director Greg Bensel are in St. Louis. He now seems at ease, but he has paid a steep price.

When word came from a friend last week that the new wood floors in the rec room that he and his wife put so much time, energy and thought into renovating are buckled, the walls shot and the place a wreck, “it attacked me physically,” Bensel said.

He experienced chest pains and other symptoms, prompting a visit to a San Antonio hospital. Days of tests determined he was fine internally. Bensel was told it was about stress.

“The only good thing that came out of it was this,” he said, opening a satchel of medication. “I’m over it, past it, moving on. It’s gone.”

Helping hands

Saints owner Tom Benson has businesses including auto dealerships in San Antonio and sent auto transport trucks to New Orleans to bring back abandoned vehicles.

The organization put everyone in a hotel through Saturday and is giving housing supplements to staffers as players and coaches move into apartments and the like. Breakfast and lunch have been provided.

Reebok sent gear. The NHL’s Rangers and the NBA’s Knicks sent warm-up suits and shirts. Locals have aided with laundry.

“Some of the first e-mails I got were from [Falcons owner] Arthur Blank and [executive vice president] Dick Sullivan, saying if there was any way they could help, they’d be more than pleased and honored to do so,” Loomis said. “I know Arthur has given a lot of money [to aid victims of Katrina].”

Three Saints “home” games, including the Falcons’ Oct.16 visit, will be played in the Alamodome and four in LSU’s Tiger Stadium, in Baton Rouge. The Saints will travel for 13 of 16 games.

“In this case, we’re not having to travel [but will be hundreds of miles from New Orleans],” Loomis said. “In Baton Rouge, we’re going to have to go through that process, but we’re going to be in front of our people. In a perfect world, we’d be playing in the Superdome in front of our people. That ship sailed.”

In New Orleans, the Superdome is not usable, and might never be again.

The Saints fled New Orleans before the hurricane, relocating in San Jose, Calif., to prepare for a preseason finale at Oakland. After that game, they moved to San Antonio after considering Baton Rouge and Houston.

“We’re going to stay here [all season], and we wanted to make that decision quickly,” Loomis said. “Our [practice] facility is actually dry and in good shape. FEMA is in there now with an army of people using it as a base of operations. But even if we had it available, where would our people live? Half our people’s homes are OK, but the other half are not. And there’s a shortage of housing.”

Home on the road

Haslett said, “I know that the Charlotte [reaction] took me by surprise last Sunday. It was very nice to give us a standing ovation.”

Wide receiver Joe Horn said, “That’s what America is about. It’s about people reuniting, getting together, picking up someone else when they’re down.”

But Jacox doubts the Giants will be sympathetic.

“I wouldn’t. If you were coming in to my hometown, I wouldn’t be sympathetic,” he said. “I mean, say you had a death in your family. Do you think I would take it easy on you?”

But as long as the Saints have each other, they don’t need pity.

“As we go forward, there is a mental and physical exhaustion factor that comes into play,” Loomis said. “We’re going to be wary. We’re going to have to pay attention. But we felt good about our team before all this. This doesn’t change any of that.

“Now, maybe we just have a little different sense of purpose, which is good.”

cDistributed by Cox Newspapers.


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