‘Are we really in the NFL?’ Saints recall nomadic 2005 season after Hurricane Katrina

METAIRIE, La. — Long before 2020 forced the sports world to deal with so many unprecedented wrinkles, there was the plight of the 2005 New Orleans Saints.

“We were literally the Bad News Bears of the NFL,” wide receiver Lance Moore said of a vagabond team that had to evacuate New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina and then spend the year bouncing around various practice locations in San Antonio while playing “home” games in three different cities.

“‘Unique’ probably doesn’t do it justice,” said running back Deuce McAllister, a Mississippi native who stressed how much the “uncertainty and the unknown” of the Saints’ long-term future weighed on him and others when it was unclear if the team would ever return to the Gulf South or might permanently relocate.

It was 15 years ago, Dec. 30, when the Saints announced that they would come home to New Orleans for the 2006 season — where they would produce one of the sport’s all-time great comebacks by hiring coach Sean Payton, signing quarterback Drew Brees and stunningly reaching the NFC Championship Game that season.

But that 2005 season has been mostly lost to history.

New Orleans was flooded and the Superdome damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, left; the renovated stadium is shown a decade later, in 2015. AP Photo/David J. Phillip, left, and Gerald Herbert, File

There was a tug of war going on behind the scenes, with San Antonio officials trying to permanently lure Saints owner Tom Benson to Texas and the league working to make sure that didn’t happen. That led to an agreement in which the Saints would play three home games in San Antonio’s Alamodome and four in Baton Rouge’s Tiger Stadium. They actually played their Week 2 home game against the Giants in New York.

The Saints won their season opener at Carolina while they were still running on adrenaline. Eventually, however, their nomadic existence wore on them as they finished 3-13 and parted ways with coach Jim Haslett, quarterback Aaron Brooks and nearly half the roster.

“I try not to think about it too much,” said Haslett, now the Tennessee Titans’ linebackers coach. “Of all the years I played and coached, I thought it was probably the worst thing I ever went through, the 42 years I’ve been doing this. It was bad for the players; it’s hard to win in those situations. And not being around family. It was hard on everybody.”

Haslett and several players said they tried not to complain too much publicly. “It was never lost on any of us that as tough as it was for us, it was much more real and tough for everyone in New Orleans and the surrounding area,” wide receiver Donte’ Stallworth said.

But their frustration grew as the season dragged on, especially later in the year, when the Saints could no longer practice inside the Alamodome because of previously scheduled events.

Instead, they held walk-throughs and meetings at an old water works facility and practiced at a high school sports complex, with locker rooms located inside baseball dugouts. Weight rooms were erected under tents in parking lots. Their “hot and cold tubs” were fashioned out of large garbage cans.

“You’d just sit there and go, ‘Wow, are we really in the NFL? We’re just kind of being kicked to the curb here,'” said fullback Mike Karney, who said the memories hit him “like a hammer” when he saw the San Francisco 49ers would have to relocate to Arizona for the final month of this season because of COVID protocols.

“There’s obviously a lot of parallels with what’s going on with some of these teams. You feel for ’em. But it’s everywhere instead of just one team having to deal with it,” Karney said. “But I gotta hand it to the staff and to the players that we had. We’re basically getting our asses handed to us every week with every different obstacle imaginable. And I think we did the best we could.”

ESPN caught up with several members of that team for their reflections 15 years later:

‘That’s what gave me hope’

The Saints evacuated New Orleans on Aug. 28, 2005, the day before the storm hit — leaving three days early for their scheduled preseason trip to Oakland. Players and staff said they felt helpless watching the destruction from their hotel rooms.

The team had evacuated for storms in the past. But this was much different since New Orleans’ levee system had failed, leaving much of the city underwater. Reportedly more than 1,800 people died throughout the region. The Superdome was among countless buildings and homes destroyed, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate to places like Houston and San Antonio.

San Antonio was also a natural destination for the Saints because of Benson’s extensive family and business ties there.

Stallworth: “We had a [players-only] meeting. … A lot of guys wanted to go back to Louisiana and just say, ‘F— the season. We gotta help. Whatever resources we have, we need to be there.’ And others were like, ‘The NFL’s gonna do what they’re gonna do and they’re not just gonna let us not play.’ … That meeting was pretty intense. But I remember at the end we agreed that we were gonna play because the city of New Orleans needed us. And the best thing for us to do is to play out these games and play our asses off and give the city something to be proud of and something to take their minds off the harsh realities they were experiencing.”

McAllister, who was granted access to New Orleans as part of a Sports Illustrated story: “They were literally rescuing people at that time. And this one guy, I’ll never forget it. It wasn’t, ‘Man I’m so thankful to be alive.’ You know the first thing this guy said? ‘Did we beat the Raiders?’ A preseason game! And I was like, ‘Don’t worry about the Raiders.'”

Stallworth: “[Evacuees at a San Antonio shelter] were asking me how I was doing. ‘How’s Joe [Horn]? How’s Deuce? How’s Aaron?’ And I’m like, ‘What?!’ I mean I’ve always understood sports were important. Even as a child I think it helped me escape some of the realities of my own upbringing, to just immerse myself in football. But that really hit me hard.”

Former President George H.W. Bush does the coin toss before the Saints’ “home” opener against the Giants at Giants Stadium. Vincent Laforet/Getty Images

Offensive tackle Wayne Gandy: “I remember there was no way Carolina was gonna beat us [in Week 1]. They had no shot, because we had been to see the people sleeping in the hangars and hand out food and things like that.”

Wide receiver Joe Horn: “That’s what gave me hope. … That’s what gave me the drive to go to practice and drive 35-40 minutes back to my house in San Antonio. We were displaced, but we were still millionaires. We had the financial means to help the people in those shelters. And to hear those fans talk about football and that’s all they wanted, they wanted to see football, they wanted to know that their team was playing.”

‘Is this high school again?’

Once it was determined that the Saints would stay in San Antonio for the season, players were told they could stay in the team hotel for two weeks. Some bought or rented houses, but many others lived in apartment complexes. Several players credited player development director Ricky Porter and others team officials for helping them make arrangements. But Porter usually didn’t have to coordinate such things for an entire roster all at once, and staff members all needed to find their own places to live.

Karney: “Just complete chaos. Go find a place to live. Without our cars. Our cars were still stuck at the facility. Mr. Benson ended up getting all of his dealership shipping trucks to get all of our cars. But it was a complete madhouse trying to find a place to live in those first few days. And you know, we were told to only pack for a couple days, so nobody had any clothes.”

Haslett, whose family stayed in the New Orleans area: “It was similar with players, people in the building, secretaries, everybody. They couldn’t just move to San Antonio because you didn’t know what was gonna happen after the six months, and they had mortgages and rentals back in New Orleans. Could they afford it? So it was hard. You had a few people quit and decide to go back home, and that’s understandable.”

McAllister: “Normally you might see five or 10 guys hanging out in the NFL, but it was like college for us. So any time that you went out, it was like, ‘All right, guys, we’re going to Fox and Hound tonight’ or, ‘We’re going to Buffalo Wild Wings tonight.’ And there were literally 30 guys because no one really knew anywhere to go.”

Karney: “It wasn’t like a fraternity where we would all hang out. Once we got situated, it became kind of normal life. But it was nice to know you had teammates in the area. We spent Thanksgivings together, Christmas together, because a lot of guys didn’t have family there.”

Gandy: The first thing that jumps out is how they made the modified weight room in the parking lot. It was like Ringling Brothers, an old circus tent. … Rotating ice baths or warm-ups in garbage cans. … When you’re on those yellow buses and you’re like, ‘Man, is this high school again?'”

Karney: “We all had these electric scooters because it was such a haul from the parking lot of the Alamodome to get to the meeting rooms. … It was like we were a biker gang.”

Stallworth: “You get accustomed to warming up a certain way and playing the game a certain way, and not having that was really hard. There was no regular chiropractor. I would actually have Dr. Rob [Lizana, from New Orleans] come to San Antonio, and he was staying in my place. Guys would come to my place and get cracked up by Dr. Rob.”

Moore: “It was funny, because when I was traveling later in the season, like we played the Jets. And just being in that away locker room, guys were excited that they had the little whirlpool tub.”

Haslett: “The water works building didn’t have electricity some of the time. We did walk-throughs in the parking lot, and if it rained, I had guys go out and sweep the puddles. One practice, Joe Horn and two other guys got lost because they couldn’t find the practice field. So we practiced without three of our starting wideouts.”

Gandy: “Part of being great at anything is minimizing distractions and being able to focus. And when every aspect of trying to do that is being interrupted –‘You gotta drive over, catch the bus here, bus back, two of the buses are late’ — you could see guys starting to fade at a point. Especially any time you start losing.”

Karney: “Every time we were taxiing down the runway, to fly to our home game or to an away game — which to us was all the same — I always noticed, ‘Man, this whole plane is asleep.’ And we hadn’t even taken off yet.”

‘The morale was gone’

Players were upset that commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other top NFL officials never came to San Antonio until very late in the season — and they let him know about it during a volatile meeting. (Tagliabue, who did not respond to an interview request, reportedly offered to meet the team twice on the road but was rebuffed by team officials, who didn’t want such a meeting to take place the day before a game.) Players were also upset that they couldn’t play all of their home games in San Antonio for stability and some semblance of a home-field advantage. And many believed that late-season reimbursement payments of up to $40,000 per player was too little, too late.

Brooks, who declined an interview request, was one of the most outspoken critics of Tagliabue and the league in a December 2005 interview with Westwood One radio. Brooks also said that Benson could have done a better job making players feel comfortable — and he later suggested that speaking out contributed to his eventual release. Saints officials also declined comment.

Karney: “There was anger all along. Probably after that New York Giants home game, I think guys started to be like, ‘This is a bunch of B.S., man.’ This isn’t really about the well-being of us or this team. And then after that, we just never had anybody come and see us. I remember Paul Tagliabue came at the very end of the season. And Wayne Gandy, Kendyl Jacox, Aaron Brooks, guys were just hammering him. Like, ‘This is a joke, you’re a joke, what are you doing here? Where were you at Week 2, Week 1?'”

Moore: “They were letting him have it. I had never seen anything like that.”

Gandy: “I was Year 12 or 13, so I was the old salty veteran. And I didn’t understand the logistics. It was like we were anonymous.”

McAllister, who tore his ACL in Week 5: “The morale of the team was gone way before December. We were angry and outspoken from the very beginning. And look, I respect the job that Paul and the commissioner has, but it was really an insult to us.”

Horn: “I was under no illusion. We were professional football players and we were being paid by the Benson family. Of course, the Saints fans were paying for tickets as well. And I was under no illusion that the NFL had to carry on, because it’s a billion-dollar business. So practicing at a high school field, having to drive 35, 40 minutes across town to a mansion with a basketball court inside your house, wasn’t as hard. It made it harder to win, obviously, because we lost some games. But at the end of the day, we still had a job to do.”

Gandy: “[Saints officials] were going through the same thing that we were. It’s hard to tell somebody to do better when they’re in the storm as well. They got on the same plane that we did, those coaches, and they couldn’t go home either. That’s why I thought the NFL would jump in a little harder.”

Karney: “Benson gave us a speech [early on]: ‘Tough times don’t last long, tough people do. We it.’ I remember Haslett had shirts made: ‘We it.’ It was hilarious, because he was a man of very few words. But it kind of gave us a little bit of a rallying cry.”

‘You definitely heard the boos’

Benson drew a lot more backlash from the fan base because of the possibility that he would relocate the team. While the Saints were embraced in San Antonio, the reception was decidedly harsh in Baton Rouge.

Moore: “The Alamodome was rocking. And then you move over to Baton Rouge, and obviously the whole region dealt with the hurricane. So there was 10,000 or 15,000 people there. It felt like a high school game sometimes. There were certain things that were out of our control, like the talk about staying and relocating to San Antonio or whatever the NFL was doing. But if we had been winning, I don’t know if the reception would have been the same. … And us not being able to win those games, I imagine that helped to bring out all of the frustrations those fans felt.”

McAllister: “Fans were upset, we were upset, and you just couldn’t get anything going. You definitely heard the boos.”

Horn: “[San Antonio] was a beautiful place. They took care of us as much as they could. But at the end of the day, our home was back in Louisiana. That was my No. 1 goal for the football team. And some guys didn’t give a s—. Most of them wanted to stay in Texas; that’s just the truth. I was opposed to that. I was on the other side of that line.”

McAllister: “For some guys, this was just a city they played football in. But for me, it was my home. I remember the day [the Saints announced they would return to New Orleans] and being like, ‘Man, we’re going home.’ But there was still that, ‘What will home look like? What services are there? What will the drinking water be like?'”

‘It built that unity’

The team would also look different. Haslett and Brooks had both arrived in 2000, leading the Saints to a 10-6 record and the franchise’s first playoff win. But they went 7-9, 9-7, 8-8 and 8-8 over the next four years before the bottom dropped out in 2005. Haslett was fired and Brooks was released.

Haslett: “To be honest, I don’t think it was fair that the staff was let go after that year — and I probably brought it on myself [by seeking a long-term extension instead of a shorter commitment]. I don’t know if that was a fair evaluation.”

Stallworth: “I don’t think Haslett got enough credit for how he kept the team together as much as he could.”

Moore: “Honestly, I feel bad for Has, I really do. Because he was put in an impossible situation. I think he was a heck of a football coach.”

Gandy: “I got traded to the Falcons the next year, so I played in that first game back in the Superdome [the Saints’ legendary Monday night win, which began with a U2 and Green Day concert and was highlighted by Steve Gleason’s blocked punt]. And it seemed that the applause and the sentiment was for the 2006 team and forward. I got to witness like, ‘Wow, you’re talking about Sean Payton and Drew Brees and the new Saints.’ I still have a little pinch of cayenne about those guys from 2005 [who] deserved a little more applause.”

Moore: “[Gandy] is right. Because what we went through in ’05 definitely played a part, I think, in how well we did in ’06.”

Karney: “That’s why I was so emotional [in a photo of him crying on the sideline during the Monday night win]. I thought about everything we had gone through.”

The late defensive end Will Smith, speaking after the Saints won the Super Bowl in February 2010: “[2005] wasn’t a happy time to be a football player at that level. But the players actually made it a good time. It brought the team closer, and everybody wanted to play for everybody else. It built that unity and bond that you don’t really see in professional sports.”

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