“It is going to be as an emotional night as you will ever see for a football game – Super Bowls included," ESPN’s Stuart Scott said on September 25, 2006.
The Saints were hosting the Falcons that night in the first regular season contest at the Superdome since they hosted the Falcons on Dec. 26, 2004.
It marked the first contest in the Dome since it was used as a shelter of resort during Hurricane Katrina.
A sold out crowd of 70,003 packed the Superdome and nearly 15 million watched the ESPN nationally-televised broadcast. The television audience was ESPN’s largest ever at the time.
The historic day was filled with festivities around the state. Thousands of people poured into the streets of New Orleans to celebrate the “rebirth” of Saints football in the Crescent City.
Fans swamped the area around the Superdome hours prior to the doors being opened.
The Goo Goo Dolls performed a free concert on the stadium ramps, where just 13 months prior the area was used to land helicopters that were dropping off evacuees.
Rock bands U2 and Green Day did everything they could to test the strength of the stadium’s new roof with their memorable cover of The Skids' "The Saints Are Coming" prior to kickoff.
Former President George H. W. Bush conducted the coin toss.
The pregame festivities and hype surrounding the game is what DE
“The excitement of it, not the game itself, is what sticks out to me now,” said Smith. “The energy in the whole entire city of New Orleans was electric. Everything building up to it made it very special for me.”
Former Saints RB Deuce McAllister, who served as offensive team captain that year, said the mayhem surrounding the game couldn’t fully erase the images he saw during Katrina.
“Just walking around and looking at the Dome leading up that game and when we practiced there, I remember thinking of the structural damage and the disarray that was there before,” said McAllister. “That image will always be with me but that night brought us back to the good times.”
Although it had been 22 months since the Saints had played a regular season game in the Superdome, it only took four plays and 90 seconds into the game for the black and gold to reestablish their “dome-field” advantage.
Special teams’ guru Steve Gleason and reserve cornerback Curtis Deloatch etched their name into Saints lore and set the tone for the evening after the Falcons went 3-0 and were forced to punt from inside their 20.
“Look out!” ESPN’s play-by-play man Mike Tiricio yelled when Gleason broke through the line untouched and swatted Michael Koenen's punt. Deloatch dove on the ball in the endzone to send the Superdome into pandemonium.
“It was like an explosion,” said Deloatch after the game. “It was like I just gave New Orleans a brand-new city.”
“That was an opening statement right there,” said Colston of the special teams touchdown. “That game is what laid the foundation of where we are as a team and an organization today and that touchdown set it off.”
The Falcons responded on their second drive with a nine-play, 65-yard drive for a field goal.
Later in the quarter, the Saints marched 80 yards downfield on eight plays on a double reverse 11-yard touchdown run by
Rookie RB Reggie Bush was lined up on the right as a wide receiver. QB
Henderson’s score marked the first time the Saints had scored two first quarter touchdowns in eight years.
“It was an exciting moment to be able to get in the endzone on that night,” said Henderson. “After the play I thought ‘Was that Drew on the block?’ That is just the kind of player he is and it was a play I was honored to be a part of.”
The Saints shut down Falcons QB Michael Vick and prevented the multi-talented player from making plays with his feet throughout the night. He started the night 2-for-12, including seven straight incompletions.
Saints special teams came up big again when S Josh Bullocks blocked a 25-yard Morten Andersen field goal attempt with less than two minutes remaining in the first half.
K John Carney padded the Saints lead with two second quarter field goals, including a 51-yard boot to close out the first half.
The Saints opened the third quarter with a 12-play, 73-yard drive, capped by Carney’s third-straight field goal to put the Saints lead at 23-3. New Orleans controlled the clock for 10:59 of the third quarter.
The black and gold were in cruise control the rest of the way as neither team was able to add to the scoreboard. The Falcons saw their last hope for a comeback vanish with 5:46 remaining on fourth-and-12 from the Saints' 31 when a Vick pass fell incomplete.
392 days after Katrina had struck land and flooded nearly 80 percent of New Orleans, the Saints had toasted their homecoming with a thrilling 23-3 victory.
“Tomorrow morning is going to come and all the problems that people have in New Orleans are still there, but for tonight they are given a chance to enjoy a moment in this dome that some thought they would never get to see again,” said Tirico at the end of the broadcast.
Head coach Sean Payton gave the game ball to the city of New Orleans. Former NBA star and New Orleans native Avery Johnson accepted it on behalf of the people of New Orleans.
“It was probably the loudest I’ve ever heard any stadium, ever,” Payton said this week about the game. “There would be a distant second, there would be a big gap between the next crowd noise that you would be able to remember.
“The Super Bowl would be second as far as the crowd noise, and I’ve said this before, I think, and many would argue, but the significance of that season certainly was equal to the significance of eventually winning the Super Bowl. The significance of that season and us playing well in 2006 mattered a lot. 2009 was important because you won a Championship but ’06 for many was just as important, if not more.”
The Superdome underwent $185 million in repairs to erase the damage caused by Katrina. On that Monday night, the thousands of suffering fans around the Gulf were given a reason to believe and have faith that the city was on its way back and nobody could put a price on that.
“From the moment I signed with the Saints, I was looking forward to this," Brees said after the game. "It was a great night. It's something we'll never forget.”
A sentiment echoed by all Saints fans.