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John DeShazier: Gayle Benson prepared for ownership duties with New Orleans Saints, Pelicans

Benson is attending NFL owners meetings in Orlando

Orlando – Gayle Benson has been preparing for this.

Admittedly, she didn't want "this" to be now. The hope was that her late husband, Tom Benson, would be at the helm for several more productive years.

But now that she arguably is the most powerful woman in sports – sole owner of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans – Gayle Benson will put to use the knowledge that she gained through the years of being at her husband's side, knowledge that helped Benson compile a business empire that includes an NFL and NBA franchise.

Gayle Benson spoke publicly Monday from the NFL owners meetings for the first time since Tom Benson died March 15.

"I'm very comfortable," she said. "I've been coming to these since 2004 with my husband, but I haven't been as active as I have been in the last, maybe six or seven, eight years.

"He would have wanted me to be at these meetings, as difficult as it's been, because we just buried him on Friday (March 23). But I'm comforted to know that he's happy, and he wants us to move on and move forward. He wouldn't have wanted us to stay home.

"He's been grooming me for this for a very long time. I didn't think it would come this soon, but yes, I'm prepared for it."

Gayle Benson spent a good portion of Monday in meetings and warmly was received by fellow owners. And while offers of assistance came from several of them, she said that the business model under which the Saints and Pelicans currently operate is the model that will remain in place.

"He left an incredible footprint for us," she said. "He left me with some incredible executives, vice presidents, employees. So I plan to have everything stay as it was from the beginning, from what he started and what he left me with.

"I really don't want to change anything that my husband did. I feel like he had a phenomenal footprint that he left, and I want to keep it just as it is, because I think it was perfect.

"Everybody that's in place is going to stay in place. All the employees, all the vice presidents, everything that we've been doing is going to continue. I don't want to change anything that he's done. In my mind, it was so perfectly set up that there's nothing to change."

Included in that was the assurance that the Pelicans will remain a New Orleans franchise.

"I don't there's any other choice," she said. "I think that's the only thing you could do, to keep his legacy alive. Where else would you go? I'm from New Orleans, my husband was from New Orleans. We're just like one big family. All our vice presidents and executives, we have lunch every day together. I eat with the employees like my husband did every day. We're kind of like family.

"It's disappointing to think that somebody would think that I would mess up his legacy. But I guess everybody has their opinion. But I would never sell it, no."

And while dual ownership will be challenging, Gayle Benson repeated that being by Tom's side helped prepare her for the moment.

"We talked about every decision he made," she said. "I had a big input on everything that he did. We were very close. We were together 24/7. There were only three days out of the year that we were apart, and that was when he went to Manresa (a retreat center located in Convent, La.).

"So we were very close, we were always together, so we talked about everything, and all his business. He was very interested in business, and so was I. And so I learned a lot from him, and I'm so grateful.

"My husband prepared me for this for many years, I just thought it would be a long time before it actually happened. But now that it's here, I need to move forward and that's what he would have wanted me to do."

Among other topics addressed by Benson on Monday:

She choked up while discussing the outpouring of support from Saints fans. "I am so grateful, and so humbled, that they were all there to see my husband. It was so nice. I really appreciated everybody coming out, it was so kind. He would have been happy. We gave him a great send-off. We had many people in the organization that worked on that. The fans, the cathedral, the seminary, all the priests that came from all over to be there, all our executives, many of our staff – everybody was just great. It was just so wonderful."

Benson personally greeted the thousands who paid respects during Tom Benson's two-day public viewing at the Notre Dame seminary chapel. That equated to hours of standing and greeting. "I felt like, where else would I be? I wanted the last few days with my husband to be there, and I wanted to be there for the fans. So many people came through and they were just so happy to be there. Everyone expressed their appreciation for me sharing my husband these last few days. So it really gave me more energy to do what they were asking for, so it was really very special."

She said she mirrors her late husband in the hobby department. "My husband used to say, and I really feel the same way, my hobby is working. I enjoy going to the office. I really don't have any hobbies. I get up very early in the morning and exercise, I get ready for work and I go in, and I leave (work at) 5:30, 6 and come home. And on Saturdays if we're having a horse running, I'll go to the Fair Grounds. And attend meetings."

The lasting advice that Tom Benson provided was this: "He just told me to pay attention, and he always thought I was smart. He thought that I'd be fine. He always told me that I would be good in this role and it's a little humbling to hear somebody of his power to say that. But I'm very happy to continue his legacy."

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