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New Orleans Saints will remember and miss Tom Benson on and off the field

Season opener against Tampa Bay in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome has a category of significance all its own

The "firsts" all are significant, and emotional.

The first trip here, the first meeting there, the first award presented, the first honor given, the first practice held in the days and months since Tom Benson, who purchased the New Orleans Saints in 1985, died on March 15 of this year.

But Sunday's season opener against Tampa Bay, in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, has a category of significance all its own.

For the first time since '85, the Saints will open a regular season without Tom Benson as the team owner (his wife, Gayle Benson, now is the owner). For the first time since he became a head coach in the NFL in 2006, Sean Payton will open a season without Tom Benson as the Saints' owner.

For the first time in 33 years, New Orleans will enter a season without the person who had been the most influential Saint, and who relished this time of the season.

"There wouldn't be one specific topic," Payton said. "It would be the excitement of the start of the regular season, and building of the roster. He was very supportive of us and always excited this time of year."

This year wouldn't have been any different, with the Saints coming off a season in which they won the NFC South Division title and a playoff game, and were a whisker away from advancing to the NFC Championship Game.

Expectations surrounding the 2018 Saints are high, and rightfully so.

The young stars, like 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore, '17 Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara and receiver Michael Thomas, the NFL record-holder for most receptions (196) in the first two seasons of a career, are improved.

The mid-career stars, like All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan and offensive tackle Terron Armstead, appear poised to be as effective as they have been in their careers.

And the veteran leader, quarterback Drew Brees, is on the cusp of becoming the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards – he enters the season with 70,445; Peyton Manning's record is 71,940.

Undoubtedly, Benson would've derived enjoyment in watching this year's team attempt to add to the list of franchise successes that were accumulated on his watch: the only Super Bowl appearance and victory in franchise history; the only two appearances in the NFC Championship Game; the only playoff victories (eight); the first winning season (13 total); the only 10-plus win seasons (11 total); and the only division titles (five).

So, understandably, there has been an unmistakable feel to the lead-up to gameday.

It's more than the helmet stickers.

More than commemorative lapel pins.

More than earnest tributes.

The hands of persons that Benson mentored, tutored, scolded, cajoled and confided in are the ones that are visible. The hands that he trusted most are the ones that are continuing to guide the franchise.

"I think that Mrs. B. has been fantastic," Payton said of Gayle Benson. "And when you see her, you're reminded of just the solid ownership that we have as an organization. I think the players, coaches, all of us involved, have seen a bright light with her and certainly the memory and the honor of Mr. Benson. We all hope to make it a successful season."

It will be the first season without Tom Benson, but one that will be dedicated to him by a Saints team that appears to have the kind of ingredients he would have liked to see.

A look back through the years with New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson.

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