The term happy to be here has a negative undertone in sports, implying satisfaction and complacency. The Saints and their supporters were happy to be here, and it did not hurt them in the least. After the NFC championship victory over Minnesota, one fan in New Orleans brought Colston a fruit basket, another hung a sign outside center Jonathan Goodwin's house that read, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING THAT YOU'RE DOING FOR US, and another walked up to receiver Robert Meachem on the street and started to cry.
When the Saints arrived in South Florida on the Monday of Super Bowl week, Payton and his Pro Bowl players—Brees, Evans, Goodwin, Harper and Stinchcomb, plus safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Jonathan Vilma—dressed as bellhops to greet the rest of the team, a nod to the late Bill Walsh, who did the same before his 49ers won Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Mich. At breakfast on Tuesday, Payton asked a waiter to bring saltine crackers and two jars of peanut butter for Williams, hoping to silence the loquacious defensive coordinator who'd made headlines by promising to get some "remember-me shots" on Manning. Payton did not impose a curfew on the Saints until Friday, kickback compared with the buttoned-down Colts, who were under curfew starting on Tuesday. New Orleans defensive tackle Remi Ayodele cruised down South Beach wearing a hat that read WIERDOZ. Payton was confident in his weirdos, telling them in a meeting, "It's a coach's dream to be an underdog when you've got the better team."
He did not waver when the Saints fell behind 10--0 in the first quarter, or when they failed to convert a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line in the second. Instead, down 10--6 to begin the second half, Payton became the first coach to call an onside kick before the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl. He asked his defensive players how they would feel if the play backfired and they had to protect a short field. "Coach, we've got your back," one piped up, and others nodded. Thomas Morstead's kick bounced off the face mask of Indy's Hank Baskett and into the arms of Saints backup safety Chris Reis, prompting a dog pile that lasted so long Reis said his "forearms were burning." The decision to onside kick revealed the fundamental difference between the Saints and the Colts: One team was playing it loose, the other playing it safe.
Super Bowl settings can often be sterile, no doubt due to the many corporate ticket holders, but the Saints changed that. Men showed up to Sun Life Stadium in wigs, bras and dresses in homage to the late New Orleans talk-show host Buddy Diliberto, who once pledged to wear a dress and strut down Bourbon Street if the team ever made the Bowl. For the Saints, this was a slice of the Superdome. As Manning lined up in the shotgun with 3:24 left, down 24--17, the energy in the stadium reflected the mood in the rest of the country, anything but neutral.
New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, positioned across from receiver Reggie Wayne, saw Austin Collie go in motion. Porter recognized from his film study what that meant: Manning was going to Wayne, and because the Saints were bringing six and possibly seven pass-rushers, he'd have to get rid of the ball quickly. Porter remembered Williams's words—"I don't want robots; I want players who aren't afraid"—and decided to jump the route. "Everything slowed down," Porter said. "The spiral on the ball slowed down. The guys around me slowed down. The crowd noise stopped. It was just me and the football." Wayne ran a turn-in, but Porter got the better break on the ball. Manning's pass hit his hands so hard that even Saints defensive linemen heard the smack.
Porter had flown his barber to Miami, and two hours before heading to the stadium he asked for a custom trim: an image of the Lombardi Trophy, the Superdome and SB 44 carved out in tonsorial topiary. As he ran 74 yards for the clinching touchdown, the Saints' sideline erupted. Said cornerback Mike McKenzie, "It was crunk. It was crazy. It was off the chain. It was off the meter. It was off the meat rack." To the Colts the effect was the opposite: "A dagger in the heart," said linebacker Clint Session. "Peyton is always 100 percent in those situations. I guess it shows that no one is perfect. Even him." As Manning dressed slowly in the locker room after the game, younger brother Eli stood next to him, gently rubbing his back. They'd grown up in New Orleans, sons of a Saints legend, and used to throw balls of tape on the Superdome floor. None of that diminished the sting.
Some say there's no karma in sports, but the Saints were the team of a battered city, and the Colts were the team that stopped trying to win when they hadn't yet lost. At the end of the night Brees walked out of the stadium with a black trash bag slung over his shoulder, filled with treasures he'd collected from the day, to replace 43 years of garbage. Now Joe Lombardi, New Orleans's quarterbacks coach, gets to touch the trophy named for his grandfather. A championship banner will be raised at the Superdome, under the spot where Katrina had torn holes in the roof. Mardi Gras may run all the way to Jazz Fest. Saints be praised.
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