When football is more than football: Steve Gleason and the rebirth of New Orleans
On Sept. 25, 2006, more than a year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the Superdome — to that point a symbol of the storm’s devastating damage — was reopening as the centerpiece of the city’s work-in-progress rebirth. The Saints were playing on “Monday Night Football,” the Superdome was packed and rocking, and New Orleans was once again showing the world how to party. Shortly after 7:30 p.m., on just the fifth play of the game — and with exactly 13:55 left to play in the first quarter — Saints special teams scrapper Steve Gleason zipped through a breach in the Atlanta Falcons’ punt protection and blocked a punt. Teammate Curtis Deloatch grabbed the ball and fell into the South end zone, staking the Saints to a quick six-point lead on their way to a 23-3 victory. And New Orleans was celebrating like it was … well, New Orleans. It was quite simply — and profoundly — the Crescent City’s single most cathartic moment in the 392 days since Katrina.
NOW: Gleason’s play is immortalized by a statue called “Rebirth” erected on the Superdome grounds in 2012. The statue commemorates not only that play and Gleason himself, one of most popular and respected citizens of New Orleans because of the courageous and inspiring manner in which he has endured his 2011 ALS diagnosis. It also represents the post-storm rebirth of the Superdome and New Orleans.
- Though it was just the third week of the season, the game — and all that it represented — had a playoff feel about it. It was on national TV. Celebrities were on the sideline. Best of all, Green Day and U2 gave the Who Dat Nation an instant fight song when, as part of a pre-game concert , they played a set that included the punk anthem “The Saints are Coming.” It proved to be prophetic.
- Gleason had noticed a weakness in the middle of the Falcons blocking scheme as the Saints studied tape of the first two games of the season. The coaching staff drew up a play to exploit the weakness.
- The Saints had practiced the play all week but hadn’t decided when to use it. When the defense forced a punt after the first three plays from scrimmage, special teams coordinator John Bonamego went to head coach Sean Payton and said he wanted to run it then. “Go for it,” Payton responded.
- Although it didn’t play out exactly as drawn up, the center and the blocker to Gleason’s immediate right slid to their left, the personal protector slid to his right, and Gleason went undetected as he looped behind fellow rusher Aaron Stecker and found a clear path to Falcons punter Michael Koenen.
- Deloatch, signed three weeks earlier as a free agent, wasn’t even supposed to be on the field for the punt, but as the teams were lining up, Bonamego noticed the Saints were missing one player and yelled to Deloatch, who was standing nearby, to get on the field and just rush toward the punter.
- As a “Monday Night Football” game, the matchup was being televised nationally on ESPN. After the blocked punt, the broadcast team calling the game wisely let the Superdome do the talking, sitting silently for 35 seconds — an eternity in broadcasting — as the crowd released a year’s worth of pent-up emotion.
- Even after scoring, it took a moment for Deloatch to process what had just happened. “It still did not hit me until I looked in the stands,”he said in 2016. “And seeing my teammates on the sideline, people crying, people hugging each other. … I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
- For his part, Gleason knew exactly what it all meant. “Because I had been in New Orleans for the previous six seasons, at least to some degree, I understood the culture and mentality of the city,” he said in 2016. “I was dating and would later marry into a New Orleans family. I also endured the chaos of the previous 13 months. As a result, the significance of the block, even in the moments immediately after the play, the severity was not lost on me.”
- The touchdown triggered an easy victory that marked the Saints’ third straight win to open their first season with Payton as their coach and Drew Brees as their quarterback. The fast start launched them to a 10-6 record, an NFC South title, and a first-ever trip to the NFC Championship Game, where they lost to the Bears, 39-14, in Chicago.
- Superdome General Manager Doug Thornton remembered meeting Falcons Coach Jim Mora Jr. on the field after the game: “As he approached me he reached out to shake my hand and said, ‘We never had a chance. We were playing against all of New Orleans tonight.'”
- “I was right there on the sideline, watching it with Mike Karney and Drew (Brees) and Sean Payton,” former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita remembered in 2016. “And it was just electric and one of those — obviously, this is super clichéd — but the loudest moment I’ve ever heard in the stadium was that moment. You sense and feel in the air that that was the start of something big.”
The punt block — and that’s what it is known as in New Orleans: the punt block — was the flashpoint on a powder keg of emotions that was ready to burst forth from the moment the Superdome doors opened that 2006 night. It set the tone for a memorable victory and season. It demonstrated that New Orleans’ football team — as well as the city itself — maybe could be better after Katrina than it was before Katrina. And it made a folk legend out of Gleason. Add all of those elements together and you have arguably the most memorable play not only in Saints history, but also in New Orleans history.