According to the official NFL version of the Super Bowl’s feel-good story, owner Tom Benson almost single-handedly saved the team in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In truth, he was one of the last people in a very long line to return.
It was the tradesmen who worked around-the-clock for nine months to put the Superdome back together again that cleared his path and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue who refused to let Benson budge in the meantime. Yet even those efforts would have been for naught without the legion of fans who scooped up every ticket and souvenir in sight.
Then, and only then, did Benson forget about staying in San Antonio, where the Saints relocated after the storm, and commit to coming back to New Orleans. Yet there was he was as Super Bowl festivities kicked off early in the week, saying, “At no time did we look anywhere else.”
“I think it made us a better club,” Benson conceded a moment later. “We came back in 2006, and look what we have done since.”
The irony, to be sure, is that Benson really did save the Saints once. But that was in 1985, when he bought the franchise from John Mecom for $70 million and squashed rumors that it was headed to Jacksonville, Fla. Benson was hailed as a hero then, too, feted as the impulsive multimillionaire who popped open a black parasol with gold fringes and fleur-de-lis, then did a second-line dance on the field of the Superdome in the closing minutes of wins.
In a town that loves dancing, the “Benson Boogie” soon became all the rage. Yet few people loved it more than Benson’s bright, dark-eyed granddaughter, the same kid whose idea of light reading was biographies of CEOs and who was already being groomed as his successor.
“I remember the Dome shaking from everybody singing along to ‘Who Dat?’ and thinking. ‘This is concrete and it’s vibrating,”’ Rita Benson LeBlanc, now 33, recalled. “How amazing is that?
“From then on, I wanted to be where my grandfather was,” she added, “because that’s where the action was.”
Her story since has been one of those about being careful what you wish for. In the tumultuous months after the flood waters drove the Saints to San Antonio, LeBlanc took a more active role in day-to-day management and became the face of the franchise back in New Orleans.
Whether it was overseeing reconstruction of the Superdome, getting back in touch with disgruntled season-ticket holders, or putting in time at shelters and food banks, LeBlanc worked tirelessly to repair the tenuous thread that bound the team to the town. In time, thanks in part to the kind of success the Saints had rarely known, those efforts catapulted them to the top of the page in nearly every story about the city rising from the muck of Katrina.
“Having three daughters, she’s someone that I identified with,” said Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay, who labored long and hard himself to rebuild the Colts’ image after his father was reviled for uprooting the team from Baltimore in 1984. “She’s done a tremendous job behind the scenes.”
None of those tasks, though, was more impressive than the way LeBlanc softened her grandfather’s rough edges. He enraged the New Orleans citizenry several times in the months after Katrina, carrying on a verbal battle with then-mayor Ray Nagin and a public flirtation with San Antonio, where Benson owns several dealerships and spends much of the year.
But his hands were tied by then-commissioner Tagliabue, whose commitment to New Orleans never wavered, and current NFL boss Roger Goodell, who served as the league’s point man in smoothing over what was a very tough transition.
“The team has taken their role in that community to a whole new level, which is more than great for the Gulf Coast, it’s been great for the NFL,” Goodell said Friday, during his annual state of the league address. “We’re proud of that relationship. I’m very familiar with the steps that were made, because I was involved with it. …
“We’ve awarded the Super Bowl to the community (in 2013), it’s a great success story for us,” he continued. “And while I can’t root for a team, I’m really proud of what happened there.”
What made it come together, above all, was winning. After 43 years filled mostly with futility, the Saints finally made it to the Super Bowl. The run helped transform Benson’s image from ruthless, restless businessman to genial graying eminence.
During media day, the 82-year-old Benson worked the room with his soft Louisiana drawl and wife Gayle clinging tightly to his side. Occasional bursts of laughter erupted from the pockets of reporters that surrounded him.
A few yards away, LeBlanc held court on her own. Every so often, she broke eye contact and cast a protective glance in the direction of her grandfather. On this day, at least, she had nothing to worry about. Benson had his story down pat and though history might suggest otherwise, he was sticking to it.
“I think that as we look back at it, it was the right decision because it certainly has been a great thing for New Orleans. It is the thing that is getting our city back. We know it’s back,” Benson added, a defiant sparkle lighting up his eyes, “but now we’re telling the whole world.”