The game is best remembered for the New Orleans Saints’ return home after Hurricane Katrina. For Steve Gleason and his punt block. For the triumph over the rival Atlanta Falcons.
The game is also remembered as the first inside the Superdome with Sean Payton as coach and Drew Brees as quarterback.
But for players and coaches on the field and in the booth, the game has a backstory.
Try to imagine someone other than Gleason — a hero to many first for his actions that night and later for his fight against ALS — blocking that punt. It was possible, and it took an attention to detail, execution and a little bit of fate to make it happen.
This is the story of that blocked punt, told by those who were in the special teams meeting room during the week before the game, and on the field when it happened.
John Bonamego (special teams coordinator): Atlanta had given us some tips that we had been able to (identify) from the first couple ballgames. Of the eight players in the punt rush, six of them were going to be unchanged. Really, it was the inside two players. It was (Aaron) Stecker and Gleason who had to (focus on) the alignment of the personal protector (positioned halfway between the center and the punter).
Curtis Deloatch (joined Saints as a waiver pickup after Giants released him three weeks earlier): I remember in one of our special teams meetings, Steve, he was pretty much saying he was seeing the middle open up. He was saying the personal protector or somebody wasn’t blocking it well. He was like, ‘We got a chance to block it.’
Greg McMahon (assistant special teams coordinator): (Gleason) had a feel. He had instincts. He was such a great preparation player. … He detailed everything he did. Particularly, I remember him working on his footwork and his crossover step and looking at a ton of film.
Bonamego: (The Falcons) had put a very strong tendency on film — the center and the personal protector were always blocking opposite one another. That’s what we noticed in film study. When the personal protector lined up to our left, we felt very good that the center was going to go to our right. That’s why we ran that stunt (with Stecker cutting into the center and Gleason looping behind Stecker to rush the punter). If (the personal protector) would have lined up on the right-hand side, the center would have gone to the left, and we would have run the same exact stunt inside but just the opposite — Gleason would have gone first and Stecker would have gone second.
Scott Fujita (joined Saints in March 2006): Leading into that game, we didn’t really know what we had. We won two games on the road, which was surprising to a lot of people. But it’s not like Cleveland and the Packers were lighting the world on fire at that point. And then to come in against an Atlanta team who’s legitimately lighting the world on fire and averaging like 300 yards a game rushing, the chips were stacked way against us. But we did have emotion stacked on our side.
Sean Payton (Saints coach): Coming here right after Katrina there was a lot of concern in regards to the long-term future of your health care, your schools. Forget sports for a while here. There was a period of time where, just look it as New Orleanians knew it, or Louisiana residents knew it, how would that be affected years later.
Scott Shanle (joined Saints in trade in August): For a lot of us who had just gotten down here, we understood what Hurricane Katrina was by watching it on the news. But to actually get into the city and see homes being gutted and seeing boarded up restaurants and seeing water marks on buildings, you realize … how you were playing for an entire city.
Bonamego: Most of us weren’t from New Orleans, but the players that came in, Reggie Bush and Drew Brees, and obviously Deuce (McAllister) was there. Deuce was very connected with the community already.
Fujita: It was in many respects a group of guys who were holdovers from the year before who were forgotten about in many ways. We had a bunch of new players like myself, Drew, Scott Shanle, Mark Campbell, others from around the league who were castaways in a lot of ways.
Shanle: We were called ‘the misfits’ that year because we had a lot of guys that other teams didn’t want.
Fujita: So it really made for a strong chemistry throughout the offseason, like two different groups bonding together with the community, who had also been through a lot. So I really think it was a perfect marriage.
Fujita: It wasn’t until a couple days before that ‘Monday Night Football’ game that a lot of us had ever been inside the Superdome building. I mean, literally, the paint was still drying in that building, and we didn’t know we would have a building to play in until maybe a week or two before that, officially. It wasn’t until Coach Payton had us practice in the Superdome.
Payton: I remember going early a couple days before to have a night practice and get used to the lighting and try to make sure the players got used to that environment before they were actually in it for that game.
Jahri Evans (rookie offensive lineman): It was the first time any of us had been inside the Superdome. So we kind of got those jitters out of the way, being the first time in the Superdome. And he showed something on the screen, I think that was going to be displayed to the fans and everybody.
Doug Thornton (manages the Superdome): At the end of practice, the team took a knee. Then (Payton) says, ‘My job as a football coach is to get you ready to play football. And the only way I know to do that is to simulate the conditions that you’re going to see here on Monday night.’ That was the cue to turn down the house lights.
And you hear, ‘dun-duh-duh-da, welcome to New Orleans, Monday Night Football.’ And it’s a video of a car going through the neighborhoods and people are clapping. ‘Great to have you back. Go Saints. Bless you boys.’ And it’s scripted to music. So it’s about a four- or five-minute video. It was so cool. It was this camera going through all the neighborhoods of New Orleans, and New Orleans welcoming the team back.
When the video finished, we brought the house lights back up. I remember Sean Payton saying, ‘Now you see those people there, they’re going to be here Monday night. Those are the fans of New Orleans. They’re going to be here Monday night, and we can’t let them down. We’re playing for them.’ He said if we win, it’s special. If we lose, it’s just another football game.
Fujita: It really kind of knocked the edge off a little bit and kind of created that impact moment before actually stepping into the stadium on game day. It was so smart for him to do that.
Shanle: I remember getting into the Superdome that night.
Deloatch: You could feel the jitters. You can feel the energy build.
Mike McKenzie (joined Saints in 2004): Just the electricity that was in there on that particular night kind of brings chills to me right now thinking about what it meant for everybody to be back into the Dome. Because there were so many rumors about whether the team was going to come back, whether the Dome was going to be ready. So when that Monday night game actually came … there was so much energy in the building that day.
Shanle: The sidelines were packed. You had celebrities there on the sideline. It almost felt like a playoff game, like a Super Bowl-type atmosphere.
Zach Strief (rookie offensive lineman): It was a ‘Monday Night Football’ game, which was super unusual here at that point. Then obviously yeah, Green Day and U2 comes in and plays. New Orleans was the biggest story in the country at that time, it really was a national thing. I think it was a national focus. I think people that weren’t Atlanta Falcons fans were Saints fans that night. I think you can sense that.
Shanle: I remember walking out of that locker room and hearing the Green Day song playing. Every time I hear it to this day, I think about that moment, walking down that hall to get ready to go on the field. It was a special time.
Jim Henderson (Saints play-by-play radio announcer): I recall walking into the Dome with (Saints radio color analyst) Hokie (Gajan) from the parking lot, and we both start crying. We both had tears in our eyes. We hadn’t talked about that or what our reaction would be. There was this well of emotion that came out of all the city had been through and everybody had been through. There was such a bonding of everybody in New Orleans.
Roman Harper (rookie safety): So we get there and you could just feel the emotion, the atmosphere. Everything in there was kind of electric. It was buzzing in there early. People were ready and all these other things. So you knew it was going to be a good night. We were confident and we felt like we had a great game plan going in. We come out, we get a three-and-out.
McKenzie: Guys were flying all over the place — Will Smith, Charles Grant, Fujita, Shanle. All we knew on that particular day was we had a big ‘X’ on Michael Vick. We just knew no-how, no-way he was going to be coming into this dome on this particular day and deny us and our fans a victory. The tone was certainly set very early on by having that three-and-out. The rest has been history.
Fujita: We get them in a third-and-6, third-and-7 situation, and Michael Vick rolls out for a little bootleg or misdirection pass and I get a little sack/forced fumble. And (Saints vice-president of communications) Greg Bensel, he cracks me up, he’s always accused me of almost single-handedly preventing the biggest play in Saints history from happening, because on that fumble, one of our safeties had a chance to really scoop-and-score it, but when he went to scoop it, it kind of bounced off his leg and out of bounds, which brought up the fourth-down play.
Strief: There was a physical feeling, like the air pressure in that building, you could actually feel it.
Deloatch: And it still did not hit me until I looked in the stands. And seeing my teammates on the sideline, people crying, people hugging each other. … I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.
Brees: If you didn’t know it before that moment, you knew it after that moment: There is no way we’re losing that game.
Strief: There was so much emotion coming from the stands.
Fujita: It was sort of a lightning bolt moment.
Thornton: Immediately after the game, when the Saints won, it felt special.
Shanle: That play, I don’t think anybody understood, we thought we did, but we didn’t understand the complete magnitude of that game until maybe after that game and we looked back and saw emotionally what a lift it was to people in the city and it made you feel good that you were playing more than just football.
Fujita: I remember being out late that night after the Monday night game and just the overwhelming emotion. To me, that was sort of like an awakening that we’re now saying to the world, ‘We’re back. Maybe we got something here.’
Evans: As players we wanted to play hard, we wanted to play tough. We wanted to give fans something to be proud of and cheer about. That’s what we did.
Payton: There’s a lot of symbolism in that game. That idea of rebirth. That idea of (getting) back to normalcy if you will.
Thornton: I remember after the game looking up and seeing Jimmy Mora Jr. walking across the field. He was the Falcons head coach. … 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.’ We had a good laugh about that.
Koenen: Obviously we would have liked to win the game and not have that happen. But I’m glad that New Orleans had that moment. I’m glad that Gleason turned it into everything he’s turned it into and done so much for other people. With everything that happened, and just thinking about the people’s perspective of it, I wouldn’t change anything that happened. I’m happy that the moment was positive for so many people.
Gleason: 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. I was dating and would later marry in to 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.
Fujita: That play really kind of cemented Steve’s status as an icon in the community, because that play really signified the rebirth of an entire region in a lot of ways. I think what he’s done in being a pillar in the ALS community, it’s a separate conversation, but that just speaks to his character. He’s a guy that’s been given that sort of a once-in-a-lifetime shot to make a dent in the world, he’s going to do it. He did it on the field that night, and he’s done it in the battle with his disease.
Strief: It was obviously super special. And then to see what Steve means to the city after that I think has really taken a football play that was a big deal for the city and really made him into the hero for what he is, and what he’s done since that happened.
Deloatch: If it wasn’t for him, that moment wouldn’t have happened.