How Sean Payton helped save the Saints, and build a unique bond with fans

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How Sean Payton helped save the Saints, and build a unique bond with fans
© Provided by Saints Wire

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton announced his retirement on Tuesday, ending a 15-year run that revitalized the organization and city. His decision came just one week after the anniversary of the date he was hired, Jan. 18, 2006. Simultaneously, it marked the end of an era that transcended the game of football. One of transformative success that reshaped a franchise whose fanbase previously donned paper bags on game day.

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Payton will be deservedly celebrated for his accolades on the field: the team’s first NFC Championship appearance and Super Bowl title in franchise history interspersed with nine total playoff berths and seven division titles. Yet, nearly none of that mattered on Tuesday – neither to fans nor the longtime head coach as he spoke for 92 minutes. When asked how he wanted to be remembered in his closing press conference, Payton’s answer was telling.

“Someone who had passion, and someone that cared a lot. Winning’s important in that. I thought about my mom, if she were alive today,” Payton said on life lessons from his parents. “They talk all the time about leaving a place maybe better than when you got there to begin with. I think we’ve done that. And it’s not finished.”

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Payton’s decision came one season following the departure of his beloved franchise quarterback, Drew Brees. A reality as a head coach that was uncharted waters. The paramount coach-player argument always surrounds Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but there’s no discussion to be had over the symbiosis of Brees and Payton; their greatness intimately intertwined together. It’s hard not to think the loss of Brees was a void Payton found utterly painful, from both a personnel and human perspective. This sentiment echoed strongly in his closing remarks; it was all about relationships and nothing about the Xs and Os.

It’s always been more than the game in New Orleans. That’s what makes this abrupt, intangible loss so difficult to swallow. A wound freshly opened by the departure of Brees magnified tenfold by the end of Tuesday. It’s not just grieving the loss of a football era; it’s everything since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August of 2005. There will be plenty of time to celebrate the legacy of Sean Payton and his transformation of a franchise. While the saying goes, “Life imitates art,” I’ve found that in practice, life imitates sports. No city, nor team epitomizes that feeling like New Orleans. If not for Sean Payton, his assembly of an entirely new coaching staff and a team comprised of ‘misfits’ tasked with the impossible, there would be no rebirth.

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“There’s a special spot in my heart for the coaches, the staff, the players, everyone who came when 90% of the cars were leaving,” Payton eloquently stated Tuesday.

I was born in California, but my mom was born and raised in New Orleans. When Katrina happened, I was in sixth grade. While too young to comprehend what happened, I vividly remember watching my mom cry at devastation on our kitchen television my brain could barely process. It wasn’t until we flew down in December of that year that I truly understood the gravity. The sight of houses flipped upside down and boats strewn throughout the street; the X markings on homes I would gravely come to interpret. The traumatized shelter dogs going limp at mere rainfall and the backpacks we filled in a disgustingly hot warehouse with supplies for children who had no school to go to.

The magic of the Saints is best illustrated through a trifecta of Brees, Payton, and Steve Gleason. In his blocked punt, in Payton’s appreciation of his character, toughness and intelligence, and the lessons gleaned since in adversity, resilience, and leaving a legacy. Back in our San Mateo home, the next memory of that tiny television was my mom’s reaction to that blocked punt by Gleason. It was a microcosm of the catharsis and revival of the city of New Orleans – all by a play on special teams. We still laugh at the time local coverage switched to the Miami Dolphins comeback game in 2009 midway through the fourth quarter; my mom screamed so loud our cat clawed his way down my body like I was a pair of curtains.

I would find myself hovered around that minuscule screen a final time on Jan. 24, 2010, watching Garrett Hartley send New Orleans to the Super Bowl through slits in my fingers. My dad had to go collect my uncle, who had walked three blocks down the street at that point – as he often did when the game came down to the wire. My mom and her brother immediately booked tickets to New Orleans. Fittingly, the day before my birthday, I convinced them to take me with them.

So, my next experience around a screen was at a family friend’s house in the city. It started with us being just happy to be there as the first half soured the little faith fans retained. Suddenly, drinks and bodies were flying as quickly as Saints players towards the onside kick, utter confusion initially set in. Ambush didn’t have the same primal catharsis as the blocked punt, but it flooded fans with that same comfort and hope. By the Tracy Porter interception, we had broken the ceiling fan and dogpiled collectively on the floor. I cherish memories as a spellbound 16-year old traversing the friendliest mob one will ever see down Bourbon Street with loved ones no longer with us.

The abrupt loss I experienced as a longtime fan came in tandem as a new aspiring reporter. I was immeasurably lucky to attend my first – and Payton’s final – training camp and be credentialed to cover home games this season. I never saw a camp where Drew Brees was under center; that it wasn’t immediately distracting, and jarring is a testament to what’s been built. The culture Payton infused the organization with was to perpetuate. It was an honor to be in the presence of such greatness, and a season I’ll forever hold fondly. More important, I would never have become a fan of football if not for Sean Payton. That had nothing to do with my career – though I can’t say it isn’t exactly what inspired me to chase these dreams.

With Payton and Brees at the helm, the Saints at times felt serendipitous. I hold that feeling quite personally. New Orleans punched their ticket to the Super Bowl the day before I turned 16, and the final chapter of that era came to a close when Payton retired this year on my birthday. What initially felt like a twisted cosmic joke gave way to perspective that allowed me to see the beauty in what now feels fortuitous.

It’s always been more than football in this city, and that was best displayed through Payton’s closing remarks centered on invaluable life lessons. One that resonated with me strongest was simple: “I don’t know what’s next. And it kind of feels good.” Everything always felt serendipitous. So, when I was laid off in 2020, after pursuing three career paths and obtaining two degrees, I went with serendipity. I had no idea what was next. It was freedom I didn’t realize I desperately needed. I wouldn’t say tragedy, but I experienced great trauma in the workplace and those wounds never seemed to heal with time nor career change. Perseverance through tragedy can be easily summed by achieving the impossible. Payton’s recognition of the unique opportunity and challenge New Orleans presented, and his subsequent triumphs, were lessons that roused me out of a depressive rut. Why can’t I do what I do best about what I love most: write about the Saints?

There’s plenty of magic to be found in football. It can be seen in many ways and doesn’t require tragedy and triumph. But it almost seems that way if you’re a Saints fan. It’s been a glowing constant for 15 years. And it’s one irreplicable. The pillars of foundation meticulously placed by Payton are perhaps the strongest contingency plan following the departure of a great head coach. Nothing will be able to fill the emotional void New Orleanians are struggling to come to terms with.

How lucky are we to have the ability to be heartbroken by both a quarterback and a head coach moving on from a team? A lot of teams never find that perfect puzzle piece of a coach and player. You only miss what’s truly special. What matters most is how grateful I am to have experienced this ride.

MORE:

Drew Brees shares emotional response to Sean Payton stepping away from coaching

Saints plan to interview former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores

Saints request head coach interviews with Aaron Glenn, Byron Leftwich

It’s time for Pete Carmichael Jr. to step out of Sean Payton’s shadow

Cameron Jordan makes his recruiting pitch to Aaron Rodgers

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