Naylor: The Super Bowl's long journey back to New Orleans

Dave Naylor
1/29/2013 11:16:13 AM
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NEW ORLEANS -- No city says 'Super Bowl' as well as New Orleans.

What would you expect from a place that never needs much of an excuse for a party?
There were Mardi Gras parades under way here Sunday afternoon as the first of the Super Bowl visitors started rolling into town. And to anyone who hasn't been here since the last Super Bowl in The Big Easy, it might appear that all that much has changed. But of course so much has.

It's been 11 years since this city has hosted the Big Game, and its return feels like another step towards normalcy for the locals.

This will be New Orleans's 11th Super Bowl - more than any other city - but it's been a long journey back.

Seven-and-a-half years ago, Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped this city off the map - when the strongest hurricane of its size ever to hit the U.S. left 1,800 people dead and thousands homeless.
The Superdome, where the 49ers and Ravens will play football Sunday night, was turned into an emergency shelter. It was a scene of desperation and horror for those displaced by the great flood, a building left so damaged by what occurred that its future and that of the Saints were left in question.
After playing the 2005 season in San Antonio, the Saints returned home, lifting a city that badly needed such. Five years after Katrina, the Saints won the Super Bowl - the kind of fairy tale which everyone could enjoy - unless you happened to be a die-hard fan of the Indianapolis Colts.

While hosting a Super Bowl hardly compares with winning one, the fact that the party is back in a town that's had to struggle to get back on its feet is certainly worth something.

So perhaps it's fitting that this year's game features two teams that are survivors, the Ravens needing late-game heroics in Denver and the 49ers overcoming a 17-point deficit at Atlanta to make it here.
This isn't the first time a Super Bowl week in New Orleans has coincided with a pivotal event in U.S. history.

Eleven years ago the city hosted the first Super Bowl played after 9/11, when the Rams and Patriots starred in what had to be one of the most heavily-secured entertainment venues in history. Soldiers and military vehicles patrolled the streets, fighter jets flew overhead at night, all part of a new and different world. But there was also a measure of pride in the show going on - not just for New Orleans, but for all of America.

The feel-good aspect of the Super Bowl's return to New Orleans is diminished only by the turmoil endured by the local team over the past year over "bounty gate," the scandal which led to unprecedented suspensions of New Orleans Saints players and coaches over pay-for-injury accusations.
By the time all was said and done, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's show of strength in suspending players and been overturned upon appeal. But it was too late for the Saints' 2012 season, which saw them tumble from NFL power to also-rans.
There are T-shirts for sale everywhere proclaiming 'Free Payton,' which is exactly what Goodell did last week when he declared the Saints beloved coach was allowed to return to work.

Yet anger at Goodell remains so palpable here that there is debate over how the locals will treat him during his visit and much anticipation about what kind of message he will deliver during his Friday State-of-The-League Address.

The bounty scandal also focused growing attention on a much wider crisis in the NFL: the mounting evidence of the long-term danger the game presents to the people who play it.
Fresh off the evidence of damage to the brain of the late Junior Seau and the lawsuit being brought by his family, this is the kind of issue the league can't quite get away from.
President Obama had his say on the issue to kick off Super Bowl week, suggesting pro football may have to change in order to ensure the safety of its players.
Not surprisingly, that led to a significant amount of questions during Monday's media sessions being all about violence in the sport - instead of the game at hand.

Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, one of the hardest hitters in the league, predicted that changes to the game meant to ensure player safety will lead to the NFL being out of business 30 years from now.

That's a bet most of the tens of millions who tune in Sunday night would be happy to take.

But as the Saints or the city of New Orleans can attest, big changes can happen fast - and you don't always see them coming.

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