- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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METAIRIE, La. -- Joe Vitt is a man of few words. And when the New Orleans Saints' assistant head coach was thrust in front of the media the other day in place of head coach Sean Payton, he tried to rip through his answers and hightail it out of there as fast as possible.
Until he was asked about Hurricane Katrina.
Vitt was struck with emotion as he thought back to the role the Saints played during New Orleans' recovery from the storm that devastated the city 10 years ago Saturday -- and the way the team fed off the fans in return.
"I don't know if any team ever captured that in the country in the history of professional sports," said Vitt, a veteran of nearly 40 years of coaching in the NFL who arrived as part of Sean Payton's first staff in February 2006, six months after Katrina.
"I saw that one of the [TV] stations did a special on it, and all the memories came flooding back," said Vitt, who of course flashed back to that incredible Monday night victory over the Atlanta Falcons in 2006, when the Superdome hosted its first game in more than a year.
"I was more nervous for that than the Super Bowl. We just didn't want to let these fans down," Vitt said. "Then you look at how far the city has come with people coming back into the city, it's unbelievable, man. It's unbelievable."
The Saints have four players left from that 2006 team that improbably went on to reach the first NFC championship game in franchise history -- Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief.
Strief said it has meant a lot to him to "kind of grow up with" the city during this past decade as it has experienced a renaissance beyond just the football field. But it wasn't always easy to be part of that process.
"Football here for a long time was more than football," Strief said. "It's a burden, a little bit, to bear that type of importance. And yet, I think it drove a lot of guys to play hard, knowing what it meant.
"I think what it does is it makes you realize you're part of something bigger always."
Brees said he recognized that early on when he was being courted by both the Saints and Miami Dolphins in 2006 as a free agent coming off of a major shoulder surgery.
The Saints offered a much bigger contract, in part because they were more desperate. They were rebuilding after a 3-13 season. And it wasn't easy to lure free agents to a city that still had questions about things like schools, hospitals and the quality of life in general.
"New Orleans empowered me by bringing me in to say, 'We believe in you and we need you.' So I felt a great responsibility to the city, like [wife] Brittany and I can be a big part of this recovery," Brees told The Associated Press. "There were all these people waiting to come back and there was nothing to come back to and they needed to know that somebody cared."
Payton recalled some of the unusual circumstances when he first arrived in 2006 during a recent interview on ESPN's Mike & Mike. He said the first time he flew into New Orleans to meet with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, "I don't know that I saw anybody [in the airport] until I saw Mickey at baggage claim. It just felt like there was three people working the whole airport."
Payton said there were stories almost every other day about the hurdles coaches or staff members faced, from finding housing to getting prescriptions filled.
"Really those first few months you were just looking for anything to celebrate. It was like that scene in 'Jerry Maguire' where the one person comes with him and he's just fired up and he's got the goldfish. We were celebrating small victories," Payton said. "And then all of a sudden we found ourselves in a vortex bigger than -- it was like, 'Holy cow.'"
The excitement really started to grow after the Saints drafted Reggie Bush. Then it exploded when they started 3-0, capped by that Monday night win.
"I would argue that '06 season was just as important, if not more important than the '09 [Super Bowl] season. For every one of us, it exposed us to a more meaningful role than just as players or coaches," said Payton, who said the team benefited from that bond as well.
"This is a city in general where the community is very close. Then magnify that by this time of post-Katrina recovery. Then magnify that with some success and then more success, and you kind of ended up with something that's just really hard to describe."