Bizarre trip offers up reason to celebrate start of season   

Updated: September 5, 2008, 1:02 PM ET

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NEW ORLEANS -- It was late Thursday night deep inside the Superdome, and Saints linebacker (and former Flem File subject) Scott Fujita was showing off iPhone pictures of his kids when the notion just kind of struck him right between the eyes: It's really happening, there's actually another hurricane bearing down on this still-ravaged town.

Flem File

With his parenting instincts kicked into overdrive by the photos, Fujita lowered his phone in midscreen wave. Startled a bit, he explained that the Saints were evacuating for Indianapolis on Saturday and that he really needed to get home to help his family prepare for their own escape from New Orleans. We shook hands. And he marched purposefully toward the exit.

I walked back into the Saints' locker room and everyone else had that similar kind of look on their faces. Stuck in town until Saturday afternoon, I would see that look all over New Orleans in the ominous days leading up to Gustav's arrival: Cajun heart and determination mixed with an almost palpable here-we-go-again fragility and weariness.

There are still 14 players on the Saints who were part of the team that evacuated to Texas in 2005. I followed the team to San Antonio. It was as emotionally draining an assignment I've ever been on because of the powerful fluctuating waves of anger, anguish, helplessness and hope. With thousands of residents sheltered nearby, the Saints were living out of hotels, busing to practice at high school fields, all the while knowing that most of their homes were destroyed, under water or being looted. Somehow, though, the Saints held it together for what has to be the most successful 3-13 season in the history of sports.

Scott Fujita

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When you're a veteran of Katrina like Scott Fujita, you don't take any storm lightly.

With a new resolve, $200 million in repairs to the Superdome, and a camaraderie forged by Katrina, the next year the Saints made it to the NFC Championship Game. And I'll never forget the way Fujita and his teammates described that season. They said that in 25 years when all those players were sitting around at some NFL alumni reunion, with potbellies and creaky knees, the one thing they'd talk about was the transcendent nature of that post-Katrina season when a football team helped restore the soul of a city.

Even late on Friday, the newbies on the 2008 team, guys like Jeremy Shockey, were still hoping that somehow the storm would die down or make some miraculous turn and miss the region. Trying to look on the bright side of things, a suddenly mature and thoughtful Shockey even wondered out loud if it wouldn't actually be a good thing for the Saints to jet to Indy for a week and sequester themselves in preparation for the season opener against the Bucs.

"This is my home now -- I love this city," Shockey told me. "And this team, no matter what happens, we're gonna ride this out and come back and give this place something to cheer for. Big-time."

The team left for Indy the next day. Just in time, I think, because the minute the storm turned up into the Gulf of Mexico, something changed in New Orleans. It was visceral and real. Not quite panic, but close. When I walked to breakfast on Canal Street, workers were casually putting sandbags in doorways and boarding up the storefront windows. People were joking about ordering Hurricanes for breakfast. The mood was still light and pure Big Easy -- and then, about an hour later, the streets emptied and a brigade of camo'ed Humvees roared by, and by the time I paid my bill, full troops of National Guardsmen carrying rifles were marching by on the sidewalk.

Nike Factory

David Fleming

The streets emptied as the mayor told residents and tourists to leave the city.

By the time I got back to my hotel near Poydras, the mayor had begun calling for an evacuation, and the note in the lobby, just past the boarded-up front door, said the building would be closed in 45 minutes. I turned on the TV in my room just in time to hear that they were cutting off all alcohol sales in the area. In a laid-back party town -- where fully loaded, multitiered street bars seem to pop up on every street corner the first time a football comes out or a jazz trumpet blares -- that's the equivalent of an air-raid siren.

Eight minutes later I was in my car. The bellhop didn't say goodbye, I noticed. He said, "Good luck."

At this point the highways were already jam-packed and bumper-to-bumper, so I took the equivalent of side streets through the heart of town to get to the airport. It was a bizarre, strange trip, indeed. On the radio, mayor Ray Nagin opened his press conference by saying, "My message today is to the tourists -- it's time for you to leave our city."

Sand bag stations for Gustav were set up next to buildings still being rebuilt from Katrina. Long lines snaked around gas stations and into the streets. There was an eerie emptiness to the place and a strong police presence, including soldiers with machine guns standing under a tent at the airport. In one neighborhood, everyone seemed to be packing in a panic, racing around, boarding up, screaming, running, and in the middle of all this four guys sat in lawn chairs, drinking beers and washing their cars. It actually made me say out loud in my car: "You gotta love this town."

Just a few miles from the airport, I passed the massive staging area in the parking lot of the Zephyrs' stadium where hundreds of buses were perfectly lined up, manned by volunteers with giant stacks of water, food and supplies waiting for the needy and ready for the evacuation.


David Fleming

Hotels and business stacked up sand bags in preparation of Gustav.

And that's when it hit me: This time around the Saints and their city were prepared, organized and resourceful. This time around the infrastructure held. This time around the policies worked. This time around we managed the storm rather than the other way around. This time around the city was saved by a plan, not pity.

Yes, I know, it was a different storm and wholly different circumstances. But this time around, instead of a year, the Saints and their fans will be back in six days. No matter how you look at it, that's progress.

And I can't think of a better reason to celebrate the beginning of the NFL season.

Over the years, every time I was dispatched to Cincinnati to do a story on the Bengals, the first guy I always talked to was Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson, the one pillar of professionalism and consistency in what has been, for the better part of almost two decades, a directionless, moribund mess of a franchise. Anderson, though, was always thoughtful and honest with his insight (even on the tough and ugly stories) and always gracious with his time, and at the end of our talks he always asked me when I was gonna come to town to ask other people about him for a change. It actually became something of a running joke. I always promised I would, mainly because it struck me as an odd juxtaposition that one of the game's most consistent, professional players actually played for the Bengals, and one could argue that Anderson's stellar career was completely eclipsed by the team's losing and off-field problems.

This week the Bengals cut Anderson. Now, I'm well aware of the brutal reality of this game. That after starting 116 consecutive games, Anderson missed nine games last season with knee and foot injures and, now as a backup, the remaining $1.15 million owed to him (after a $2 million roster bonus) was just too much for the Bengals to carry. I swear, though, sometimes I think owner Mike Brown is cognitively dyslexic: Whenever he should think with his brain he goes with his heart, and whenever he should act on gut he goes with his wallet. I mean, just when you think this franchise can't sink any lower its signs someone like Chris Henry, and a week later cuts a class act and stabilizing presence like Anderson.

I never made good on my promise to feature Anderson. So, technically, I'm just as bad as the Bengals: We both just turned our back on one of the good guys in this sport. Fans of the game shouldn't make the same mistake.

Top Five Weatherman Names:
5. Storm Field (New Jersey)
4. TIE: Ray Ban and Dale Eck (because they're Weather Channel alumni and I'm a fan of Bill the Cat)
3. Robert Spritzel (Michael Caine's character in "The Weather Man")
2. Mike Bono (Albany, N.Y.; imagine the Abbott and Costello confusion if this guy ever worked as Bono's microphone guy)
1. Larry Sprinkle (Charlotte, swear to god)

With Scott Christopher, co-author of The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up

Levity Effect book cover

The Flem File has been saying this for years: You should laugh at everything.

What are your thoughts on the psychological benefits of humor in a sport like football?

Levity puts people at ease and they're better able to perform their tasks. Imagine the mental edge a player has when he's loose and laughing and "talking." That level of relaxation not only gives the player a physical edge, but mentally stymies an opponent. "What's so funny?" they're thinking. "He doesn't seem worried at all. Why isn't he taking this seriously?" It implies a degree of confidence. The reason you knock down that ridiculous half-court left-handed hook shot playing H-O-R-S-E or, in practice, a place-kicker cracks 50-plus-yarders again and again and again is because they're relaxed. Every skill-position player understands the need to loosen up. Laughter and fun are the quickest ways to diffuse tension and calm pregame jitters, shakes and nausea.

Does humor, levity, laughing actually improve job performance? If so, how?

In a timeout huddle with the coach, after he's barked out instructions and drawn up some X's and O's, you sometimes hear them say, "Get out there and have fun." Fun? This is a billion-dollar business, we can't afford to have fun! But a great coach knows that if his players truly have fun, they'll be at their best. Employees in all industries are more likely to go above and beyond for a boss that allows and even encourages humor among the ranks.

There seems to be a strong gallows-type humor in the NFL, especially during training camp. Why is that? Why does suffering and pain and pressure create humor? Is it the same way in other tough/dangerous jobs, meaning, are coal miners and prison guards really funny?

In medieval times it is said that the court jester was sent out before a battle to try to get both sides laughing and diffuse the gravity of the moment. Often the two sides would simply call it off for the day because no one was in the mood to disembowel each other. Come on, how can you garotte a bloke while you're wheezing with laughter? It's the incongruence. Same thing with prison jobs, bomb diffusers and NFL training campers ... you look for an emotional place opposite to that of your circumstances and seek comfort there. Rather than wallow in the pain and misery, you take yourself somewhere else with some levity.

Is a locker room like an office (just with smaller cubicles), and in that environment do you need a few designated funny guys? You've got your brains, your leaders, your tough guys -- in the model of team chemistry where does the "funny guy" rank in importance?

In the business world, you will actually find some employees who are more valuable for who they ARE than for what they DO. Great leaders grasp this concept. Team morale, game IQ, work ethic, team mentality are those intangibles coaches are looking for in an athlete. But the key is "athlete." At the end of the day, talent, strength, speed and good hands will help you keep your job. But when those tangibles begin to fade a little, the player that's developed a sense of perspective and levity can still be a valued asset.

A lot of the humor in the NFL is, shall we say, less than sophisticated -- any thoughts on why?

It's a kids' game, being played by adults full time as a job. All pro sports are, really. How do you wake up each morning as a 32-year-old father of three and put on a jockstrap and a jersey and go scream and yell and throw your body around in a park playing with a ball and justify it all? Sure, the money's good, but ... what're you gonna do when you grow up? Who cares, right? For now, you're still a kid, playing a kid game, and so if you're humor's a little sophomoric, well, it's all part and parcel.

Superdome Media Entrance

David Fleming

Is that the air conditioning making that noise, or is that Jason Voorhees' theme song?

There is no better assignment in this biz than one that takes you to New Orleans. Really, the only hard part of covering the always-interesting Saints is the final 30 yards before entering the Superdome where the creepy, subterranean concrete cave of a media entrance can sometimes remind you of a bad dream or a scene from a George Romero film. (Also: Notice here how the artist accentuates that feeling of hopelessness by perfectly contrasting the dark and light shades of the garage to push the infinite horizon ethos of the structure.) Actually, uh, I think it's the sign. It's too "Scary Movie 2" kind of obvious, isn't it? It's too "come on in, my dog doesn't bite ... I swear." I always figure I'm about to get jacked by a guy with a sack full of nickels when I turn the corner, or I'll fall through some trapdoor into some dark horrible abyss, or worse, the press box of an MLS game.

New Orleans Observation No. 1: Bumper sticker of the car in front of me on I-10 headed into New Orleans: Make Levees Not War.

NOON2: It doesn't give me a great sense of comfort when weathermen refer to the computer-projected path of a storm as "the cone of error."

NOON3: A family friend of ours traveled the world this summer and came home with, what I think, could be our next great catchphrase. If you'll remember a few years ago, thanks to FlemFile Nation, Adalius Thomas had quite a bit of success with the phrase "Yo dog, hit these tots!" This one also has real potential. Apparently, some of the foreign college students our friend studied with used the almost-English phrase: "I gots the poops" to explain when they needed to use the bathroom.

In the catchphrase business, this is gold, people. Fumbled kickoff in overtime? That guy gots the poops. My beloved RedHawks taking on Michigan this week? Oh, I hope the Wolverines gots the poops. Hate mail from readers? That really gives me the poops, you know? Buddy misses an easy putt? What, you gots the poops?

Go ahead, try it. It's fun.

Ricky Willaims

Marc Serota/Getty Images

They're not booing you Ricky, they're saying ... actually they're totally booing you.

NOON4: They booed Dolphins back and former Saint Ricky Williams on his first carry, but just a little bit. Remember, hate is not the opposite of love -- it's indifference. The real hissing was saved for the poor weatherman dude who did a report on Gustav on the JumboTron. At one point in the game, recent Jet Chad Pennington handed off to former Saint and CFL'er Williams, who was then tackled by a former Packers holdout, corner Mike McKenzie. Except for a very select few players, the NFL is a mercenary league.

NOON5: Sorry, but by the way, did you know there are 42 players named Williams in the NFL? That's almost 2.5 percent of the league. So if you ever gag in the late rounds of your fantasy draft just say: "coughrrrWilliams," and the eager-beaver dork in the corner who has already done 27 full, computer-simulated drafts (more than likely he's also the guy who tries to invent his own nickname ... "My name is Lance but everybody pretty much calls me T-Bone") will shout out the best possible remaining Williams. You're welcome.

NOON6: Saw a dude with a goatee trimmed to look like the Saints' fleur-de-lis logo. These are my favorite things in the whole world, stuff that is so weak it actually circles back around on itself and becomes strong. Count Chocula is one. Vision Quest is another. Katy Perry, as well.

NOON7: When the peewee flag football Pontiff Playground Chargers were lined up on the Superdome field before the game, the one guy they kept turning around to try to sneak a peek at was Jeremy Shockey who, recognizing this, walked over and shook hands with the team.

NOON8: The last NFL preseason game has become the equivalent of a union slowdown. Sick of the fake games and endless preseason potential for injuries and, perhaps, pushing back on Roger Goodell's suggestion about extending the regular season by two games, coaches have started sitting nearly all their starters in late August. The only real chance for fans to get their money's worth is to watch desperate, angry dudes trying to secure, grab or just solidify roster spots, like Miami fullback Reagan Mauia who, on a play near the goal line in the first half, drove Saints corner Aaron Glenn 12 yards backward and out of bounds where he pancaked him so hard his helmet popped off like a champagne cork.

THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: The Housemartins and the "Into the Wild" sound track.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship," which has been optioned as a movie. The Flem File will run each Wednesday during the NFL season.



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