MIAMI -- Three o'clock in the morning came and went while Kenny Chesney was onstage Monday at the New Orleans Saints' post-Super Bowl party.
In theory, it was a moment he's been through hundreds of times: He was about to please a crowd. He donned his usual outfit, a white T-shirt and jeans, with a guitar strapped over his shoulder like a weapon. Only this time, the crowd on the second floor of downtown Miami's Intercontinental Hotel was the Saints players, coaches and staff and their families. And as Chesney approached the mike, the strange feeling embedded inside so many of those in the audience seemed to hit him, too.
"The Saints just won the Super Bowl," he said.
He didn't pass along those words in a rowdy way, or even emphatically, but rather as a reassuring statement of a fact that everyone knew to be true -- heck, expected all year would be true. Problem was, of course, that it still seemed so hard to believe.
Was this for real? The Saints had gone 42 years without a title. The 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday seemed surreal. A few hours later, Drew Brees, the game's MVP and surely the most-loved quarterback in America, would wake up and turn to his wife, Brittany, and ask, "Did last night really happen?"
It did. Of course, the reasons the feelings of suspended disbelief existed were easy to understand. The Saints were tagged as the lowly underdog; almost everything associated with post-Katrina New Orleans carries the weight of struggle. But in reality, the Saints were not only the better team Sunday but also the better team all season. But that's the magical thing about the Saints in general and the city of New Orleans in particular: They simultaneously can be considered underdogs and superstars. They are both Who Dat and All Dat.
Busloads of fun
The party began around midnight, when five huge buses carrying the team turned right off Biscayne Boulevard, passing rows of screaming fans piled three-deep, all of them clamoring for the red wristbands that allowed entrance into the impending raucousness in the hotel.
The Vince Lombardi Trophy was, fittingly, in Bus No. 1. On board, the players were linked by the rare bond forged when a group of special people -- many of whom are among the best in the world at what they do -- act as if they're lucky just to have a job. When Reggie Bush walked into a bus with his family, he asked, "Is there room for us?" Most superstars would demand room. Not Bush. He politely asked. And, of course, there was.
The vibe continued inside. The Saints are a community within a community; it's hard to imagine another place on earth Sunday night that could make you feel more welcome. CNN political commentator and New Orleans resident James Carville hugged folks. His wife, fellow CNN politico Mary Matalin, offered their home to people she had just met, an open invitation for the next time they're in town. World-class chefs offered tables at their restaurants to fans for free. This is how celebrations work in New Orleans. The tourists crash Bourbon Street; the locals open their arms.
Of course, the Saints thought they were the ones who needed to give back. After every practice leading up to the Super Bowl, the players returned to their hotel rooms and were greeted with a gift of some sort, a care package. Obviously, the fact that the Saints were playing in their first Super Bowl in team history was on everyone's mind, not just in Miami (where Saints fans outnumbered Colts fans by at least a 10-1 ratio), not just in New Orleans, but also across North America: Super Bowl XLIV was the most-watched TV program in U.S. and Canadian history.
The storyline was predictable: The scrappy Saints, the plucky overachievers, were facing the best player in the game, Peyton Manning. What was lost during the week, but was painfully obvious Sunday, is that the Saints weren't overachieving at all: They're actually really, really talented. That's why, on the morning of the game, coach Sean Payton didn't show his players a clip from "Rocky" to get them pumped up. No, he played a highlight reel from their season, reminding them of the greatness they already have achieved. The Super Bowl victory was technically an upset, but to the Saints, it was a natural progression.
Just past 1 a.m., Payton took the stage. He held up the Lombardi trophy to the applause of the crowd before handing it to Rita LeBlanc, the Saints' whip-smart part-owner and executive VP. Payton asked his players to stand behind him and asked everyone in the room to raise a glass.
"To the Saints," he said to the crowd.
"Salud," Rita said.
"Salud," the crowd replied.
Payton sings backup
The genius of New Orleans, as a city and a team, is that it subtly overwhelms you with fine touches. The pancakes at Commander's Palace are topped by their own version of white chocolate whipped cream; the burgers at Port of Call are under piles of freshly shredded cheese. Hit the restaurant August on the right night and the chefs might serve you everything on the menu and charge for a portion of it.
The Super Bowl was no different. Brees beat the Colts not by assaulting them with the deep passes that have been his trademark going back to his college days at Purdue but by slowly gutting them, bit by bit. New Orleans' defense didn't shut down Manning; it produced the little plays that resulted in a punt here or a long field goal attempt there, culminating with a pick-six by Tracy Porter with 3:12 left.
After that interception, which gave New Orleans a seemingly insurmountable 14-point lead, the Saints' sideline was practicing "Who Dat" dance moves. But at the same time, players also were worried. Brees said afterward that he had seen Manning rally his team from larger deficits.
Even when the clock hit zero, the championship didn't seem real. Nor did it a few hours later, with the party in full swing. "I just can't believe the Saints won the Super Bowl," said John Currence, a lifelong fan, about 2:30 a.m.
Get used to it, guys. This is your new life. And it goes by fast -- faster than it took to reach 3 a.m., when Chesney took the stage. (As if the loss weren't bad enough for Manning, imagine his response when he learns that his longtime country rock star buddy played the Saints' victory party.) Chesney broke into "Living in Fast Forward," a song about the premonition that all good things eventually will come to an end. Soon Payton, holding the trophy, joined Chesney at the mike, singing along like Little Steven does with Springsteen.
The body's a temple
That's what we're told
I treated this one like an old honky-tonk
And cheap cigarettes
One day they'll get me if they ain't got me yet
As the song ended and the crowd erupted, Payton held up the Lombardi one more time for those who couldn't see it enough.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.