Steve Gleason’s 2006 blocked punt symbolized the ‘rebirth’ of the Saints, New Orleans

  • Covered Saints for eight years at New Orleans Times-Picayune
  • Previously covered LSU football, San Francisco 49ers
  • Iowa native and University of Iowa graduate

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Sept. 26, 2016.

NEW ORLEANS — “We didn’t stand a chance,” Jim L. Mora said, 10 years later, the smile coming across clearly through the phone line.

“The whole world was against us that night. And for some reason, at the end of the day, that seemed OK with me,” Mora said, recalling the night when his Atlanta Falcons got swallowed up in the emotional eruption while the Superdome came back to life after Hurricane Katrina.

Sept. 25, 2006, was not only one of the greatest nights in New Orleans Saints history, but in all of New Orleans’ history.

That night became a symbol of the city’s rebirth after the devastating storm. The Superdome, which was the image of despair for so many who saw parts of the roof being ripped off while it sheltered thousands of evacuees, was rebuilt in less than a year so the Saints could return home.

It only got better as the night went on.

The pregame musical performance by U2 and Green Day. The blocked punt by Steve Gleason that has been immortalized with a statue outside the stadium. A triumphant 23-3 victory in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football.

The incredible emotional release that has maybe never been matched inside of a sports venue.

“You know, it would almost be blasphemy for a coach to say, ‘It was OK with me.’ But nobody who has not lived in New Orleans could understand the fiber and the culture there,” said Mora, whose father, Jim Mora, coached the Saints from 1986 to ’96. “And that night was so meaningful to the rebirth of that city.

“It was pretty overwhelming, quite frankly.”

With the Saints and Falcons gearing up for a reunion game on Monday Night Football, ESPN gathered the memories of many people who will never forget that night.

‘It’s impossible for us to lose tonight’

Saints quarterback Drew Brees: “We’ve had a chance to be a part of some really cool stuff. But that started it all, that’s for sure.”

Gleason: “There was a moment during the national anthem, minutes before kickoff, I vividly remember looking across the field and seeing the Falcons, and looking up at the crowd in the Dome and thinking, ‘It is impossible for us to lose tonight.'”

Former ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Tony Kornheiser: “I don’t even remember [the game]. I just remember the noise. It was unbelievable noise. … I’ve never heard anything like it in my life. And I’m never gonna. That’s it.

“Was it entirely joyful? No. It was hopeful, it was optimistic. But it seemed to have a tinge of pain to it, like, ‘OK, make us feel good. Not much has made us feel good. Please, God, make us feel good.'”

Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief: “You literally felt the noise, you felt the noise. It’s loud in there a lot, moments where you can’t hear anything. But that’s just people screaming to make it loud. [This was an] emotional release.”

Former Saints fullback Mike Karney: “I remember walking out in pregame, and I remember Ernie Conwell, who played in two Super Bowls with the Rams, looked at me and said, ‘You wanna know what it’s like to play in a Super Bowl? Look around. This is what it’s like.'”

Jim L. Mora, when asked when he first recognized what kind of night he was in for: “When I was about ready to bring my team out onto the field, and we had to stay in the locker room a little bit longer because Green Day and U2 were singing, ‘The Saints Are Coming.’ And we could hear it clearly. We were like, ‘Oh, man … this isn’t good.'”

Saints linebacker Michael Mauti, a New Orleans-area native who was in the stands as a teenager: “I just remember not sitting down for like the whole first half. Still to this day, I haven’t heard a louder, more energized, more electric stadium. It was numbing, the noise. The pregame show, Bono was playing, then nobody sat down the whole rest of the half.”

Longtime Superdome manager Doug Thornton, who helped manage the building while it served as a hurricane shelter, then oversaw its remarkable revival in less than a year: “I remember driving to work that morning at like 7 a.m., and there were already people on parts of Poydras Street and parking lots, already tailgating at 7 a.m. Monday morning. And I always like to describe it like rolling Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest into a single day.

“And this is the part I’ll never forget — I wanted to see their faces as they were coming in, so I came down at the entry-level doors at Gate C, where we had just opened. I remember seeing grown men and women crying, literally walking in with tears in their eyes, like they thought they would never be back here again.

“Then I somehow wound up on the Saints’ sideline at about the 15-yard line as the house lights were going down for the Green Day/U2 show. And it was at that moment that I just realized that, ‘Hey, this is the same spot that I was standing in the morning the roof was blowing off.’ And I turned around and looked at the crowd in that seating section, and all of the people that I saw seated in Sections 138, 139, 140 — I realized this was the first time I was seeing people there since Katrina. And I had a tremendous flashback. Bone-chilling. Hair on the back of my neck. And the tears just started flowing.”

Saints coach Sean Payton: “As everyone stated, there’s a lot of symbolism in that game. That idea of rebirth, that idea of [beginning to get back to normal], if you will. … Forget sports for a while, there’s a period of time where just life as New Orleanians knew it or Louisiana residents knew it, how would that be affected years later? … There were a ton of things that were unreal about it, and then of course the game itself.”

Former ESPN play-by-play commentator Mike Tirico: “It struck me that this was New Orleans’ message to the world that, ‘We’re open for business again.’ And sitting there in the booth as the concert’s going on, with so many VIPs on the field … and hearing, ‘The Saints Are Coming’ over and over again, it just kind of felt like there was no way the Saints could lose that football game.”

Gleason: “No matter the game, I tried to always stick to a pretty rigid schedule, so there wasn’t much different about that day, and that pregame, for me. One thing that I remember that I thought was weird — they wanted every player to use this weird, red-carpet valet service that was right in the middle of the arriving crowd. I didn’t want to do that, so I drove in the players’ entrance and parked in my spot.”

Former Saints running back Deuce McAllister: “We didn’t do anything offensively, but it really felt like we were playing with 15 or 20 people on the field. … It was an emotional game, no doubt about it. But you couldn’t let that overtake you because I’m trying to go out there and run 21 F Shark or something of that nature and make sure I’ve got my responsibilities down.

“The night for me where you really felt emotional [was a few nights earlier, when coach Sean Payton took the team into the Superdome for a special practice and video presentation]. That’s when you wanted to take it all in, and you just remember from being back in San Antonio [where the Saints had evacuated a year earlier], me and Michael Lewis being in a room and seeing the Dome on TV.”

Saints safety Roman Harper, who was a rookie, said that when looks back, he realizes he didn’t fully appreciate what the game meant at the time: “Obviously, I was so small-minded, it was my first real [home] game and I’m about to play against Michael Vick, who, at the time, I thought was like second tier to God.”

Another level of frenzy

The Falcons and Saints were both 2-0, and Vick had just rushed for 127 yards the week before. But three plays into the game, on third-and-4, Saints linebacker Scott Fujita chased down Vick for a sack and forced fumble that bounced out of bounds.

Fujita, dripping with sarcasm: “That’s so quickly overshadowed. I thought I was pretty hot s— there for about 30 seconds. … It turned into a foot race to the corner. And the old Scott Fujita had a little more gas in the tank. So I was able to barely get there and trip him up. Otherwise, he might have turned the corner and run for 60. … So, yeah, I deserve all the credit.”

Longtime Saints PR director Greg Bensel: “I told Fujita later that it would have been his fault if they had recovered that fumble, because he would have prevented history from happening.”

Instead, the Falcons had to punt. Gleason came screaming up the middle to block it, cornerback Curtis Deloatch scooped it up for the touchdown, and the already-ballistic crowd found another level of frenzy.

Saints guard Jahri Evans: “That blocked punt, that week the plan was to attack that area because it was something that coaches saw on film that the snapper did. And Gleason, everybody knows Gleason, he doesn’t back down from a challenge. … I think everyone knew that the type of guy Gleason was, he was gonna get that thing done.

“It was amazing just to see it happen on the field, and Curtis [Deloatch] was right there to scoop it up and score. It was just like it was drawn up [by coaches Greg McMahon and John Bonamego]. It was just something magical to see.”

McMahon: “Honestly, a lot of it had to do with the player. Steve had a great feel for that, so we just had a scheme where we felt like we could wrap him around the A-gap, and sure enough, it worked. … Oh my god. I’ll tell you, of all the emotions in my career, which is pretty long, I’ve never, including the Super Bowl, I’ve never had a feeling like that. Because that’s one’s so past football. That went way past football. That was a magical moment for our football team.”

Payton: “I remember we had an eight-man rush in [the game plan that week], and John Bonamego, aka ‘Bono’ — so there was two Bonos that night — came to me during that first series and said, ‘Do you want to rush the punt right here on the very first one?’ And I said, ‘Let’s do it.'”

Deloatch: “There were only 10 men on the field. Somebody else was supposed to be out there on the field. And I just happened to be standing right by the special-teams coach, so he threw me in there. He just said, ‘Go, go. Just rush, just rush.’

“If you look at the tape, I didn’t take off as soon as the ball started, I kind of hesitated. And I heard this loud, ‘Poof.’ And when I looked, I saw the ball right in front of me and all I could think was, ‘Don’t miss the ball, don’t miss the ball.'”

Harper: “You always hear that double thud, like, ‘Duh-duh,’ the punter kicking it, then somebody else blocking it. … And Curtis Deloatch picks it up after Gleason blocks it. And Deloatch was this super-freaky athlete, so he scored and does this like reverse, behind-the-back slam on the goal post. It was like, ‘Man!’

“So I wasn’t even thinking about the block. … The most impressive thing was the freakin’ reverse, double-back dunk on a 10-foot goalpost. In pads, with a helmet on.”

Deloatch: “I always had jumping ability, I could always do pretty much any dunk. In high school, they used to call me, ‘Baby Vince.’ But I did have the adrenaline pumping. … Someone will always say, ‘Can you still dunk like that?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know, man.'”

Former Falcons punter Michael Koenen: “We were a little backed up and trying to get the ball off, and Gleason came through so fast. I think my timing was good. I was under two seconds on the get-off and everything, and he just made a heck of a play.

“Then, after that, I just remember all of them just running around, and then the crowd just found a whole ‘nother level of volume. And your vision shakes at that point when it’s that loud.”

McAllister: “It was like the roof was gonna come off the place.”

Brees: “I mean, the place just erupts, and you’re just sitting there going, ‘How do we not win this game at this point? How do we not win this game?’ I think that’s when the feeling took over everybody.”

Deloatch: “I think that, honestly, was probably the longest celebration that the refs have ever allowed a team to celebrate.”

Tirico: “I don’t really think about a lot of things in advance about how ‘I want to do this.’ But I am so glad that I said, ‘Touchdown, New Orleans.’ Because it wasn’t a Saints touchdown, it was a New Orleans touchdown. And then we shut up.

“And that crowd. Maybe there have been louder decibel measurements of a reaction to a play. But I won’t experience one that will sound louder to me, personally, than that moment.”

Mora: “It’s so funny, because I get asked often — I got asked after that Texas A&M game the other day — ‘Was that the loudest stadium you’ve ever been in?’ And I just snicker and laugh and go, ‘No. Not even close.'”

An unforgettable feeling

The Saints went on to win 23-3. Devery Henderson scored on an 11-yard reverse handoff from Reggie Bush later in the first quarter. But few people can remember anything else that happened in that game.

Brees: “I remember the blocked punt. I remember Devery on the reverse, which was called ‘Superdome Special.’ But other than that, the rest of it’s a blur.”

Strief: “I know Mike Karney got emotional. There’s a video somewhere of Ernie Conwell with his arm around him on the bench. There were several people [who teared up] I think.”

Karney: “We were on the bench, there was like 30 seconds left in the game and we had won it — and I just started crying. What’s even funnier than that is postgame, when Sean was talking, if you look carefully in the locker room, you’ll see me, and I am crying like a little girl. I think he’s holding the game ball and saying, ‘This game ball is going to the city of New Orleans.’ We watched the highlight video when we came back in ’07, and everyone was dying laughing.

“And you know what, I laugh at it, I still laugh, but people who weren’t there pre-Katrina, they don’t know. To see that city — I don’t know if this is the right way to say it, but to see that city somewhat left for dead, and to see the carnage that was left behind after that storm hit and then the Dome in shambles … being able to come back and for that city to be like born again, and then to do it the way we did it that night, it just couldn’t have been written up any better.”

Mora: “Typically, when you’ve lost a game and you’re running off the field, your head is down and you’re trying to think about what to say to your team, and you’re somewhat distraught. But that night, I couldn’t help but pull my head up and look at the people and just kind of applaud ’em, clap for ’em.”

Fujita: “I think we’re all guilty of overstating the importance of football. But that was one of those special moments that was so much bigger than just football. And I think it confirmed all of the reasons that [wife] Jaclyn and I chose to come to New Orleans. … And then that night, the postgame celebration in the community, that was one of my favorite things about New Orleans was just everything being so intimate for a decent-sized metropolis and just hearing the emotion in their voices that night, for me that’s when it was like, ‘Man, this is real.’ “

Tirico: “If I wasn’t there at the game, I don’t think I would have felt the affection or the connection to that team and that group and that season the way that I do. That’s a part of my career in a lot of ways, and I’m really proud that it is, because that was a special night. … That’s one of the moments of my career that I will never forget and don’t ever want to forget. I still even get emotional just talking about it.”

Saints owner Tom Benson: “What stood out was the energy, the happiness in everyone there at the game and in the days leading up to the game. What made me most proud was all of the hard work that so many people put in to get back home in the Dome that night for our fans, because they needed hope. And that night provided hope — and joy … that our city was coming back.”

The Saints unveiled the appropriately named “Rebirth” statue outside the Dome in 2012, a testament to that night, but also to Gleason’s remarkable personal journey. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 and has since become a renowned advocate for those who suffer from neuromuscular diseases.

Koenen: “I think it’s cool. Obviously, you never want to get your punt blocked and lose a ballgame. But I’ll take my kids there at one point and show ’em, ‘Daddy has a statue.’ … And I think kind of the other part that I’m cool with the whole situation is that Steve has been able to impact so many lives, especially with everything he’s gone through. I totally don’t mind being the other part of that statue.”

Gleason: “It means a lot to me to be part of such a resilient community. The people of New Orleans and the surrounding region chose to return and rebuild before we did as an organization. For me, the punt is a symbol of the commitment of those people. I think it’s easy to forget that people lost everything, and had no idea what the future would look like.

“Their commitment and strength was far greater than any of the players on that field. We were a representation of the people here in the region.”

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