New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett gathered his team together in a hotel meeting room the night before its season opener in Carolina. In Haslett's hand was a letter from New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, who wrote about the horrific scenes he had witnessed in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck.
"The letter is unbelievable when you hear the horror stories and what was going on in the city," Haslett said. "The kids left behind, the lootings, the shootings, the devastation. . . . I thought it was important to let the players know what people thought of their football team."
Haslett was too emotional to read it all. He handed the letter to a Saints staff member to finish, and the parting message from Nagin was, "This is your fate, this is your mission -- to lift the spirit of these fans."
Three weeks later, the Saints are trying their best to fulfill that mission.
For the first time since the hurricane hit Aug. 29, they are settling into somewhat of a normal routine as they prepare to face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in their temporary home, the Alamodome in San Antonio.
"It's just an unfortunate incident that the hurricane hit, that it devastated the region, ruined a lot of peoples' lives, and we happened to be in the middle of it," Haslett said on a conference call Wednesday. "Hopefully we can play better, we can do some things to turn this around, because one thing they do have (in Louisiana), they love football. They love the Saints, they love LSU, and I think it does give people a little hope if we do play well."
After pulling a 23-20 upset of Carolina in the opener, the Saints have bumbled through road losses to the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings. In those two games, New Orleans has made 10 turnovers and 27 penalties and given up 60 points.
"Collectively we're mad and angry and ticked off because we know collectively we've gotten penalties and made mistakes that caused us to get our butts whipped," said Saints receiver Joe Horn.
If ever a team had an excuse for shoddy play, it's the Saints, the orphans of pro football.
They spent their first week after evacuating their city in San Jose, Calif., because they had a preseason game scheduled in Oakland. Then they transferred to San Antonio, an eight-hour drive due west of New Orleans.
They have had makeshift offices in the San Antonio Convention Center while busing every day to a high school practice field. They had to play their first scheduled home game in New Jersey on a Monday night at Giants Stadium, then they had to travel to Minnesota on a short practice week. Last Friday was the first day they got to practice in the Alamodome because new turf was installed in the stadium. This week the coaches' offices were moved to the Alamodome, so they got to game plan and practice in the same facility for the first time.
"This is the first week we'll have that's normal by any means of the imagination," Haslett said. "I sat in game-planning meetings on Tuesday. It's the first I've done that since we got to San Antonio, or San Jose, wherever we've been the last three weeks."
Most of the players have found apartments in San Antonio after spending the previous two weeks in hotels. Haslett has not been back to New Orleans to check out his house, but he said the hurricane blew his windows out and his garage door down, and half his roof is missing.
The Saints' practice facility in suburban New Orleans is dry. But it has been taken over by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help in the disaster relief.
"Possessions, they don't mean much as long as everyone's healthy and the family is safe," Haslett said.
Indeed, to a man the Saints have embraced the big picture in discussing their plight.
"Listen, we're blessed," said Horn. "We get paid a great amount of money to play this sport, a game we love. We had ample opportunity to get out, and if we couldn't afford to get things out we could afford to buy whatever we needed. It wasn't a big-time load put on our back. Most of the load was on the people who couldn't get out or couldn't afford to get the things we can afford. We're all right."
Still, the Saints were proud of Haslett for criticizing the league after it made the team play its first home game in New Jersey.
"For him to say something like that really made us feel good because he was telling the truth," Horn said. "Let me tell you something. The Saints aren't going to be the first team that they (the NFL) make a mockery of and we will not be the last team that they make a mockery of. . . . No one's bigger than the NFL. And whoever the commissioner is calls the shots."
This week the Saints say they are fully focused on getting back on a winning track and showing some consistency. This is a team that is 32-32 over the previous four seasons and has not made the playoffs since 2000, Haslett's first season as coach.
"Maybe when I retire I'll take two years and go over those seasons and explain why we were inconsistent," Horn said. "What I can tell you is what we have to do to get better. The hurricane hit New Orleans. We have to deal with it. It's hard but we have to be hard. We have to take care of what we have to take care of. On Sunday when that whistle blows, the opposing players aren't going to feel sorry for you."