OPINION: Payton believed in the Saints, and they believed in themselves, too

By Jim Mashek/The Sun Herald (MCT)

MIAMI — New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita had thought about this moment, had prepared for this moment, for all of his adult life.

Actually, a little longer.

Fujita was a walk-on safety for the California Bears, an adopted son of Japanese-American parents who embraced his family’s cultural history and everything that went with it. Four years ago, though, Fujita followed one of his coaches from his former NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys, to New Orleans.

A city that had been ripped apart by deadly Hurricane Katrina only seven months earlier, a city that is still in the midst of a massive rebuilding project.

Fujita, a personable, thoughtful man, recognized the Saints had a lot of potential, the moment he joined the team on March 14, 2006.

On Sunday night, at Sun Life Stadium, the Saints capitalized on that talent, that chemistry, that New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have been building over the last four years.

The Saints are world champions.

Payton’s squad responded time and again with the game on the line, and they put it away when second-year cornerback Tracy Porter intercepted a forced Peyton Manning’s pass on a quick slant to Reggie Wayne, scoring on a 74-yard return that sent the Saints to a dramatic 31-17 victory.

The confetti fell from the sky and someone handed Fujita his 2-year-old twin daughters, Isabelle and Delilah. Television cameras captured the moment, and 30, 40 minutes after the game was over, Fujita was asked to describe it.

“I’m not sure the words are in my mind,” Fujita said. “That image was in my mind, for the last two weeks. Someone handed me my daughters. To share this with them, that’s as good as it gets.”

No doubt, New Orleans and the entire Gulf South can relate.

The party was just getting started in the French Quarter. It might not end for a few days, if then. New Orleans is, after all, The City That Care Forgot.

“I know they’re having a good time on Bourbon Street,” Payton said.

They were, of course, but only because Payton had enough confidence in his team to take the chances they’d need to win the big game. They opened the second half with an onside kick, after the Saints had closed to within 10-6 on Garrett Hartley’s 44-yard field goal as the teams retreated to their respective locker rooms.

That’s when Payton told the Saints they’d go for it, while The Who was belting out tunes like “We Don’t Get Fooled Again.” Well, the Colts were fooled. Big time. Thomas Morstead, the Saints’ rookie punter, got the perfect topspin on the ball, and it bounced off the helmet of Colts receiver Hank Baskett.

Chris Reis, the Saints’ special-teams terror and backup safety, made an adept recovery and held onto the ball, despite a free-for-all and several Colts trying to pull it away from the pile. Someone asked Morstead if he was worried about assuming such a crucial role in the Super Bowl.

“I wasn’t worried,” Morstead said with a grin. “I was terrified.”

The Saints got the ball and moved 58 yards in six plays for their first touchdown of the game, Pierre Thomas’ deft 16-yard scoring reception on a screen play to the right side of the field. That would put the Saints in front for the first time in Super Bowl XLIV, and while they would again have to erase a deficit, from that point forward, they played like the confident team we’d seen over the last five months.

They played like world champions.

Drew Brees, the quarterback who delivered the Vince Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans, was named the game’s MVP, completing 32 of 39 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns. Brees likes to tell anyone who will listen that they’re all in this together, and he’s not just talking about the players and coaches in the Saints’ locker room.

“We played for so much more than just ourselves,” Brees said. “We played for our city, the region, the entire Who Dat Nation that was with us all the way. What can I say? We’ve been blessed with so much.

“It’s unbelievable.”

In a lot of ways, it is, considering the Saints didn’t have a winning season in their first 20 years in the league, and that they’d won just two playoff games before training camp commenced in July. They quickly became the nation’s sentimental favorite, a team that opened the season with 13 consecutive victories. They had talent, but more important, they had guts.

And now they have the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Payton thrust it at the podium shortly after arriving in the interview area.

“It’s important, when you have a plan, that you’re going to carry it forward, and show the players you are confident in them,” Payton said.

The Saints are carrying it forward.

To a parade in downtown New Orleans on Tuesday evening.