OPINION: Saints take city on the mend, carve it into Super Bowl landscape

By Jim Mashek/The Sun Herald (MCT)

NEW ORLEANS — Garrett Hartley stands 5 feet, 9 inches, maybe, and is listed in the New Orleans Saints’ media guide as a 196-pound placekicker.

On Sunday night, however, Hartley walked tall, in the land of the Giants, not to mention the Steelers, and 49ers, and NFL teams more familiar to the Super Bowl landscape.

Hartley delivered the 40-yard field goal to beat Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night in the NFC championship game, a dagger to the heart of the Twin Cities and a lift to a proud city, and a football-mad region on the mend, since Hurricane Katrina came ashore on Aug. 29, 2005.

Hartley was in his sophomore year with the Oklahoma Sooners that season, when the Saints played home games in San Antonio and at LSU’s Tiger Stadium. After the Louisiana Superdome was left in ruins, a shelter of last resort for the city’s poor and downtrodden. A symbol of human misery less than five years ago, the party was just getting started in the Superdome late Sunday night.

It seemed everybody in the Crescent City was ready to put on their dancin’ shoes.

“Four years ago,” Saints coach Sean Payton observed, “there were holes in this roof.”

Saints fans were ready to tear the roof after the sucker after Hartley’s kick split the uprights with 10:15 left in the overtime period. The Saints will be making the first Super Bowl appearance in the franchise’s 43-year history. Drew Brees and the Saints will duel with another prominent New Orleanian, Peyton Manning, and the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts on Feb. 7 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Beautiful, sunny Miami.

Life is good in New Orleans.

“We just had to stay the course,” Brees said. “We knew it was going to be a battle the whole way.”

That it was. An epic battle. Momentum went back and forth, with the prolific Saints offense often struggling against the Vikings’ resourceful defense. Brees threw for 197 yards and three touchdowns, but he often found himself throwing the ball away, when the Vikings were bringing the heat. Still, the Vikings recorded just one sack. The Saints were pretty resourceful themselves. Their defense produced five turnovers, which arguably was the difference. Well, that and Hartley’s kick for the ages.

“You’re going to have to play the field position game, at times,” Brees said, “and take advantage of your opportunities.”

You always have to take advantage of your opportunities. Or, at the very least, bounce back from those that slip from your grasp. No one understands this more than Hartley.

The Saints’ second-year placekicker endured an NFL-mandated suspension, in addition to a critical missed field-goal try in his team’s 20-17 overtime loss to Tampa Bay in December. That defeat cost the Saints a chance to wrap up the home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. That little detail took care of itself, as the Vikings struggled down the stretch, too.

Hartley was mobbed by his teammates as his 40-yard field goal sailed through the uprights. The Saints were going to the Super Bowl. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s here. The French Quarter would soon explode. As Saints radio color man Hokie Gajan likes to say, the Saints in the Super Bowl will make Mardi Gras look like a church social.

And, for a little lagniappe, we are already in Mardi Gras season. So get used to it, Miami. The party is just getting started on South Beach, believe me.

“I just knew, when it came off my foot, that it was going to split the pipes,” Hartley said. “This is definitely the most prolific moment in my career. It’s really been a rollercoaster ride this season.”

The Saints retired to their team hotel on Saturday night and Hartley had trouble sleeping. He said he called his dad, Bill Hartley, at about 2:15 on Sunday morning to tell him about a premonition. Hartley said he thought he was going to deliver a game-winning field goal from 42 yards out, from the right hash mark, to send the Saints to the Super Bowl.

The kick was from the right hash, all right. And Garrett Hartley was just 2 yards off, when it came to the distance.

Sean Payton couldn’t stop smiling. The Saints are going to the Super Bowl. “The fans in this city, and in this region, deserve it,” Payton said. “I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

Architects are modest like that. Next stop, Miami.