By John DeShazier
The feel was far from ceremonial, the action more reminiscent of a dead-out sprint than a get-the-blood-flowing jog.
Virtually, from the time New Orleans Saints coaches and players stepped off the buses that transported them to Villa Park on Wednesday, to the time they left, they were in full work mode. The labor expended by players, representatives of Lowe’s and community volunteers, to help resurrect a park that was floored by the flood that swept through the community five weeks ago, seemed a fair tradeoff for the conditioning drill that usually greets them upon their arrival at training camp.
While one group meticulously removed debris from playing fields, another painted some dugouts. Still another collection wielded sledgehammers in the demolition of other dugouts, while another cluster lifted and carried aluminum bleachers back to their previous position.
Nobody went unoccupied, from Coach Sean Payton down to the free agent rookies, and everyone in between. The park, which once likely was to be dormant this youth football season, now is expected to be fully operational.
“It’s good for the soul,” safety Roman Harper said. “I haven’t worked like this since I was back in Alabama with my dad, this is normal work for me growing up. So just being able to come out here and do something for this community, not only have practice and show love when they come out to see us play and perform, but also giving back. It’s always something special when you leave a place better than the way you came here.
“You’re not just here visiting, you actually become a little bit of a part of this community. You get to know people and shake hands while you’re here with all the staff and people like that. You make some form of impact on this city.
“It’s very nice to be able to come here and say we left it better. At the end of the day, we’re getting out here and putting some sweat into it. We’re not just showing up here spending money, but we’re actually putting some sweat into this thing. It gives you a better feeling on the inside, for sure.”
Especially, for the Saints players who remember the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, the work was significant. Only Harper, right tackle Zach Strief and quarterback Drew Brees remain on the current roster from the 2006 team that was the first to play in New Orleans post-Katrina.
They haven’t forgotten the impact of working in the community after a natural disaster.
“I remember vividly what it was like,” Strief said. “This stuff is important. You say this is a park and yet, a park like this affects and touches the lives of more people in this area than any one house does, or any one building. I mean, how many families have come down here for baseball games and football games?
“So it’s a really good place for us to start. Getting a chance to come out here and giving back and helping a little bit, it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do, to help out because we understand what they’re going through.”
Harper said that while the Saints’ community work will be brief – training camp practices begin Thursday; Wednesday likely will be the only day they will have in which they can perform that kind of physical labor – it still allows the team to gain perspective.
“We’re coming out here with a reason, a purpose that’s bigger than a lot of us,” he said. “It’s not about just competing on the field but also giving back, understanding that football is a blessing.
“We’re all blessed to be here and it’s an honor to play this game, it’s a small fraternity of very few people. We’re all special and we’re all talented and have gifts to be here. At the end of the day, we need to try and pull everybody else up to where we’re at. This is a great country that we live in and we need to take advantage of that.
“You’re always as strong as the weakest link and we understand that this community has been hit with some hard things. This flood has been awful. Maybe not as many people know about it, have checked on this community as much as needed be. We’re just going to make sure we do our part while we’re here.”