Michael Koenen stood tall as he surveyed the punt protection on the line of scrimmage. His posture was upright with his chest puffed out like a gymnast preparing to enter their routine. Boone Stutz was the rookie long snapper for Atlanta. Gleason prowled the line of scrimmage waiting.
The ball was snapped, and the players scattered like cockroaches fleeing from the light. Punt protection dictates a man be in position to counteract any movement by the opposing team so that they may stifle any attempt to get the punt off. If they can fend them off for just a few seconds, then they’ll have done their job.
However, on that day, it was not enough.
Out from behind the mass of bodies emerged Gleason, sprinting through a gaping hole, left unaccounted for by the Falcons punt team. Perhaps he was unaccounted for because of his small size.
There is a popular adage that time stands still during moments like these, but for those who witnessed it, everything happened in fluid, visceral motions. Gleason had taken the path of least resistance directly to Koenen, who had already begun his motion a second after he had corralled the snap from Stutz. Before he could react, Gleason was upon him.
In an instant, Gleason had broken through the line and dove at the ball. With a thunderous swat he knocked the ball backwards as it dribbled towards the end zone, where it was swallowed and recovered by Curtis Deloatch.
The emotions of the day had risen to an early crescendo. In a wave of happiness, relief, satisfaction and joy all at once, the Who Dat’s cheered. If people had not hugged and cried during the pre-game, they were certainly doing it now.
New Orleans locals may have seen historic moments of other teams occur in the Superdome. They’ve even seen a field goal that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl after decades of suffering. Everyone who was there for the Gleason game swears: that was the loudest moment the Superdome had ever seen. Fox Sports had to crank the microphones capturing natural sound way down for fear of audio clipping.
Many people trace the rise of the Saints as one of the powerhouse teams in the NFL over the last decade or so to this moment. Payton, Brees and company had been on board for the last few months, but this was a chance for the world to see that not only the region, but also the football team, was back.
This was the comeback personified. Of a city, and of a team: New Orleans had proclaimed their return with thunder.
The play didn’t clinch or send anyone to a championship, it didn’t solidify him as one of the all-time greatest players in the history of pro football. It’s not even particularly an incredible athletic accomplishment as he came through unblocked.
And yet it is still one of the greatest moments in the history of sports. It’s because it meant so much more than putting a number on the scoreboard. It put a city on the map, and made almost 70,000 people move to tears. It made them happy to be alive.
Championships are sports nirvana. They’re the reason these teams play, and there is no higher goal on the list of each and every athlete. But for fans, so much of winning is the in-between moments. In football, when your team wins, you can typically ride that all throughout the week. “My Saints are looking pretty good!“. What Gleason did made people endlessly happy, as well they could keep returning to remind themselves of how far they have come, what they’ve conquered, and how good things can be.
For a team that has stricken fans with nervous stomachs for decades, the Superdome was bedlam. Fans would often wonder how the Saints could POSSIBLY blow yet another halftime lead. And the Saints rarely did not hold up their end of the bargain.
But that night was different. The Saints pummeled the Falcons into submission in front of a New Orleans crowd for the first time in a year, and for the first time with Sean Payton and Drew Brees at the controls. Devery Henderson, the author of the Bluegrass Miracle for LSU, scored on an electrifying trick play. As if Saints fans needed even more of a reason to go wild. On the play, Drew Brees threw a great block by barreling into Atlanta safety Chris Crocker, introducing himself to a New Orleans crowd as one of the greatest competitors in all of sports, despite his size.
The Saints made life miserable for Michael Vick, sacking him five times and holding the Falcons to just 3 points all night. For the first time in a very long time, Saints fans were confident. The high-flying Falcons offense was held to 3 points all night, as the Saints went on to win 23-3.
It could have been the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf, the Seahawks of recent years; it did not matter.
Even if it was for one night, Saints fans knew: They couldn’t lose.
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