NEW ORLEANS — It’s weird to be back here.
So many memories.
Much has happened since the last time we were here, since the night Adam Vinatieri converted the clock-beating field goal to beat the St. Louis Rams.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl at the Superdome in New Orleans on Feb. 3, 2002. It was in the first months after the 9/11 attacks and America was just getting back on its feet.
There was tremendous security for Super Bowl XXXVI. Paul McCartney entertained before the game and he was the “B” act. The big show at intermission was performed by U2, and the hair on your forearms stood up when when Bono sang “Where The Streets Have No Name” while names of 9/11 victims unfurled on the stage behind him.
The Patriots won. You probably remember Varitek splitting the uprights (right, Mr. Mayor?). It was the first time the Patriots ever won a Super Bowl, and it was the first time any Boston team won a championship since the 1986 Celtics beat the Houston Rockets (Houston, too close to New Orleans).
The Patriots were prohibitive underdogs, and John Madden told the country that Tom Brady should take a knee before young Tom drove his team into field goal range for the winning score. The victory inspired our first Duck Boat parade and triggered the High Renaissance of Boston sports.
We thought the Patriots were going to be back in the big game this year. It would have been great symmetry. All the story lines were in place: Eleven years to the day, Patriots return to rebuilt New Orleans for the first post-Katrina Super Bowl in the building that housed so many refugees when the storm struck in the summer of 2005.
It did not happen. Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin, and Bernard Pollard got in the way. So now we have the Harbaugh Bowl. We have the final devil dance of Ray Lewis. We have Colin Kaepernick breaking fingers with his fastball passes.
“This is another great opportunity to put New Orleans on the map after what happened,’’ Kaepernick said Tuesday.
With or without the Patriots, it’s eerie to be here for the first time since 2002. New Orleans is the site of the biblical storm that killed more than 1,800 people in August 2005. Hurricane Katrina exposed the worst engineering preparation in the history of our country. It almost wiped New Orleans off the map.
Now we are back for a Super Bowl.
Some of what was here is gone. Some places will never be back. There are still a lot of window frames plugged with plywood. Much of the Ninth Ward is gone, including the field where Marshall Faulk played high school football.
Walking around downtown New Orleans, I see the Hyatt hotel, which was once connected to the Dome.
It was my home for a week in 2002. Perhaps because of its windsail configuration, it was the downtown hotel hardest hit by Katrina. Beds flew out of the Hyatt on Aug. 29, 2005. It didn’t reopen until January 2011.
As I walk toward the media center at the New Orleans Convention Center, I remember watching CNN and seeing a body covered by a sheet on this same sidewalk that today fronts the entrance to Radio Row.
I walk into the Superdome (now the Mercedes-Benz Superdome), cross the end zone floor, and remember photographs of people on cots, and kids tossing a Nerf football in the middle of the suffering masses. I look toward the ceiling and wonder where the hole was — the hole that allowed a beam of sunlight to penetrate the darkness like a message from a higher power.
More than 20,000 evacuees took refuge in the building that on Sunday night will house America’s sporting festival of gluttony.
I walk through the lobby of my hotel on Poydras Street and remember that this is where the St. Louis Rams stayed before they were stunned by the Patriots in 2002. The Baltimore Ravens are in this same hotel this week. The 49ers are just a couple of blocks down Canal Street. Both Super Bowl teams are living in the middle of the party. The Giants did the same thing last year when they bunked a couple of blocks from the media center in downtown Indianapolis.
Bill Belichick would never allow this today. The Patriots generally find housing at some industrial park or nuclear-test site miles from the site of their upcoming game. The notion of the Patriots sharing living space with reporters is preposterous.
It was different 11 years ago. The Patriots stayed at the Fairmont Hotel on Baronne Street, just a Zoltan Mesko punt away from the French Quarter. The Fairmont closed for four years after Katrina, but reopened as the Roosevelt Hotel in 2009.
Hotels in New Orleans are not like hotels in Boston. The guest services book in the Ravens/Shaughnessy hotel dedicates one full page to hurricane safety.
Fortunately, this is not hurricane season, and I spend no time worrying about floods and high winds (though I do have an occasional nightmare in which I’m waiting for an elevator, the doors open, and I see a face-painted Ray Lewis standing inside).
It’s nice to be back in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. All Super Bowls should be played here. But after everything that happened, the whole thing still feels a little weird.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com.