Lombardi Gras: New Orleans fetes champion Saints with parade

Only a Super Bowl victory parade could upstage Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Carnival floats carrying Saints players, coaches and owner Tom Benson rolled past tens of thousands of jubilant fans in downtown New Orleans on Tuesday, two days after the 43-year-old franchise won its first NFL championship.

Players, wearing team jerseys instead of traditional Carnival masks and costumes, tossed beads into the crowd and signed autographs for throngs of screaming fans. Benson shouted "Who Dat!" into a microphone from his perch atop a float. Coach Sean Payton blew kisses and held the Lombardi Trophy over his head.

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"Here's to the best Mardi Gras week in the history of this city," Payton said, raising a glass of champagne during a toast outside the city's historic Gallier Hall.

The parade, held one week before the city's signature Fat Tuesday celebration, started outside the Saints' home turf at the Louisiana Superdome. Black, gold and white confetti floated over the crowd, and a man wearing a Saints jacket held aloft a sign that read, "Happy Lombardi Gras!"

The floats stopped at a reviewing stand so elected officials, including Mayor Ray Nagin, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, could toast the Saints' 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

"How's the 'Who Dat' nation feel tonight?" quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees yelled when his float stopped at the reviewing stand. "This toast goes out to you. We love you and we won that championship for you."

Ten Carnival krewes lent floats for the team to ride. More than a dozen marching bands also joined the team on its route, which passed by the edge of the French Quarter and ended at the city's convention center.

Parade organizer Barry Kern told WWL First News that a city record of 800,000-plus people attended, but he would make a final estimate Wednesday after reviewing aerial footage.

Benson issued a statement Wednesday, thanking Kern, local and state officials, the krewes that supplied the floats, the marching bands who played along the route and the fans who hollered for their Saints.

"Just like winning the Super Bowl, this parade was a monumental event in our franchise's history," Benson said. "Celebrating with our fans and feeling the outpouring of their support and excitement made the victory even more special. I'm a native New Orleanian, and I know what parades mean to this community. I know last night is one we will all remember -- and it seems like everyone was there."

Many fans said Tuesday that the gathering seemed larger than any during Mardi Gras.

"This is wilder than Mardi Gras," said Frank V. Smith, 55, a lifelong New Orleans resident who shot photographs of players from the rear of a pickup truck. "I've never seen so many people out here like this. This is beautiful, man."

Shannon Cobb, 28, of Metairie, said the parade was a party with a purpose.

"Everybody is here for one reason: their love for the city and their love for the Saints and to show our appreciation for what they've done for us," she said.

The Super Bowl title, which capped just the ninth winning season in Saints history, was a stunning reversal of fortunes for a team once derided as the "Aints." Few players could appreciate that better than fan favorite Deuce McAllister, the retired all-time leading rusher who joined the team on the sidelines for the Super Bowl.

"It's been pretty crazy," McAllister said Tuesday. "Everywhere you go, you can see the pride in the fans."

Fans are grateful for more than just the team's on-field performance. Many members of "Who Dat" nation credit the Saints with uniting a city that has struggled with racial divisions and labored to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which left about 85 percent of the city underwater in August 2005.

"After the hurricane, people were more willing to come back when they realized the Saints were coming back," said Scott Catalanotto, 35, whose 7-year-old son sat on a ladder and yelled for beads.

In the French Quarter, thousands of people streamed toward the parade route, turning Bourbon Street into a river of black and gold.

Will Kaplan, 28, stood out in a billowing white toga with a gold-colored halo and the word "Breesus" on his back. His Jesus-inspired costume, he said, was made from sheets he had in a FEMA trailer that he stayed in after Hurricane Katrina on the University of New Orleans campus.

"I'm the spirit of the party," Kaplan said.

Enduring chilly, windy weather under overcast skies, fans started staking out spots along the parade route more than seven hours before the floats rolled.

Tim Thorn, a 35-year-old landscaper, drove in from Baton Rouge to be among the early birds. He said he gave his daughters, Cameron and Carson, the day off school because the event was too big to miss.

"It's probably the biggest party in the world," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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