Saints staff grateful for Benson’s belief in them

It was two of the most intriguing weeks in recent Saints history, and it had nothing to do with football.

Saints owner Tom Benson was laid to rest last Friday, but not before a three-day celebration of his life.

The Who’s Who of national sports figures came to pay their respects, but it was the people who knew Benson best who shined.

His widow, Gayle, stood in line for countless hours, greeting thousands of well-wishers. One gentleman, who said he was battling cancer, said he came to pay his respects because the Bensons had given generously to the facility that would provide him treatment.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, promoted to his current role by Tom Benson in 2002, got emotional when speaking to reporters about his boss.

“The lives of me and my entire family have changed forever,” Loomis said. “He believed in me and believed in me in times when things weren’t going well. I couldn’t begin to describe how much this man has meant to myself, my family and, really, future generations of my family.”

Outside of St. Louis Cathedral, as Benson’s body was loaded into a carriage, hundreds lined up along the barricades.

They cheered, they shouted “Who Dat!” As the second line moved down Chartres Street, Benson’s extended family sent him off in the proper fashion.

One week earlier, Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief announced his retirement. Strief acknowledged the rare opportunity he had been given. He had played all 12 of his seasons, with one team, a privilege not afforded to many.

Strief thanked the training staff. He thanked the equipment staff. “I have appreciated the 5,000 pair of socks and 10,000 pairs of gloves you have passed to me, without ever questioning what I did with the first 9,000 pairs,” he said.

His praise of head coach Sean Payton was effusive.

“You took a chance on me when no one else would; your faith in me has changed my life forever,” said Strief.

Strief thanked his wife Charlotte, saying that since he had met her, he had played his best football.

And, then he paid quarterback Drew Brees the ultimate compliment. “My greatest drive as a player was not to let you down … You are the greatest leader I have been around,” he said. “I admire you so much as a player, but more so as a person.”

Brees cried. He was not alone.

Strief said Saints fans were the “greatest in sports.”

“Not the largest in number, but the greatest in passion,” he said.

As a reporter stood outside St. Louis Cathedral last Friday, he viewed visitors trying to comprehend what they were watching. A man had passed, yet there were total strangers dancing in the streets and playing music.

For the visitors, it was a chance to glimpse into a window of what makes this place, and its NFL franchise, unique.

Ed Daniels is sports director of ABC26 WGNO. He can be reached at edaniels@clarionherald.org.

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