On August 29, 2005, 23 years after Archie Manning played his last game with the Saints, the Superdome was filled with the forgotten residents of New Orleans. With nowhere else to go, the poor, the sick, the elderly and the dead spent days in the water-logged Dome, the symbol of a nation's failure to rescue its most vulnerable citizens from one of the deadliest natural disasters in its history.
Ten years later, on the decade anniversary of Katrina's landfall on New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a nonprofit called Evacuteer.org has asked residents of the Crescent City to write love letters to their home as part of a fundraising campaign to build evacuation rally points.
Here is Archie's letter:
Dear New Orleans,
My eyes were big when I first arrived. I was 22 years old, recently married, right out of college. My wife Olivia and I finished Ole Miss that spring. We married in January of 1971, and I was drafted by the New Orleans Saints a week later.
We didn't get to New Orleans until late August. I went to training camp with the Saints in Hattiesburg, but I was late to sign my contact. So it was late August, early September 1971 when we finally settled in an apartment in Metairie.
It took some time to see the city. I was so busy with football. Being from Mississippi, I had been to New Orleans four or five times before. I had played in the Sugar Bowl. I had come with friends on a college trip. But I'd never really seen the city.
It wasn't until our first off-season that we got to see a little bit of New Orleans. A lot of players scatter in the off-season, return to their home towns. We decided to stay. We went back to Mississippi, of course, and visited family, but we never picked up and moved back. We were young, newly married. We didn't have our first child until 1974. Those first two to three years here we got to see the city and meet a lot of people, unbelievably nice people, and it was fun! It was an incredible time in our lives. I'm not sure of too many cities I would have stayed during the off-season. We just loved it here.
We had our first child, Cooper, and bought our first home the same year, on 7th Street. We wanted to experience the Uptown neighborhood. We met a new set of neighbors, made new friends. John Mecom, the owner of the Saints at the time, lived in Houston, so he would send me to events he couldn't attend. I continued meeting interesting people. I was treated great, even though we weren't all that great as a team. Two years later, we had Peyton. But I still never had a long range plan to stay in New Orleans. I planned to stay until my football days were over, at which time we would presumably move home to Mississippi.
I was twelve years with the Saints when we bought our second home. We wanted more space, a yard for the boys. We moved to 1st Street. It was our commitment to New Orleans. I was traded to Houston three months later. But it didn't affect our decision to stay in New Orleans. We never considered moving. I was over there alone a lot. The family would come to visit, and I would slip home as often as I could. And then I was traded to Minnesota.
The first year I was by myself living in a hotel. My second year, we pulled the kids out of school and rented a house - just for the fall. That year was an adventure! Two boys in school and Eli was a baby. Olivia was home with him in a new place. That Thanksgiving it snowed 14 inches. We had ducks on our property. When it snowed, Olivia asked me, "where are the ducks?" I said, "they've gone south." She said, "so are we!" She packed up and took the kids back to New Orleans.
I retired the next year. The family had a Sunday night meeting, our weekly "Board Meetings," where we'd check-in and give updates about what was going on with all of us or what was coming up in the week. I told the kids I was retiring from football. I was going to start the next stage of my life. I asked my family, "Where does everybody want to live? It was unanimous from the four of them. They wanted to stay in New Orleans. I did, too.
It's hard to believe it's been ten years since Katrina. Most days it only feels like three or four. I've always been quick to leave for a hurricane. The first time was during football season. I sent Olivia home to Philadelphia, Mississippi. The proximity came in handy. We'd always board up and head to Mississippi. I did the same for Katrina.
People weren't concerned about the storm. I was broadcasting the Saints-Ravens pre-season game that Friday night. Olivia had gone to a wedding. I got home, was watching the news, and I told her, "I'm getting out of here in the morning." She said, "I don't know. No one was talking about it at the wedding, no one seems concerned." I said, "no, we're leaving." We went to her parents' house. We lost power. We couldn't watch the news, had to rely on radio.
The questions overwhelm your mind - what's going to happen to the city? We were getting various reports from friends from all over the country. My son, Cooper, and his wife, Ellen, had two young children, and Ellen was pregnant. They evacuated to Oxford. My other sons were of course outside the state, driving me crazy with questions. I had to tell them, "hey, y'all have televisions, we don't! You gotta tell us what's going on!"
The boys played that Friday and then they chartered a commercial airline with supplies and distributed those supplies to shelters in Baton Rouge. We told them they couldn't go to New Orleans, but they went. They wanted to check on our home. We were blessed that our house was spared.
We finally got in touch with friends scattered all across the country. So many stories. Everybody had stories. A lot of people had the same questions about how the city would come back. When the city finally got power, you could see what you lost, you could see how much work it would take it bring it all back.
We stayed in Oxford six months. I was ready to get back home. There were so many people in need. I wanted to offer support. We never once thought about staying permanently in Mississippi. I couldn't abandon New Orleans. I'd been here too long. People had been too good to me. I knew I couldn't leave this city. I still can't. And I don't intend to.
In 1985, they had a day for me at the Dome. They put my name and number on the Wall of Fame. I was the first to go up there. That was a special day. I think the people of this city know I would have loved to have ended my career here, with the Saints, in my home. I think they appreciate that. I'm now thirty years retired, and the people of this city continue to be good to me and my family. Maybe my sons have something to do with that. Even though two of my sons play for different NFL teams, their following here is incredible. This city has been so supportive of my entire family. It has been a joy. It has truly been a joy.