Among the Saints

Kyle Riviere
Tom Benson celebrates the Saints' Super Bowl victory. Photo courtesy of the Sun Times.

Tom Benson is gone, but thanks to him, the Saints and the Pelicans are still alive and thriving.

They’re still part of the fabric of New Orleans. In fact, they are New Orleans. They are Louisiana. And so is Benson.

Benson, a native son of New Orleans, was the prototypical rags to riches story. He grew up to the humble beginnings of the Seventh Ward and scratched and clawed his way into becoming a self-made billionaire.

But the reason why he was so beloved in Louisiana was his unwavering love for his home state and all the people that make it what it is.

No matter how rich he became, no matter how much prestige he gained, he never forgot where he came from. And no one could ever forget him.

The former car salesman charmed everyone he met. His famed “Benson Boogie” dance he broke out on the Saints’ sideline after wins elicited countless smiles, and when there was someone in need, he was always quick to share his charity.

What a great journey it was for Benson.

In 1985, he became the owner of the Saints. The franchise desperately needed a facelift after nearly 20 seasons of losing.

The Saints were the epitome of failure. It was the worst organization in the league, a laughing stock. And they were on the verge of moving to Jacksonville, Fla.

Benson swooped in and saved them from relocation, and in turn, he instantly revitalized the franchise.

His first hires as owner were head coach Jim Mora and General Manager Jim Finks.

Those two joined forces to put together a team that went 12-3 in 1987 and earned the Saints’ first-ever playoff appearance.

During this era, the “Dome Patrol” emerged. It was one of the greatest linebacking corps in NFL history, containing the likes of Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson.

The Saints made the playoffs four times under Mora.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Benson. He did have a big swing and miss with hiring Mike Ditka as the head coach, and allowing Ditka to trade all of his 1999 draft picks for Ricky Williams. That set the franchise way back.

But Benson redeemed himself with the hire of Jim Haslett—who led the team back to the playoffs in 2000. There, they beat the Rams in a thriller to capture the Saints their first playoff victory in franchise history.

Who can forget Benson second-lining on the field after the game with his umbrella, strutting around like it was Mardi Gras?

Then there was Hurricane Katrina.

Not only did Benson do his part to help rebuild New Orleans, but he once again saved the franchise from relocation.

After so much devastation and such turmoil with the team being forced to play in San Antonio and Baton Rouge, it would have been easy to sell to the highest bidder, but Benson refused to do that to New Orleans.

Instead, he hired the man that would become the greatest coach in the franchise’s history. He took a chance on a quarterback everyone else gave up on and marked as damaged goods.

Four years later, Sean Payton and Drew Brees won New Orleans its first Super Bowl.

The image of Benson hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after the game has now been immortalized with a 10-foot statue outside the Superdome.

In addition to keeping football in town, Benson ensured the survival of basketball as well. In 2012, he purchased the Hornets franchise from the NBA—eventually changing the name to the Pelicans.

But Benson’s impact has far exceeded just sports. He has always been quick to share his generosity.

He donated $5 million to Team Gleason, the foundation of former Saint Steve Gleason, who has battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis since 2011.

Recently, Benson donated $25,000 to help pay for Saints superfan Jarrius Robertson’s medical expenses that have come as a result of a chronic liver disease.

Two of the greatest attributes of Louisiana are its sports and its people. Benson represented the best of both. He will be sorely missed.

Now if only the Saints can win another Super Bowl for him, come February of 2019. The Benson Boogie must live on.