From hero to villain, Roger Goodell returns to New Orleans as Super Bowl's conflicted character

NEW ORLEANS – In a few days the most hated man in New Orleans will arrive in town. As the NFL's commissioner, Roger Goodell serves as unofficial host for the league's championship week. He will attend meetings and banquets. A giant party will be thrown in his honor. A small fleet of cars will whisk him around the city. Usually a man in his role will be welcomed with warm applause. Except this time, New Orleans would rather he not come at all.

The anger is still raw. Almost everybody here believes Goodell ruined the Saints' season with his yearlong suspension of coach Sean Payton over the team's bounty program (which officially ended Tuesday). The most conspiratorial think he wanted to destroy the Saints. They simmer whenever they think of the eight-week suspension given general manager Mickey Loomis, the six weeks handed assistant coach Joe Vitt, the loss of a pick in this spring's draft and the shorter suspensions given four players. The rage for Goodell is everywhere.

"We were kind of joking that he is going to have to have a taste tester everywhere he goes to eat," said Bobby Hebert, the former Saints quarterback who is now the city's most popular sports radio host.

"He made the Saints a sacrificial lamb in his quest to gain credibility as a true proponent of player safety. Hopefully everyone saw through his farce," Saints fan Nathaniel Rogers said in a recent email.

These are the civil responses. Many, many more mirror the words of a Saints fan from the suburb of Metairie who begged anonymity when he said of Goodell's pending visit: "I hope this won't happen, but I think there will be arrests."

And yet there is another Roger Goodell story in New Orleans. It is not the one fans want to hear because nobody much in Louisiana wants to talk about the things Goodell did for the city. But in the months after Hurricane Katrina tore through the town and the flood came and the Saints left for San Antonio, it was Goodell who worked with local leaders on rebuilding the Superdome. It was Goodell who pushed to have the stadium ready in time for the Saints to return for the 2006 season. And it was Goodell, many say, who played almost as important a role as then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue in saving football in New Orleans.

Much of the credit for this goes to Tagliabue who worked hard against San Antonio politicians eager to snatch away the Saints. The former commissioner's popularity has only grown after he recently vacated the four player suspensions in a recent arbitration ruling. What is less discussed is how vital a role Goodell – as the league's chief operating officer from 2001-06 – played in getting the Saints back.

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"Roger has been such a good friend to New Orleans for many, many years," said Doug Thornton, who, as the manager of the Superdome, worked closely with Goodell to get the stadium rebuilt after Katrina. "Sometimes people aren't privy to the behind-the-scenes work and know what he has done for this city."

Goodell would not speak for this story. "He does not want to contribute to taking the focus off the game," said league spokesman Greg Aiello.

But others who do talk about Goodell, both on and off the record, paint a picture of a league executive who worked tirelessly as Tagliabue's anonymous No. 2 on several projects that helped football in New Orleans, including reopening the dome; working to keep the 2002 Super Bowl in the city after a schedule change following 9/11 threatened to have it moved; and helping to secure the city this current Super Bowl.

"Roger was a great friend of New Orleans as anyone can be, point blank," said one person with close knowledge of Goodell's Superdome work. "Roger could not have been a better friend of the Saints organization."

Or as Frank Vuono, a former NFL executive and founder of 16W Marketing who was retained by the league to run its office in New Orleans after Katrina, said recently with a sigh: "People have short memories. Can you imagine how hard it is for Roger to be objective about all that [hate] after all he had done to keep the team there?"

"Now [Goodell] is stepping into the Gaza Strip" – New Orleans broadcaster and talk show host Mike Detillier

"From Day 1, he was involved in all of the [post-Katrina] decisions," Tagliabue told Yahoo! Sports.

It was Oct. 30, 2005, and the commissioner needed someone to focus on New Orleans. The floodwaters had drained from the city, and Louisiana officials were finally able to look at the future after two months of crisis. Tagliabue and Goodell attended a series of meetings in Baton Rouge to assess the depth of destruction and see how soon the Saints could return. Already, the team's owner, Tom Benson, was having doubts about the New Orleans market, and Tagliabue felt he had to work on the politicians in Texas who were trying to keep the Saints in San Antonio permanently.

By day's end, Tagliabue knew the NFL needed the Superdome repaired quickly if it hoped to block the San Antonio push. The person he wanted in charge of this was Goodell.

"Roger was the quarterback who worked with Doug Thornton and executed the game plan," Tagliabue said in a recent telephone interview from his Washington office.

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In early December 2005, Tagliabue, Goodell and a group of league officials toured New Orleans. Their most critical stop was the Superdome, which had been stripped of its ruined field and all waterlogged seats, walls and electronics. They could see the sky through the holes in the roof. In a sense, it was an empty concrete shell. As Thornton walked them through the concourses, explaining the dome could maybe be repaired by 2007, he felt a sense of despair from many in the group.

Most everyone that is, but Goodell.

"I think we can put this place together!" he gushed.

Two days later, Goodell called Thornton.

"Is there any way to accelerate that schedule?" Goodell asked, saying he wanted the dome reopened for the start of the 2006 season.

The league was worried that if the dome wasn't finished and the Saints spent another year in San Antonio, a message would be sent to the business community that New Orleans had not recovered from Katrina. Tagliabue and Goodell were concerned about this impression, Thornton said. So Thornton met with architects. A few days later he called Goodell and told him he could have a partially repaired stadium ready by late September. It would have a field and stands but some seating sections might not be done and some suites would still need to be rebuilt.

"I don't give a damn," Thornton recalled Goodell saying. "You make it safe for the fans and give me turf, and we will play football."

Sitting now in his office, Thornton smiled and patted his chest above his heart.

"In here, I know with Roger, and Paul behind him, and the power of the NFL shield and the government and the city's backing, we would play football here again," he said. "I will say this: I am 1,000 percent convinced that if the league didn't come in when they did and challenge us to accelerate the schedule and then pave the way for the team to come back, the stadium would not have reopened and the Saints would have played again in Baton Rouge and San Antonio and the momentum would have been lost. After that, who knows?

"But when the decision was made to accelerate, Roger challenged us. He continued to play a key role."

Every few days, as he worked to get the stadium done, Thornton's phone buzzed with a text from Goodell.

"Don't give up, we're winning."

"How are things down there?"

"Keep up the good work."

Thornton paused for a moment. A winter rain splattered on the plaza outside his window.

"He was there to help New Orleans and the Superdome," Thornton said. "Roger paved the way for the Saints to come back."

"Go 2 Hell Goodell" – a fan's sign hanging over a railing outside Thornton's Superdome before this season's opening game.

For a moment it appeared as if Thornton was about to cry. His voice choked, his eyes moistened slightly. He understands the rage that fills Saints fans, but he also knows the man who worked to get the dome repaired. The fans' disdain for Goodell saddened him.

Thornton has a favorite Goodell story. He loves to tell it. In early 2006, Thornton desperately needed to get about $100 million from FEMA so construction could begin. Federal officials told him it would take 90 days for the money to be approved. The only problem: Thornton didn't have 90 days. The schedule was tight as it is. Without the FEMA money, construction would be stalled, the dome wouldn't be finished in time for the season and the tiny window to keep the Saints in New Orleans might be lost forever.

Desperate, Thornton called Goodell at home. It was a Sunday. Goodell said he would see what he could do to get the FEMA money. Ten days later, a FEMA official phoned Thornton.

"You got your money approved," the man said.

Thornton immediately contacted Goodell, who told the story of how he and Tagliabue went to Washington to visit with lawmakers and pressure FEMA officials to deliver the Superdome funds. Goodell told him he went to the highest levels of government to get the money.

"I put down good money for a product that was tarnished. It's like buying a car and the guy takes the engine out of the car before you leave the lot," – Saints season ticket holder Max Ortiz on going to games this season after the suspensions.

Then there is the matter of Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. A scheduling problem caused by Sept. 11 threatened to take the game from New Orleans. Since the league chose not to play the week after the attacks, the game had to be pushed back to early February. This was a problem for New Orleans because the game conflicted with the National Automobile Dealers Association – one of the city's biggest trade shows. Hotels were already booked, the convention center was rented out and plans had been made.

Moving the auto dealers was no simple task. Tagliabue assigned Goodell to work with the group and the city to find a resolution. The concern, Tagliabue explained, was that if Goodell could not reach a deal with the auto dealers, New Orleans would have to give up the Super Bowl, sending the game to New Jersey and then find a slot later in the rotation.

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Stephen Perry, who was the chief of staff to then-Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, remembered sitting on conference calls between Goodell and the auto dealers as they tried to reach a deal. What struck him was the determination of Goodell to keep the game in New Orleans, right to the point when the auto dealers agreed to switch to the previous weekend that had been vacated by the NFL.

"There was no way he was going to let it fall apart," said Perry, who is now the head of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Added Tagliabue: "I would say it's fair to think Roger was the one who got that deal done."

What they didn't know at the time was if the 2002 Super Bowl was moved, the next opening wouldn't be until 2007, just months after the mostly renovated Dome was reopened. The stadium would not have been in condition to host a Super Bowl. And even if it had been eventually moved to a later year when the final renovations could have been made, then the city probably would not have been in the mix for this year's game. Somewhere, New Orleans would have lost a Super Bowl.

"There's a lot the fans have lost sight of in the last year," Perry said.

"To alter a quote from James Harrison, ‘If Roger Goodell was on fire in New Orleans, I doubt you could even find someone willing to urinate on him to put the fire out' " – a recent email from a Saints fan.

On the September night when the Superdome reopened, Thornton spent the pregame and first half running around the stadium making sure everything worked. After halftime he took an elevator up to the suite where Goodell – who by then had become commissioner – was sitting with Tagliabue, Benson and former President George H.W. Bush. He wanted to spend a moment with the men who had worked hard to get the Saints back and the dome reopened. He slipped in the door and tapped Goodell on the back.

"Hey Rog," he said.

Goodell whipped around and embraced him.

"We did it!" the commissioner shouted.

This is what Thornton will forever remember, and it is why he hopes New Orleans will welcome Goodell with cheers next week. Though he also understands that probably won't happen. The rage is too strong, the resentment too deep.

"It bothers me," he said. "I don't want Roger to not be viewed by the community in a way that isn't positive. He was personally invested. He personally motivated me."

Over the phone, Tagliabue seemed to agree. When asked about his ruling that vacated the suspensions, he said he was not overruling his successor, but moving forward after "the process had been delayed because of [the Saints'] obstruction." He felt attention had to go in a different direction. "The sensible thing was to focus on player safety," he said.

Tagliabue paused.

"I think he has done a fantastic job of getting labor done and TV deals and attacking player safety," the former commissioner said of the new one. "You have to expect some individual team matters where you are not going to be viewed as popular."

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Then something occurred to him. It was a moment early in Payton's time with the Saints, back when the city was still wrecked from Katrina and the team was trying to rebuild along with the dome. He was taken by the young coach who had accepted an overwhelming task.

"He told me one of the reasons he took the job was because he had always been told that 'to achieve something you have to go climb the highest mountain,' " Tagliabue said.

Then the former commissioner, as beloved in New Orleans as Goodell is despised, gave a dry chuckle.

"One of the ironies is that [Payton] is the one involved in this," he said.

He sounded sad, as if something good had disappeared.

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