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Can a football team actually breathe life into a city? Well, New Orleans Saints fans say yes. For many, their team's long climb to the Super Bowl is symbolic of their city's long struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: This might help you understand just how big the Super Bowl is in the Big Easy: some of the city's finest restaurants are closing on Sunday evening. Oh, and on the first big weekend of Carnival, parades have been rescheduled around the game. The most prized throws will be black and gold, not purple.

Not only is it Mardi Gras, but voters here are choosing a mayor Saturday. Even candidate Mitch Landrieu is still reveling in that overtime field goal that sent the Saints to Miami.

Mr.�MITCH LANDRIEU (Mayoral Candidate, New Orleans): Everybody, without thinking about it, reached out and held their neighbors' hands and the entire stadium was holding hands at the time that that ball actually went through the uprights. It was just extraordinary. It was one of the greatest moments I've had in my life. It was cathartic.

(Soundbite of football game)

Mr.�JIM HENDERSON (Announcer): Pigs have flown. Hell has frozen over. The Saints are on their way to the Super Bowl.

ELLIOTT: That was the radio call from WWL's Jim Henderson. Fans here have been wandering in the football desert for more than 40 years. They donned paper bags for a while, but the Aints are no more. Now its a Who Dat nation.

Unidentified Man: You better put in a pan of (unintelligible).

ELLIOTT: Over lunch at the Cafe Reconcile this week - a training ground for inner city youth - diners contemplated what the Saints mean to the city.

Ms.�KATIE HALL: They have lifted our spirits.

ELLIOTT: Katie Hall is sharing a meal of crab cakes, collard greens and cornbread with her husband Joseph.

Mr.�JOSEPH HALL: New Orleans, of course, have gone through a lot, and I think the spirit of the Saints becoming winners indicate that we as a city can become a winner.

Ms.�HALL: Everybody now wants to get on that Who Dat bandwagon, but we been on the Who Dat bandwagon. We knew we had something. The names not the Saints for no reason.

ELLIOTT: One of those New Dats, as theyre called, is 18-year-old waitress Nyeshia Windsor.

Ms.�NYESHIA WINDSOR: Who Dat?

ELLIOTT: She's no football fan, she says, but thinks the Saints' success has been healing for a city often divided by race.

Ms.�WINDSOR: People dont care if youre black or white or Asian or whatever. Everybody come together 'cause they're happy about the Saints winning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�MIKE BOURG: It's awesome. It's awesome. Its bringing the city together more than anything has brought this city together in 20 years.

ELLIOTT: Forty-four-year-old Mike Bourg.

Mr.�BOURG: I just think it's a validation of hard work. I think it's a validation of not giving up. And I think the city has truly not given up.

ELLIOTT: The joy is contagious, from a pilot-led chorus of Who Dats on a flight bound for New Orleans, to the billboard on I-10 that counts down the days, hours and minutes till kickoff.

At a campaign event at the House of Blues this week, jazz pianist Allen Toussaint shared the spirit.

Mr.�ALLEN TOUSSAINT (Jazz Pianist): Who Dat? Who Dat? Thats what I say. This is the next biggest news since Katrina. So, what a transition.

ELLIOTT: Toussaint says this celebration is due.

Mr.�TOUSSAINT: It's, like, fitting and proper that we should have this moment because we've seen some weird days following the Saints, but through it all its been jolly and its been a party, and of course this one's the biggest party ever.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: From the Who Dat nation, Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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