Steve Gleason’s play remains a pivotal moment in Saints history
“It was a big double-thud, and then the crowd just went crazy, It was one of the loudest times I’ve ever heard the Dome.” Roman Harper
Wide-eyed rookie Roman Harper was soaking in the opening minutes of his first “Monday Night Football” experience Sept. 25, 2006, when he watched one of the signature moments in New Orleans Saints history unfold.
After helping the defense force a three-and-out on the Atlanta Falcons’ first possession, Harper, the Saints’ starting strong safety, wasn’t on the field when the Falcons’ Michael Koenen dropped back to punt.
But Harper was standing on the sideline, close enough to the action to hear the distinct sound that kickers, punters and special teams coaches never want to hear.
Thud … thud.
That was followed by bedlam as more than 70,000 Saints fans in a refurbished Superdome went nuts after special teams ace Steve Gleason charged untouched through a gaping hole and blocked Koenen’s punt as it came off his foot at the Falcons’ 19.
The ball tumbled toward the Falcons’ goal line for what seemed like minutes before cornerback Curtis Deloatch tracked it down near the 1-yard line. After carefully corralling it, he fell into the end zone for a touchdown just 90 seconds into the game.
Deloatch punctuated the lightning-quick score with a reverse dunk over the goal post’s crossbar that set the tone for a 23-3 win in the Saints’ first game in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina.
Nearly seven years later, Harper said he vividly remembers the sound — even above the din of an emotionally charged crowd on hand to welcome the Saints and the world back to a Superdome ravaged 13 months earlier by Katrina.
“It was a big double-thud, and then the crowd just went crazy,” he recalled. “It was one of the loudest times I’ve ever heard the Dome.”
That’s saying a lot since the Saints, just three years later, beat the Minnesota Vikings in the same building in the 2009 NFC title game, a win that sent them to Super Bowl XLIV.
“I saw it happening that night,” Harper said as his eyes grew wider. “I’ve seen a lot of punt-blocks (calls) put on by coaches, but (a block) doesn’t always happen. All of a sudden, that one happened.”
‘Touchdown, Ne-w-w-w Or-leans!’
Harper wasn’t nearly as close to the ball as Gleason, who blocked four kicks during his seven-year NFL career, or Koenen, who was just starting his second season — or even Deloatch.
As if the enormity of the game and easy victory over their longtime division rivals weren’t enough, the events of that evening were forever sealed in Saints lore by a gala pregame celebration and Gleason’s heroics.
It has become even more special the past couple of years with the revelation by Gleason that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — an insidious, incurable disease that has devastated his once-chiseled frame. But on that magical night, the 5-foot-11, 212-pound dynamo provided the spark that made him more than a role player in the fans’ eyes.
The call of the blocked punt by ESPN “Monday Night Football” play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico isn’t as famous as some in sports broadcasting history, but he said it’s still a favorite topic everywhere he goes.
Tirico’s voice came in loud and clear that night as he described what he calls one of the most memorable moments of his 22-year ESPN career:
“Look out! Right through! Kick block by Steve Gleason! It is scooped and scored by Curtis Deloatch! Touchdown … Ne-w-w-w-w Or-leans!”
It was followed by 35 seconds of silence from Tirico and broadcast partners Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser while ESPN microphones and cameras focused on the celebration on the field and in the stands.
There was a reason for that.
“No words from the most revered wordsmith walking the planet could have equaled the message of the cheers of that crowd,” Tirco said before pausing. “Not even close.”
Tirico made sure Theismann and Kornheiser were with him as he quickly threw up a symbolic “stop sign” to the men seated beside him.
“As an announcer, you rarely try to control the moment,” Tirico said. “But that moment needed nothing else. I got lucky and was able to identify both Gleason and Deloatch right away, and that’s sometimes hard to do on a blocked punt. After that, I immediately got out of the way.”
Scoop and score
Thanks to a hamstring injury, Deloatch played in just seven games in 2006 in what would be his only season with the Saints.
But in one of those games, he became linked with Gleason forever for being in the right place at the right time.
Deloatch, who was on the field for the third-down play that forced the punt, said he was standing near former special teams coordinator John Bonamego when Bonamego noticed they had just 10 players on the field and motioned him to go in.
“I ran in there and one of the guys said, ‘Get down here and get a rush in and try to block it,’ ” said Deloatch, who lined up second from left on the eight-man front.
“I started running in, and then I heard a loud thump and the crowd.”
What happened next was the crowning moment of his 45-game NFL career. The ball started bouncing around in front of him, and all he had to do was pick it up to score the only touchdown of his four-year career.
“I saw the ball right in front of me, and the only thing I could think of was, ‘Don’t miss the ball,’ ” Deloatch said with a laugh.
He didn’t miss. He wrapped his arms around it and simultaneously fell into the end zone with several teammates around him, then picked himself up off the turf and headed to the goal post.
“That (dunk) was a spontaneous thing,” he said. “I had so much adrenalin running through me that I didn’t know whether to run or jump.
“Wow! What a way to score the only touchdown of your career.”
Setting it up
It was Bonamego who convinced coach Sean Payton, who has been known to take a gamble or two — see: “Ambush” in Super Bowl XLIV — to go for the block.
“We knew it was a scheme we wanted to run, and we wanted to show it early,” said special teams coordinator Greg McMahon, then Bonamego’s assistant. “Coach (Payton) is aggressive; he’s got that mentality.”
McMahon said the block came off a common scheme used by most NFL teams in which four defenders line up on either side of the long snapper.
Saints running back Aaron Stecker was lined up to the left of Gleason and, when Falcons long snapper Boone Stutz got the ball away, Stutz drifted to his left and was hip-checked by Stecker.
That, McMahon said, allowed Gleason to twist around behind Stecker and get a free run up the middle. McMahon explained that if Stutz had turned to his right to pick up Gleason, Stecker would have been free to go for the block.
“It was such an emotional night, and to do that right out of the chute was like, ‘Wow. That’s pretty awesome,’ ” McMahon said. “Then, to have what has happened with Steve … it’s all kind of surreal to be honest with you.”
Saints wide receiver Lance Moore, who was standing 50 yards downfield waiting for a punt that never came, said he had a perfect view as the momentum-swinging play unfolded.
“I could see it open up perfectly because I’m looking right down the center of the field,” a smiling Moore said. “It opened up. It parted like the Red Sea, and Steve got in there and made a great play. It couldn’t have happened any more perfectly.”
Deloatch was among those on hand in August 2012, when the Saints unveiled the “Rebirth” statue outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome commemorating the stadium’s reopening and Gleason’s spectacular play.
Commissioned by Saints owner Tom Benson, the larger-than-life bronze tandem statue features Gleason laying out to block Koenen’s kick.
Deloatch also participated in a flag football game featuring former Saints teammates and other former NFL stars held the week of Super Bowl XLVII to benefit Team Gleason.
“Whenever somebody calls and tells me something is going on with Steve, I come down,” said Deloatch, who is retired from football and now lives in North Carolina. “Without him, nobody would know who Curtis Deloatch is.”
It made Koenen, who met Gleason after his illness was made public in 2011, famous as well.
On the day the statue was unveiled, the punter tweeted: “Awesome day for an inspirational man…God bless you in your fight partner!!. Half of me likes your statue.”
The last word of the tweet was followed by a smiley face emoticon.
“That was the loudest play I’ve ever been a part of; it was crazy,” said Koenen, who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “The environment that night was electric. The guy flew right in and blocked it, and they scored. The Saints kind of took control after that.”
‘Hope and joy’
When the statue was dedicated, Gleason said he didn’t want it to be just about him and a play that will be remembered for years to come.
“To have a statue of you up 100 years from now at the Superdome, I think that’s amazing,” he said then. “But I just don’t want this to be about me and a play.
“I want it to be about what the play symbolized, which was a commitment by this community to rebuild. This statue is about coming through adversity. It’s about finding your heroes.
“It’s about commitment and a rebirth for all.”
Which is why Tirico said he measured his words carefully when Deloatch scored.
“I made sure to say, ‘Touchdown, New Orleans’ — and not, ‘Touchdown, Saints,’ ” he noted. “That was a score for the city and the fans.”
ESPN’s Suzy Kolber, who was the sideline reporter stationed on the Saints’ side of the field when the punt was blocked, agreed.
“What I recall of that night is ingrained in my brain and my memory forever,” said Kolber, who’ll be in the Superdome on Sunday for ESPN’s “NFL Countdown” show. “The emotion at the time was a feeling of hope and joy.
“It wasn’t just a possibility anymore — it was a reality.”