NEW ORLEANS -- It is a strange time to be honoring New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, what with his NFL franchise seemingly in disarray just two seasons removed from winning Super Bowl XLIV.
But a media selection committee has spoken and, at high noon Friday inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, it was announced that Benson, along with former running back Deuce McAlister, will be inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame during ceremonies in September.
In addition, Jim Henderson, the longtime play-by-play man on the Saints radio broadcasts and recent retiree at WWL-TV, has been named the 2012 winner of the Joe Gemelli "Fleur de Lis'' award. Too, a special legacy gallery at the hall museum has been established in the good name of former New Orleans Saint' special teams ace Steve Gleason, who continues his courageous battle against ALS, a.k.a. the Lou Gehrig disease.
All four are worthy recipients, though the timing of Benson's selection arguably comes during the most embarassing period in franchise history, surpassing even the 1-15 "baghead'' season of 1980 and those first few decades of utter futility.
Its endearing rags-to-riches story has been seriously compromised by a scandalous "pay-for-pain'' scheme now known 'round the sports world as Bounty Gate and turned the Saints into sinners in the court of public opinion.
Key members of Benson's football operations have been suspended -- the GM for eight games, head coach for one season and assistant head coach for six games, and the team's two top defensive players are currently fighting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in and out of court to prove their innocense and overturn their suspensions.
Benson, 84, has been cleared of any individual wrongdoing in the scandal, though the league has fined his team $500,000.
In addition, federal authorities and the Louisiana state police are looking into wiretapping allegations against GM Mickey Loomis, who reportedly eavesdropped on unsuspecting opponents in the Superdome from 2002 through 2004.
If that isn't enough drama in Who Dat Nation, quarterback Drew Brees remains unsigned, unhappy and unwilling to join his teammates for offseason workouts until he can strike a long-term deal with uncompromising team officials.
Unbelievable! Who'd have thought there would come a time in Saints history when one player would be worth more than $16.371 million in base salary for one season? Apparently that time has come.
Timing aside, Benson won support of the selection committee (of which I am a member) not because he successfully turned a $70 million investment in 1985 into a billion-dollar bonanza 27 years later. Not because he recently stepped to the plate and purchased the hometown NBA team for $338 million or given millions locally over the years in charitable donations.
He won approval from the selection committee because the Saints franchise has become a champion, a perennial contender and meant so much in the rebuilding of a city and region in the wake of a deadly and catastrophic hurricane. His team has restored hope to millions when there was none. It has provided a bonding agent for a population divided and dispersed to all corners of the country and world.
Simply, the Saints and a remodeled Superdome and Championship Square have made us whole again.
Yes, Benson fully intended to move his team to San Antonio in the months following Katrina. That has been well documented. But, he didn't. And yes, he reached the conclusion to return home with the help of others. But this is not the time, nor the place to dwell on the circumstances surrounding the team's season-long evacuation to Texas and subsequent return to New Orleans following the horrific season of 2005.
In my opinion, Benson lost his way during the weeks and months following Katrina. But he regained his senses through his faith and the collective assistance from NFL, state and business leaders and key members inside his organization.
Benson deserves this honor. He has done right by Who Dat Nation, the loyal, loud and damn proud fan base that now circles the globe. Under his watch, the team has reached historic heights, finally reaching the NFL summit on the night of Feb. 7, 2010, at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Forget the wide ranging Bounty scandal for a moment and Jon Vilma's defamation suit against the most powerful man in sports. Forget the wiretapping allegations against Loomis. Forget Brees' strained relationship with team officials. Forget it all and remember only the joy in mudville.
With wife Gayle by his side and his parasol open, owner Tom Benson is second lining into the Saints Hall of Fame, come hell or high water.
PREVIOUS HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES
1988—Archie Manning and Danny Abramowicz
1989—Tommy Myers and Tom Dempsey
1991—Tony Galbreath and Derland Moore
1992—George Rogers, Jake Kupp and John Hill
1994—Henry Childs and Jim Finks
1995—Doug Atkins and Bob Pollard
1996—Dave Whitsell and Dave Waymer
1997—Stan Brock and Rickey Jackson
1998—Dalton Hilliard and Sam Mills
1999—Bobby Hebert and Eric Martin
2000—Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson
2001—Jim Wilks and Hoby Brenner
2002—Jim Mora and Frank Warren
2003—Jim Dombrowski and Wayne Martin
2004—Rueben Mayes and Steve Sidwell
**2005—No induction due to Hurricane Katrina
PREVIOUS JOE GEMELLI FLEUR DE LIS AWARD RECIPIENTS
1990—Joe Gemelli (award later named for him)
2001—Peter “Champ” Clark
2005—NO INDUCTEES due to Hurricane Katrina
2007—New Orleans Saints Fans (Marcy Beter)
2010—Dan Simmons and Glennon “Silky” Powell
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