Sean Payton felt chills — and not the good kind.
Paired with a low-grade fever and body aches, the New Orleans Saints skipper likened his symptoms to influenza. Instead, on March 19, he became the first known person within NFL circles to test positive for the coronavirus.
Payton, 56, acknowledges he was one of the lucky ones. He never felt any of the respiratory symptoms that are commonly associated with COVID-19, and he didn’t require hospitalization.
When Payton received his results, there had been only 392 documented cases of COVID-19 in the state of Louisiana, and 249 in Orleans Parish. Less than six months later, the numbers painted a different picture altogether. As of Sept. 12, nearly 160,000 Louisianans have tested positive — including Saints owner Gayle Benson.
Benson didn’t need to be hospitalized with her bout in August either, but the 73-year-old did receive daily medical care for her undisclosed symptoms.
Payton and Benson’s cases of coronavirus bookended the most tumultuous offseason in NFL’s 101-year history. Between their respective diagnoses, time stood still and moved at warp speed all at once. March droned on for what felt like years, while July and August were over before Drew Brees could metaphorically finish licking his fingers.
Somehow, some way, after everything that’s happened in the U.S. — coronavirus-related and otherwise — since the spring, the Saints will be back on the field Sunday.
How did we get here? It’s a long story. Much like 2020 itself.
No fans in the stands, canceled offseason activities and preseason games, a reserve list for players who either test positive for a virus or c…
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Wednesday, March 11, 2020.
The NBA’s night began without a hitch, but one positive coronavirus test shut down the entire league in an instant, accelerating an incomprehensible domino effect across sports. The next day, March Madness went down. Then the next, pro day workouts.
The NFL halted travel for most employees, free agents and draft prospects March 12 and canceled its annual league meeting that had been set for late March. But the league operated as close to normal as possible outside of that. Free agency began as scheduled March 18 — just one day before Payton’s test result returned positive.
Two days later, free agency’s wild run continued, despite no in-person visits.
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady decided he wouldn’t spend his 21st season in New England. Instead, he signed with Tampa Bay — and he faces his new NFC South rival in the Saints on Sunday, his first game wearing those new colors.
Another big NFC South splash came four days after that: The Saints signed star safety Malcolm Jenkins, a veteran who had previously played in New Orleans before spending the past six years in Philadelphia. And by the end of April, the Saints found their No. 2 receiver in Emmanuel Sanders.
While navigating the free agency waters, the Saints and the rest of the NFL had the draft to prepare for — which went on without a hitch, stunningly, from April 23-25, despite grumblings from some front office executives who wanted more time to prepare. The prospects had to give up the allure of Las Vegas for their own living rooms, and they gave the public unfettered access into the the lives of players and coaches — effectively making the draft more personable.
The bizarre offseason continued for incoming rookies and free agents, because the league canceled rookie minicamps and OTAs as the threat of coronavirus continued.
“That was probably the longest I have gone without playing football since I was like 16, probably,” said Cesar Ruiz, the Saints’ first-round draft pick. “Just that big break from football was probably the biggest challenge I had going into this situation because of the pandemic.”
He might have seen it then, the way the next decade and a half would unfold, when Drew Brees first saw Sean Payton drawing up some offensive plays.
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As May turned into June, another public health crisis reached its boiling point with the killing of George Floyd.
George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. A bystander recorded the entire incident, uploading it to the internet for the world to see. In the video, Floyd can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” over and over again as he’s in anguish on the ground.
Floyd’s killing served as an immediate catalyst for worldwide protests, but the underlying emotion bubbling up at those demonstrations wasn’t because four police officers in Minnesota killed one man. It goes deeper than that.
Other shootings from the year began receiving attention — like how a 26-year-old Black woman named Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police on March 13 while in her home; and how a 25-year-old Black man named Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by two White men in Georgia while he was out for a jog.
But it didn’t start there, either.
The slavery of Africans on this land predates the country’s founding, and the “All men are created equal” portion of the Declaration of Independence didn’t pertain to Black or Brown people, because they were property, not people, in the eyes of the law.
The United States began reckoning with its past with Reconstruction, but that period of progress was short-lived, giving way to Jim Crow laws to set forth yet another, seemingly never-ending, period of terror and disenfranchisement for Black Americans.
The Tulsa race massacre in 1921. The lynching of Emmitt Till in 1955. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. The assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and Fred Hampton in 1969. The beating of Rodney King in 1991. The shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016.
“Emotionally, we are drained,” Sanders said. “We’re drained of talking about it. We’re drained of it happening over and over again. We’re drained of trying to make a change, but change is not coming.”
That exhaustion of hearing silence from those in positions of power reached a breaking point in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
Saints receiver Michael Thomas helped organize, with the assistance of a “rogue” NFL social media staffer, a video that included many of the league’s star Black athletes to call on the NFL to publicly condemn racism, acknowledge it was wrong for not listening to players’ concerns dating back to 2016 and for the NFL to say that Black lives matter.
“A message on behalf of the nfl” pic.twitter.com/iilDpnZfyV
— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) June 5, 2020
Goodell responded the next day in a way the league had never done before, reading off most of what the players asked him to say.
He apologized for the league’s response to protests in 2016 but made no mention of the man behind those protests, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier … We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 5, 2020
In 2016, Kaepernick chose not to stand for the national anthem during a preseason game, silently protesting what continued to be an unrelenting period of police brutality against Black men.
Sterling was killed by Baton Rouge police on July 5. On July 6, Philando Castile was killed by police in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. On July 18, Charles Kinsey was shot by police in North Miami. And on July 27, the charges against the police officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore back in 2015 were dropped.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the NFL Network’s Steve Wyche at the time. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Immense backlash followed.
Despite Kaepernick stating the reasoning for his protest, misinformation about his protest was perceived as fact — perpetuating that Kaepernick was protesting the anthem, rather than using the anthem as a vessel to protest.
Four years later, Kaepernick remains a free agent after going unsigned after the 2016 season, and the NFL is now putting its money where its mouth is, pledging to donate $250 million over 10 years to criminal justice and education reforms. The league, beginning with the 2020 season, is also going to be more tolerant of protests and will have “End Racism” and “It Takes All Of Us” in the end zones at NFL stadiums, and will allow players and coaches to have pre-approved slogans or victim names on their helmets/lapels this season.
The Saints and the Pelicans, back in June, announced the creation of the Social Justice Leadership Coalition — a task force where athletes can use their voices to create lasting change within the New Orleans and greater Louisiana communities.
Some changes, in fact, are still coming — as evidenced by how the Saints pledged on Thursday to spotlight the intersectional struggles of racism and sexism Black women face, noting that Breonna Taylor’s case is the genesis for their project.
“Some of the most powerful people in the black community are the black women, grandmothers, mothers, whatnot, like they’re literally the backbone of the community,” offensive lineman Terron Armstead said. “And so for them to be left out in the conversation, it’s an extra responsibility on us as black men to bring their voices and their lives to the forefront.”
But progress didn’t come without controversy.
Between the creation of the Saints’ social justice coalition and the creation of the star players’ “A message on behalf of the NFL” video, quarterback Drew Brees set off a firestorm with comments he made pertaining to protests that occur during the national anthem.
Brees, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, said he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country,” holding to his belief from 2016 in response to Kaepernick that kneeling during the national anthem is not a suitable form of protest, serving as disrespect to the American flag and to the United States.
After nearly a dozen of his teammates joined in with the outpouring of public condemnation of his opinion, Brees apologized, which frustrated those who supported him — including President Donald Trump, who took to Twitter to say Brees never should have cowered to the court of public opinion.
The Saints had a previously scheduled team meeting the next day, but the topic of conversation remained on Brees and having an emotional yet needed conversation on race. Members of the Saints organization have remained tight-lipped about that meeting, but Shaquille O’Neal, who was invited to that meeting before the controversy, said the response from Brees’ teammates was essentially, “do more positive things and less talking.”
So far, he’s done that.
He and his wife, Brittany, committed $5 million to build community health centers throughout Louisiana, with the first to be built in New Orleans East later this year. The Breeses were presenting sponsors for the Black College Football Hall of Fame’s “The Road to Equality” event in July. And Brees was involved with the team’s creation of the Saints’ season-long series focused on Black women.
“The dialogue that he and I had to have publicly, but also privately, I think was important for the country to do and important for us to do,” Jenkins said. “And I think that even moving past that moment, it’s going to be ongoing, but as far as a friendship and the willingness for both of us to engage in that dialogue has been cooperative and been encouraging.”
Luke McCown can tell the story now, about the Monday after the New Orleans Saints’ 2016 season ended, when he and his buddy Drew Brees were wo…
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Meanwhile, amid all this change, the Saints and all 31 other NFL teams were against the clock to report for training camp.
Fresh off new collective bargaining agreement discussions, the NFL and the players’ association were back in negotiations pertaining to player safety. Some teams’ rookies and injured players reported to camp on the first day possible, without resolution between the league and the PA, but the Saints had their players in a holding pattern.
The NFL and the NFLPA came to an agreement coronavirus-related financial issues, the last agenda item to be worked out, on July 24— and the Saints onboarded their rookies for testing July 27, with veterans reporting July 28.
But this wasn’t a normal training camp. In typical years, players hit the ground running, practicing in shells for the first few days before the pads come on, maximizing time before the first preseason game.
This go-round, all four preseason games were canceled, and the Saints didn’t practice in full pads until Aug. 17: Twenty days after veterans reported for testing.
Through that testing process, only four Saints players returned positive results, with three of those being false positives, sources said. Testing numbers for staffers and others affiliated with the Saints are not made public to the media, but there was at least one confirmed positive with Benson’s COVID-19 diagnosis.
The minimal number of COVID-19 cases was a pleasant surprise, Payton said, but has stressed to the team not to let their guard down.
“We came away from the preseason with one positive COVID test,” Payton said. “I think around the league, teams have felt encouraged. And yet, the first thing I mentioned in our meeting today was don’t fall asleep to it. Because I think all of us can adjust to one person or one coach gone — We have over the years. What’s always the concern is that a group of eight or nine, that can really impact the game.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Saints already had one the deepest, most talented rostersin the NFL. Then they added a few more key pieces. Here’s a position-by-position look:
And that leads us to now, Week 1.
After months of no sports, having athletic activity back on TV gives a semblance of normalcy’s resumption. Though, if one looks past the field’s boundary lines, having no fans in the Superdome shows how far we still have yet to go.
But the eye, even now, remains on February, a point silently made yet again on Friday when Armstead and Davis shared the team’s season-long social justice plan.
As the two talked about the importance of uplifting Black women, the Lombardi Trophy from the Saints’ lone Super Bowl win sat between them.
In the moment, Armstead said reporters could read into it however they liked. But his message from a few weeks prior clearly illustrated his point.
“It’s Super Bowl or bust,” he said. “If we don’t get to the big dance, it’s a failure of a season.”
“Hallelujah!” and “Amen!”
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome always reaches fever pitch after the Who Dat chant.