MIAMI (AP) — Marshall Faulk ran as far as he could from the dead-end Desire Projects. He bolted the New Orleans streets to play college ball in San Diego, then blossomed into an NFL star with the Indianapolis Colts.
Forced to pick sides in this Super Bowl, it was easy. Faulk rooted for his roots.
From President Barack Obama to a Queen, from Mr. Big to Miss America, the retired All-Pro had lots of company. For one game, the Saints are America's Team.
"This is very important to the city," Faulk said. "For the last five, maybe 10 years, whether it's Katrina, or the crime rate, the city's always in a bad light. Now ... you're getting to see some of the great things that we have to offer."
French Quarter hotels and restaurants filled up as Sunday's game between the Colts and Saints approached, with fans streaming into Louisiana hoping to begin celebrating a week ahead of Mardi Gras.
Almost 4½ years after flooding from Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and nearly chased them out of town for good, the Saints' bid to win their first Super Bowl came to represent the city's resurgence.
"There's a reason America is pulling for New Orleans, and why wouldn't they? They've been through a lot," Colts safety Antoine Bethea said recently. "Sports tends to pull people together, so it's commendable for New Orleans to be, as I guess you'd say, America's Team right now."
Who Dat! That's the shortened version of the team's rally cry: "Who dat, who dat, who dat say gonna beat dem Saints."
Egged on by New Orleans players, Saints fans started that loud, familiar chant inside Sun Life Stadium an hour before kickoff. Adorned in black-and-gold beads, toting parasols in team colors and stirred by a brass band, they paraded outside. Clearly, they needed no prompting to start the party.
Perhaps the Saints' biggest fan — literally — is the NBA's Shaquille O'Neal, the 7-foot-plus Cleveland Cavaliers center who got his start at LSU.
"It's good for the city, the economy and the organization. When I went to school, they had, like, a 99-year curse and hopefully that curse is over," O'Neal said. "They haven't won it at all. They haven't always had bad seasons but they've always had, like, one play — a missed field goal or a fumble or somebody getting hurt — and now this is their chance."
The Saints have managed only nine winning seasons in their 43-year history, with blooper tapes often replacing highlight reels. Try as they might, their fleur-de-lis logo often stood for losing.
But the emblem took on a different meaning this week in South Florida. It came to symbolize the Saints' spiritual connection to New Orleans — and hope for a city that once had little.
The Superdome, which hosts the 2013 Super Bowl, was an even more tangible example of the town's renaissance.
In the days after Katrina, the stadium became a place of last resort, with perhaps 30,000 helpless, homeless people trapped inside without plumbing or power. When the Saints beat Brett Favre and Minnesota in overtime for the NFC championship, the dome was packed again — this time with jubilant fans toasting their heroes.
Obama found himself drifting in their direction, even though the Colts were still five-point favorites.
"I do have a soft spot in my heart for New Orleans, mainly because of what the city's gone through over these last several years and I just know how much that team means to them," he said during a pregame interview broadcast by CBS.
Made sense to Queen Latifah, who sang "America the Beautiful" before the game. She's worked and lived in New Orleans.
"It would be kind of fun, it'd be almost a Cinderella story to see the Saints come through against someone who's as strong and dominant and skillful as Peyton Manning and the Colts," she said.
Ah, Manning. He's a four-time Most Valuable Player and was MVP of the Colts' Super Bowl win three years ago. He's also from New Orleans, where Drew Brees is now the star quarterback.
"It's a special place to me. My family lives there," Manning said. "What Drew, and really the entire Saints team have meant to that community has been extremely impressive. Being a fellow New Orleanian, I certainly appreciate it."
The Manning vs. Brees matchup attracted a lot of pregame attention. Comedian Chris Rock liked the Saints because of their QB.
"Just for a practical reason, not a sentimental one," Rock said. "Drew Brees has been as good as Peyton Manning the last two years."
Even Miss America Likes the Saints.
Caressa Cameron of Virginia is normally a Dallas fan, but not on Super Bowl Sunday.
"The Saints can take the title of America's Team from the Cowboys, for one game only," she said. "It'd be such an emotional lift if they won."
That kind of thinking likely figured into the action at Las Vegas casinos.
"A lot of males and females who haven't bet on a game all year, or maybe ever in their lives, are going put down a little money because they want to have some action on the big game," Wynn hotel sports book director John Avello said. "A lot of those people are going to pick a team because of factors other than football. And many of them are going to go with the Saints because of what that city has been through."
New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita left the Cowboys after the 2005 season and signed with the Saints seven months after Katrina.
"The Saints are America's adopted team. There's no question about it," he said. "When I chose to leave Dallas, everybody said, 'Why would you leave Dallas? They're America's team.'
"Well, they were self-proclaimed America's Team a couple decades ago, and they have really, really good, loyal fans, but the rest of the country hates them. I mean, let's be honest," he said. "So New Orleans, yeah, you've got people all over the country who are pulling for us for so many reasons and really, really valid reasons."
Echoed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell: "It's a great success story for us, and while I can't root for a team, I'm really proud of what happened there and I'm thrilled for the people of the Gulf Coast."
"I don't think that can be stated enough," Saints safety Darren Sharper said. "It's just a close tie between the city and the team. Everyone says, 'Are you guys playing for the community? Are you guys playing for New Orleans?' We think that we are."
Even the halftime show act had something to say — Go ahead and add The Who to Who Dat Nation.
"I'm not a partisan here," British-born Roger Daltrey said, a few days before attending his first NFL game. "But I have to root for one. I just think New Orleans deserves a little bit of luck."
AP Sports Writers Brett Martel, Tom Withers and Michael Marot contributed to this report.