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New Orleans Saints Ready For Long-Way-From-Home Opener

Jambalaya and pulled pork was served in the parking lot, New Orleans (search) wore its home black jerseys and giant white letters in one end zone read "SAINTS."

But the NFL's only homeless team was more than 1,000 miles from its flood-devastated city for this hastily arranged Monday night matchup, and when wide receiver Joe Horn (search) caught the Saints' first touchdown, the crowd fell mostly silent.

Cheers were saved for the "visiting" New York Giants (search). The Big Easy, the Meadowlands is not.

On a night when New Orleans played its first home game at Giants Stadium (search) in front of a scattering of Saints fans, a preponderance of Giants faithful and several empty seats, football shared the spotlight with a massive fund-raising effort organized by the NFL.

As the game wore on, a league-sponsored telethon raised money for a Hurricane Katrina relief committee headed by former Presidents Bush and Clinton. Bush and New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass (search), along with members of the New Orleans Fire Department, took part in the pregame coin toss.

"From the whole country there's been an outpouring of love and resources and support," Compass said before the game. "It was difficult to leave, but I was in the last group to take their break. The NFL has been doing so much for the city of New Orleans and for the Saints, when they asked me to flip the coin I couldn't deny that."

The NFL, its owners, teams, and players collectively have donated $11 million toward Hurricane Katrina relief, according to the league.

At midfield before kickoff, the NFL presented a check for $1 million to the relief effort, and the Giants gave a check for $250,000. The Saints and Giants announced that they would each contribute $1 million of the gate proceeds to disaster relief. The Giants also announced an additional contribution of $400,000, and the NFL Players Association (search) said it would give $1 million on behalf of all NFL players.

Before the game, New Orleans trumpeter Irvin Mayfield (search) performed "America The Beautiful," followed by pianist Harry Connick Jr. (search) and saxophonist Branford Marsalis (search) with the national anthem. The Mississippi-based band 3 Doors Down was lined up for the halftime show.

The Giants took the field to a loud roar from the less-than-capacity crowd, followed by the Saints, who held hands in the tunnel before going out onto the field and ran out en masse in lieu of individual introductions.

The Giants had about 13,000 unsold tickets in the 78,000-seat stadium as of Sunday evening, and the upper deck on both ends of the field was about one-quarter full at kickoff.

Saints season ticket holders and others who already had purchased tickets to the game in New Orleans were given first priority, but it was evident that few of those took advantage.

Several hundred displaced New Orleans residents attended the game with tickets donated by the NFL.

Tim Barrow and Aaron Sickmeier of Kenner, La., a New Orleans suburb, were on one of two buses chartered by Aramark (search), the Giants' stadium concessionaire, to bring evacuees to the game from Philadelphia.

"It's unbelievable. We're overwhelmed," said Sickmeier as they entered the stadium. "We didn't even know until we got on the bus and they said, 'Do you guys want to go to a football game?"'

Both men said they did not plan to go back to New Orleans when residents are allowed to return to the city.

"They're going back, but to what?" said Barrow. "There's nothing there."

Few Saints fans could be found outside Giants Stadium before the game. Two, Keith Windmann of St. Rose, La., about 15 miles west of New Orleans, and Grant Vogel of Metairie, a New Orleans suburb, were sharing food with Giants fans at a cookout in the parking lot.

"The Saints are helping by starting the season off good," said Windmann of New Orleans' season-opening win. "People appreciate that."

Vogel said his home was severely damaged by flooding and might need to be demolished. He's relocated four times since the storm and, along with Windmann, drove to Milwaukee to visit a brother before heading to New Jersey for the game.

"This takes our minds off what's going on for a few hours. Last week, it was like a little Super Bowl for us to see that win against Carolina."

In another corner of the parking lot, several chefs from New York City restaurants had whipped up a Cajun feast under the auspices of Share Our Strength (search), a national nonprofit organization that raises money through food-related events. For $10, fans could load up on jambalaya, pulled pork, cole slaw, corn bread, gumbo and other specialties.

The Saints were among those uprooted by the storm, which caused heavy damage to the roof of the Louisiana Superdome, their home field. The team relocated its headquarters to San Antonio and will play the rest of its home games there and at LSU's stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Windmann, a Saints season ticket holder, said he was more inclined to sell his remaining tickets — to the games in Baton Rouge and San Antonio — rather than attend. He preferred if the Saints were playing a home game on the road that it be in a place such as Giants Stadium.

"I don't think it's unfair," he said.

Still, the stadium had few accouterments to give it a New Orleans feel. While SAINTS was painted in white — not the team's gold and black colors — in one end zone, it looked like an afterthought, especially with GIANTS in the other end zone.

The promised fleur-de-lis, the team's logo, was not painted on the field. It was featured on banners advertising a disaster relief site, www.saintshurricanefund.org.

Souvenir stands were filled with Giants merchandise. Not even a Saints pennant or pen was available.

At a credit card booth outside the ballpark, both Giants and Saints blankets were being given away for people signing up for a credit card. Usually, only paraphernalia from the home team is handed out. Then again, the Saints officially were the home team.

A vendor estimated customers were selecting one Saints blanket for every 15 of the Giants.