NEW ORLEANS – NFL and NBA executives joined Saints and Pelicans players and coaches and New Orleans city officials in a historic French Quarter cathedral Friday for the funeral of Tom Benson, the owner of the city's two major professional sports franchises who died last week at age 90.
"You can see how much people really loved him," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, looking at throngs of tourists and locals outside St. Louis Cathedral a few minutes before the midday Mass.
Church bells pealed as Benson's widow, Gayle, awaited the arrival of her late husband's hearse. Nearby were pall bearers and honorary pall bearers including Saints coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and general manager Mickey Loomis; and Pelicans general manager Dell Demps, coach Alvin Gentry and star forward Anthony Davis.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond officiated at the Mass, an invitation-only event that followed two days of public visitation at Notre Dame Seminary.
Among those attending were NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, former Gov. Bobby Jindal and Gov. John Bel Edwards, who had earlier ordered flags at the state Capitol and state buildings flown at half-staff Friday in Benson's memory. Mayor-elect Latoya Cantrell, who succeeds the term-limited Landrieu in May, also attended.
"Tom was a New Orleans saint, on Earth," Aymond said during the Mass, noting that the New Orleans-born Benson was born to a poor family. Aymond recounted personal memories, including Benson's joy at recounting, repeatedly, how he met Gayle at the cathedral during a service.
He noted Benson's personal losses, saying he suffered the deaths of two previous wives, two children and three siblings.
"Some of the tensions of family life brought him disappointment and another loss," Aymond said. It was an apparent allusion to his falling out with daughter Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. They had been in line to take over the Benson business empire but Benson made it known in January 2015 that he intended for Gayle Benson to inherit complete control of the Saints and Pelicans. There followed an unsuccessful attempt by the estranged heirs to have Benson declared mentally incompetent in court.
Benson was a successful automobile dealer when he bought the Saints in 1985. Under his ownership, the team achieved its first winning seasons and a Super Bowl championship in 2010 that buoyed the spirits of a city that was still struggling at the time to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which hit less than five years earlier.
Benson bought the city's NBA franchise, the Pelicans, in 2012.
In recent years, Benson was becoming known for his philanthropy as well as his business holdings and ownership of sports franchises. Beneficiaries included the Catholic churches and organizations and a $20 million donation to the Ochsner Health System for the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center.