Blank Wants A Team Like Patriots or Steelers

Falcons owner Arthur Blank has been through the gamut: From publicly supporting Michael Vick only to see his prized player lie to him, the authorities and eventually land in prison. Then to top it all off, Vick has a stellar season after rebuilding his career in Philly. If you ask Blank, all he really wants is a team like the Patriots or Steelers.

 New Orleans - Dressed in a gray T-shirt sporting his team's logo, black shorts and running shoes, Arthur Blank moved purposely through the lobby of the pricey downtown hotel here where NFL owners huddled the past few days.

   His mind addled by two days of frustrating labor discussions, with the league now ground to inertia and no optimistic signs of a CBA resolution anytime soon, the Atlanta Falcons owner was headed late Tuesday afternoon for a jog to cleanse his cranium a bit. And the streets of this city's sometimes-sketchy central business district, where it seems that ominous police car or ambulance sirens wail almost continuously, weren't just any old avenues meant to loosen some cobwebs.

   They were uneven streets that Blank, a New Yorker by birth who really has no connection to New Orleans, helped to rebuild.

   Blank, 68, desperately wants a Super Bowl title for the franchise he purchased in 2002. He wants, somewhat controversially, a new, open-air stadium for the Falcons. He obsesses over constructing a New England Patriots- or Pittsburgh Steelers-type team, one that avoids the rollercoaster ride traversed by some NFL clubs, and that consistently challenges for a playoff berth nearly every season.

   But the Falcons' owner also wants to share in his success. And share he has in New Orleans, a city where the Arthur Blank Family Foundation has quietly donated millions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's carnage.

   "I just feel very strongly about New Orleans," Blank said before heading out for his run. "It's a great city. We wanted to do something."

   There is a certain, innate irony - one that doubtless can't be understood by those who live outside the South - to Blank's largesse here. Heck, when I moved to Atlanta in '89 to cover the Falcons for the Journal-Constitution, I surely didn't comprehend the scope of the rivalry between the two cities. That was before the twice-annual meetings between the Falcons and Saints -- games that were emotional, passionate, bloodlettings even when the two franchises were both losers - to which busloads of fans from both teams would travel.

    In those days, there were few moments as viscerally exciting as witnessing Saints fans, dressed in black and gold, snake-dancing through the upper-level stands at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium after a victory. Or seeing the red-and-black-clad fans from Atlanta partying in the Superdome following a win. Remember, these were two teams that generally had very little to play for, but the games against each other had been circled on fans' calendars for months.

   A Saints-Falcons game was a ready excuse for partying hard, but it was all in good fun. Perhaps it was because the Falcons were born in 1966 and the Saints in '67, expansion teams with little but their own dislike for each other. But it was Christmas, New Years, all rolled into one.

    And then, with Katrina, the twice-yearly Mardi Gras stopped with a thud. Six years after this city's levees evaporated and nearly half its residents escaped to places like Houston or Nashville or Atlanta, and never returned, the passion for the Falcons and the Saints has returned.

   Oh, sure, driving in Airline Highway from the airport, there are still plenty of places, even fast-food restaurants, that are boarded up. Some can't re-open because of the destruction that Katrina wrought. Others still have problems finding people to work the evening shift, because the population has been so diminished, and they simply close at 5 p.m.

   For all the progress, things will never really be the same here. But that there is a sudden semblance to the craziness that Arthur Blank - who should know a thing or two about remodeling projects, since his fortune was amassed from co-founding The Home Depot -- helped to create.

   Saints owner Tom Benson this week termed Blank "a good man." He has been more than that, a long-distance patron saint of sorts, to The Big Easy.

   "It's important to the league and to us (in Atlanta) that New Orleans stay as a very important city," Blank said Tuesday afternoon. "It's just a place of which my family and I are pretty fond."

   Their deep-rooted disdain for the Falcons aside, Saints loyalists ought to be pretty fond, too, of the Atlanta owner.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange.

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