NEW ORLEANS – Jubilant fans greeted the Super Bowl-winning Saints Monday, showering them with "Who Dat!" chants as they returned to their home city as champions.
At a suburban airport, thousands of fans decked in black-and-gold lined the road to cheer their team after its 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
"The Saints kept hope alive in this city that better days were coming," said Shannon Sims, a 45-year-old criminal court administrator, as she waited for the team. She said the Saints "were the force that kept us moving forward."
The city woke up hoarse, hungover and happy, wondering if that Super Bowl thing really happened.
In the French Quarter, stragglers — decked out in Saints jerseys and team colors_ remaining from the all-night party turned to coffee and beignets as dawn broke.
Richard Bourland said he came from nearby Gulfport, Miss., hoping to see history made and wasn't disappointed. The 57-year-old said he pulled his first all-nighter in at least 15 years celebrating.
"I came because it is a once-in-a-lifetime event," Bourland said as he sipped strong black coffee. "I wanted to experience a miracle and I did. I'm still trying to believe it."
Fans had trouble believing the Saints' Super Bowl victory, the first in their 43-year history — it was, after all, just their ninth winning season. Disbelief did not prevent them from throwing a huge "Lombardi Party," however.
The team's big season came four years after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and destroyed thousands of homes and small businesses.
"After Katrina everyone was hurting," said Derek Stevens, 27, who was still on Bourbon Street at dawn. "The Saints was the one thing we had that was positive, that made us hopeful."
Long-suffering fans throughout the city shot off fireworks, danced in the streets and second-lined down the St. Charles Avenue streetcar tracks.
On Monday morning, Bourbon Street crews worked at dawn to clean up the remnants of the street party that began before the game ended and stretched into the new day.
"It was crazy the whole day," said Earl Wheeler, 21, a bartender at one of the Bourbon Street clubs. "It was one really good time. Lots of love going around. But I was too busy to watch the game. I'm going home to do that today."
The victory came a day after New Orleans elected a new mayor and several other city officials. But in the area newspapers there was little besides the Saints.
The New Orleans paper, The Times-Picayune, ran a 5-inch headline that said "AMEN." The subhead read, "After 43 years, our prayers are answered."
At Lakeside News, which usually sells about 100 copies a day, owner Michael Marcello said he had sold 6,000 to 7,000 by 9:15 a.m.
"I wish I had some," he said. "I'm out again. This is the fourth time I've run out."
At the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly called Angola, the game was on television in all the dormitories, and even some of the cell blocks where problem prisoners are kept, said prison spokeswoman Cathy Fontenot.
"Normally they wouldn't have television privileges, but we thought it was such an important game we let them watch this one," Fontenot said.
Prisoners decorated their dorms with Saints and Who Dat signs, Fontenot said.
"It was really exciting," Fontenot said. "We had prisoners second-lining through the dormitories and down the walkways outside."
Traffic was light coming into town Monday, and many businesses expected people to stay home. The public schools had scheduled a full day Monday, but planned to let students out early Tuesday to attend a parade planned for the Saints.
Associated Press Writers Janet McConnaughey and Mike Kunzelman contributed to this report.