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Only Season In New Orleans Left An Impression On Billy Cundiff
ASHBURN – Sean Payton understood Billy Cundiff could use a warm welcome after the New Orleans Saints signed the kicker the day before Thanksgiving in 2006, so the head coach invited Cundiff and his wife, Nicole, to his home for Thanksgiving dinner.
New Orleans had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina the year before, displacing thousands of residents and causing hundreds of deaths in the nation’s deadliest natural disaster. The Saints played that season away from the city, and when they returned in 2006, the community rallied around the team in an attempt to return to a normal way of life.
Cundiff realized the team’s importance in the city for the first time that night. As a gesture of goodwill, several area restaurants provided Payton and his family with plenty of food.
“All these restaurants gave him so much food that they kept what they liked and then donated all the rest of this food to people who were in need,” Cundiff said Thursday. “They had so much they didn’t know what to do with it. Again, you go from having nothing to having the whole community completely embrace them, and it was pretty impressive.”
Cundiff, now with the Washington Redskins, spent his first four years in Dallas before being released, and New Orleans signed him for the final six games of the regular season just for his ability on kickoffs. Naturally curious about the hurricane, Cundiff found it affected nearly everyone.
“A lot of the guys – their homes were completely destroyed,” Cundiff said. “The city was just shredded to pieces. They were affected by the storm. Then you get on the road, they have to play their games in San Antonio and they have to play in Baton Rouge. All the stuff where – I wouldn’t say they were forgotten, but they had to deal with a lot.”
The Saints won the NFC South that season, finishing 10-6. That earned them a bye in the wild card round of the playoffs, and they hosted Philadelphia in the divisional round in the city’s first home playoff game in six years.
“It’s probably the loudest game I’d ever played in,” Cundiff said, “and the thing that sticks out in my mind is that after we played the Eagles, we beat them, I think, 27-24, and when we iced the game at the end, you’d look around and you’d see fans hugging each other. Like, it was one of those things that they were so wrapped up in the football team, and ‘rebuild’ and ‘unite’ and all those mantras in the city – they were all being played out right in front of you, and it was really strange and rare.”
Though his wife has been back to New Orleans since that season, Cundiff will make his first return to the city with the Redskins on Sunday. He didn’t play the Saints on the road in his three previous seasons with Baltimore.
“Football’s taken me everywhere else,” Cundiff said. “We made some good friends down there.”