The Superdome's sports history includes nine Super Bowls and four Final Fours. It is a building where Pistol Pete Maravich performed for the New Orleans Jazz before the team moved to Utah and where Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard boxed.
Yet when he walked into the Superdome for the first time and looked around in awe, University of Utah cornerback Sean Smith could only think about flooding.
The building is refurbished and New Orleans is being reborn, a little more than three years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city and sent some 30,000 refugees into the Superdome, seeking shelter. The images of those disastrous days struck Smith when he attended Sunday's New Orleans-Carolina NFL game, when he rode the bus to his team's practices at Tulane University for two days this week and again Wednesday, when the Utes worked out in the Superdome in advance of Friday's Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
"I wonder what it was like in here, to be in that environment," Smith said. "You look around this place was packed, and you visualize families over here and over there."
This was a refreshing conversation, a switch from the usual subjects of football matchups, preparation and psychology. Smith loves to talk about anything and everything, but this was different. Coming to New Orleans, witnessing evidence of Katrina in neighborhoods on the way to Tulane and picturing the aftermath for survivors in the Superdome hit home for him and his teammates.
"All these seats, just knowing they were packed with people struggling," said kicker Louie Sakoda.
Beyond the human impact of Katrina, the building itself took a beating. Preparing for the Superdome's reopening, 13 months after the hurricane, required replacing the roof and a complete face-lift inside. When the Saints came back home to play for the first time in September 2006, the event was widely viewed as a rebirth for New Orleans.
The recovery is continuing. "It's a different environment than I expected, coming down here," Smith said. "I mean, the morale of the city is just amazing."
The enthusiasm undoubtedly was boosted by New Year's Eve celebrations and reveling visitors, but the Utes are helping, too. Major sporting events, conventions and tourism drive New Orleans' economy, and the Utes are happy to do their part.
"I'm glad that I can be here to help bring aid to the city of New Orleans," said receiver Brent Casteel. "This city is strong; this city will bounce back."
The Utes are like any young, impressionable athletes. They've watched the Super Bowls, Sugar Bowls and BCS national championship that have unfolded on the Superdome stage, and they are eager to take their turn on a stage Smith describes as "a historical site." Seated on the sideline for the NFL game Sunday, he found himself imagining his chance to play in this venue.
"Come Friday, we're going to be out there playing on the exact field where Steve Smith and Drew Brees were standing," he marveled.
Yet he also knows the Superdome's history represents more than sports. Real life was played out in and around this building, and those images of three years ago still resonate. That's even true for college football players like Sean Smith, who are more socially conscious than we may tend to believe, and thankfully so.