August 25, 2015

My love for New Orleans is unending: Arnie Fielkow

The 10th anniversary of Katrina provides an opportunity for all of us to remember the events and how they changed our lives. For many of us, it reminds us of what is truly important in this world: family, friends, faith and community. During this time of personal reflection, I am moved when I think about the endurance and restoration of this glorious city, and my love affair with New Orleans.

For some, "home" is where we were born; a circumstance of fate. For New Orleanians, there is often a long history, a dense family tree, with deep roots. For me, I choose to call New Orleans "home," because of what the city means to me; the place in which my heart is rooted.

For the Fielkow family, we were blessed with an incredible opportunity to move to the Crescent City in 2000, when Saints ownership invited us into the Who Dat Family. My Saints career didn't end quite the way I had planned, but I will forever be grateful to the Benson family for giving me a chance to work in a senior leadership role in the NFL and, even more importantly, to move to this very unique, magical city.

I am filled with profound emotion and joy as I reminisce about our 12 years in New Orleans: the growth of our three sons, the addition of our two beautiful adopted daughters, the first Saints playoff win and ultimately a Super Bowl championship (does one ever tire of hearing those words!), the opportunity to serve as city councilman-at-large, and the multitude of deep friendships developed along the way.  These simply were the best years of our lives, with admittedly many tears shed upon leaving the city in 2011 to resume a sports career.

But like children who venture away, the place considered "home" will always be there for us.  We now live in Chicago, only blocks away from where my wife and I first began our college romance three decades ago. Yet, despite the geographic location, our real home lies on Palmer Avenue, on Claiborne Avenue, on Tchoupitoulas Street, on Poydras Street, and so many avenues and streets in between. New Orleans is absolutely the greatest city on earth, with the most passionate, genuine and warmest people we have ever encountered.

New Orleanians truly define what it means to be resilient.  Just like they refused to let "their" beloved Saints ever leave New Orleans by buying tickets in droves in 2006, despite many having neither intact homes nor businesses, citizens of our great city vowed not to allow Katrina and the levee breaches to destroy their spirit, will, nor love of life.

Our New Orleans tenure also included one of the most tragic moments in global history, as we all watched in horror as our beloved city went underwater, more than 1,800 people perished, and hundreds of thousands lost their life's dreams and possessions.  We mourned and cried together, while at the same time having to endure ignorant, audacious suggestions that our city should not be rebuilt.

As the bells toll this weekend in honor of those who lost so much 10 years ago, we can all take great pride in what we have achieved together; the restoration of a majestic, beautiful, grand city, steeped in history and unique culture and ambience.  But New Orleans is also a wiser city, more aware of her weaknesses, and with a resolve to fortify, strengthen and improve on those things that plagued the city for decades prior to Katrina.

In those terrible early days after the levees were breached, New Orleanians pledged to rebuild a better, safer, more accountable and a more equitable city for all. Government reforms that had been on the shelves for years suddenly became reality and citizens rightfully demanded so much more from their leaders. As we look forward, it is imperative that there be no slippage in ensuring that citizen safety and true equality are in place well beyond this 10th anniversary.

New Orleans still has many challenges ahead of her, including the No. 1 priority of significantly reducing crime, but I believe the city will most certainly succeed as her citizens have already proved to themselves and the world that no obstacle is too big to overcome.

New Orleanians, thank you for affording us the honor of being able to call us one of you and to be able to call New Orleans home. It has truly been a privilege. May we one day soon be together again!

Arnie D. Fielkow is president/CEO of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. He previously served as New Orleans City Council president and New Orleans Saints executive vice president.