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Saints Head Back to the Bayou

July 13, 2000

THIBODAUX, La. (AP) _ Down here, amid the sugar cane fields and marsh, big doings are brewing.

The New Orleans Saints open their training camp Saturday, hoping to use this little town as a springboard to winning on the field and at the box office. Folks in Thibodaux have their own agenda. They expect their summer camp to pay off bigtime.

The Saints abandoned La Crosse, Wis., where they trained for 11 years, willing to brave the heat, humidity and marauding mosquitoes of a south-Louisiana summer in a belief it would boost ticket sales.

With a 15-33 record in the past three seasons, and coming off the second 3-13 finish in four years, drumming up excitement as an absentee team would be hard.

``There’s no doubt that it would help us out to be where our fans can watch us work and start getting excited,″ said team director of administration Arnold Fielkow, who was brought in to bring up the Saints’ bottom line.

The move is also seen as good politics, with the Saints expected to demand to renegotiate their Superdome lease soon.

``It’s supposed to be a Louisiana team,″ said Tommy Arceneaux of Thibodaux. ``It’s about time Louisiana people got more out of them than excuses.″

The Saints trained at Nicholls State in Thibodaux in 1975, but constant rain had the team busing to Tulane in New Orleans for most work. They finally cut the camp short by a week.

Added to that was the fierce mosquito population; the insects breeds in the nearby marsh and were not discouraged at all by the electronic ``bug zappers″ Nicholls put around the field.

``The summer was like a monsoon, and the mosquitoes were brutal,″ said Archie Manning, the team’s quarterback at the time. ``It’s one thing to bite you. But the zapping was so loud, they couldn’t here me calling plays in the huddle.″

This year Thibodaux has an $85,000 mosquito abatement program underway and is ``fogging″ the city with chemical spray regularly to cut down on the pests.

Temperatures will be in the upper 90s during camp, cooling only into the 80s at night. A two-year drought has cut into the daily rain, but with hurricane season in full swing, Thibodaux, which is below sea level and traversed with bayous, marshland and swamps, is vulnerable to big storms.

To try to beat the heat, new coach Jim Haslett has scheduled practices for 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. On rainy days they’ll work in the Civic Center.

To get the Saints, Thibodaux and the state each put up $100,000, and Terrebonne Parish kicked in an additional $50,000 to improve Nicholls’ facilities for the camp.

An additional $50,000 LaFouche Parish promised the university to cover camp expenses was voted down in the parish council. But the parish president, Gerald ``Buzz″ Breaux, is spearheading an effort to raise the money privately.

What people in Thibodaux hope to get is a $2 million boost in their economy, as well as some lasting media exposure after the Saints pack up on Aug. 16.

``This is big, big, big for us,″ said Rhonda H. Dempster, executive secretary of the Thibodaux Chamber of Commerce. ``We’ve been getting calls from all over from people wanting to come here during the camp. Our hotels are booked. Things will be booming. We’re talking increased tourism dollars and national exposure.″

The Chamber is presenting the players and coaches with gift bags and T-shirts adorned with a crawfish wearing a Saints helmet and reading ``Back to the Bayou.″

Fifty-two tents were set up for corporate sponsors to hawk their wares near the practice fields. There will be games, live bands, fireworks, food and souvenir booths, and other activities designed to lure crowds.

``Why, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us double our population this weekend,″ Dempster said. ``I think it’ll be packed.

On the fringe of Cajun country, Thibodaux is reached from New Orleans on a series of state highways where, except for brief stretches, the speed limit is 45 mph.

It’s an old-fashioned little town of 15,000 nestled between miles of sugar cane fields and bayous. Signs outside the grocery stores not only list crawfish, shrimp and crabs, they tout frog legs, turtle meat and cracklings _ a deep fried pig skin that’s eaten like potato chips. For many homes the backyard is a bayou, frequently with a shrimp or fishing boat parked behind the house.

Locals welcome a new attraction to a town that has no mega-plex theaters or malls and not many night spots.

``About all you do around here in the summer is work, fish and swim,″ said Mike Washington. ``This is like the bigtime for us.″

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