NEW ORLEANS -- Only a Super Bowl victory parade could upstage Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Carnival floats carrying Saints players, coaches and team owner Tom Benson rolled past tens of thousands of jubilant fans in downtown New Orleans on Tuesday, two days after the 43-year-old franchise won its first NFL championship.
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Players, wearing team jerseys instead of traditional Carnival masks and costumes, tossed beads into the crowd and signed autographs for throngs of screaming fans. Benson shouted "Who Dat!" into a microphone from his perch atop a float. Head coach Sean Payton blew kisses and held the Lombardi Trophy over his head.
"Here's to the best Mardi Gras week in the history of this city," Payton said, raising a glass of champagne during a toast outside the city's historic Gallier Hall.
The parade, a week before the city's signature Fat Tuesday celebration, started outside their home turf at the Louisiana Superdome. Black, gold and white confetti floated over the crowd and a man wearing a Saints jacket held aloft a sign that read, "Happy Lombardi Gras!"
The floats stopped at a reviewing stand so elected officials, including Mayor Ray Nagin, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, could toast the team's 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
"How's the 'Who Dat' nation feel tonight?" Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees yelled when his float stopped at the reviewing stand. "This toast goes out to you. We love you and we won that championship for you."
Ten Carnival krewes lent floats for the team to ride. More than a dozen marching bands joined the team on its route, which passed by the edge of the French Quarter and ended at the city's convention center. An official crowd estimate wasn't immediately available, but many fans said the gathering seemed larger than any during Mardi Gras.
"This is wilder than Mardi Gras," said Frank V. Smith, 55, a lifelong New Orleans resident who shot photographs of players from the rear of a pickup truck. "I've never seen so many people out here like this. This is beautiful, man."
Shannon Cobb, 28, of Metairie, said the parade was a party with a purpose.
"Everybody is here for one reason: their love for the city and their love for the Saints and to show our appreciation for what they've done for us," she said.
The Super Bowl win, which capped just the ninth winning season in franchise history, was a stunning reversal of fortunes for a team once derided as the "Aints." Few players could appreciate that better than fan favorite Deuce McAllister, the team's retired all-time leading rusher who joined the team on the sidelines for the Super Bowl.
"It's been pretty crazy," he said Tuesday. "Everywhere you go, you can see the pride in the fans."
Fans are grateful for more than just the team's on-field performance. Many members of "Who Dat" nation credit the team with uniting a city that has struggled with racial divisions and labored to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which left about 85 percent of the city underwater in August 2005.
"After the hurricane, people were more willing to come back when they realized the Saints were coming back," said Scott Catalanotto, 35, whose 7-year-old son sat on a ladder and yelled for beads.
In the French Quarter, thousands streamed toward the parade route, turning Bourbon Street into a river of black and gold.
Will Kaplan, 28, stood out in a billowing white toga with a gold-colored halo and the word "Breesus" on his back.
His Jesus-inspired costume, he said, was made from sheets he had in a FEMA trailer he stayed in after Hurricane Katrina on the University of New Orleans campus.
"I'm the spirit of the party," he said.
Enduring chilly, windy weather under overcast skies, fans started staking out spots along the parade route more than seven hours before the floats rolled.
Tim Thorn, a 35-year-old landscaper, drove in from Baton Rouge to be among the early birds. He said he gave his daughters, Cameron and Carson, the day off school because the event was too big to miss.
"It's probably the biggest party in the world," he said.