Tom Benson legacy will tower over New Orleans and region

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NEW ORLEANS – The accomplishments of his lifetime are obvious and undeniable. The impact on the New Orleans area is enormous. The shoes will be hard to fill.

News of the passing of Tom Benson Thursday afternoon was sobering, disappointing, sad and hurtful. It was not totally unexpected.

While critics will be quick to point out that he had some shortcomings and will always remember the days following Hurricane Katrina as well as the bruising, tough negotiations with the state over gaining financial breaks for his franchise, the sum of the parts of the life of Tom Benson add up in a huge way.

When the New Orleans Saints and owner John Mecom appeared on the verge of selling the team or possibly relocating the team, Benson stepped out of virtual obscurity to save the beloved, though moribund franchise.

It was my first exposure to Mr. Benson at the press conference in 1985 to introduce him as the new owner at Benson and Gold Chevrolet on Veterans Blvd. in Kenner. When he spoke, we were surprised. He was naturally New Orleans, the dialect was unmistakable.

The Saints had never had a winning season under Mecom in 18 seasons. It would take the Benson regime three years to post a winner.

Since that time, the successes are obvious.

There were four playoff appearances and a division championship under Jim Finks and Jim Mora. After a bad hire of Mike Ditka, Benson righted the ship by bringing in Randy Mueller and Jim Haslett.

A division championship and first playoff victory ever followed.

Then came the Mickey Loomis-Sean Payton regime.

Six playoff appearances, two NFC championships and a Super Bowl title have already been accrued as the regime continues.

The New Orleans sports scene was enriched even further by Benson when he purchased the New Orleans Hornets in 2012, once again, possibly saving the franchise for New Orleans.

He and wife, Gayle, would rebrand the team “Pelicans.”

Interestingly, Benson nearly brought another professional franchise to New Orleans when he attempted to bring a Double A minor league baseball team to the Crescent City, using the popular Pelicans brand as a connection to the past minor league teams in New Orleans.

Benson’s effort was rebuffed by John Dikeou, who moved his Triple A Denver Zephyrs here instead as minor league rules allowed the higher classification team to take precedent over the team Benson wanted to place in New Orleans.

Additionally, Benson presided over the birth of the Arena Football League New Orleans VooDoo in New Orleans, owning the franchise from 2004-08, often drawing huge crowds, though the team made the playoffs just once.

Benson worked his way up the hierarchy of NFL owners, ascending to key positions of leadership during his time. His ownership was important in the luring of five Super Bowls to New Orleans and the Superdome during his tenure.

A pair of NBA All-Star games were also part of the ownership of the Pelicans as well for New Orleans.

It was always a pleasure to have Mr. Benson at our Saints Hall of Fame inductions, embracing the best of the best in franchise history. Fortunately, we were able to waive eligibility rules and induct him while he was here and could appreciate the honor in 2012. He enjoyed the portrait done for him which hangs permanently in the museum in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that he commissioned one for himself. He was blessed to see his statue erected and placed in Champions Square in 2014.

The benevolence of Benson was on full display, particularly in the latter years of his life. There is little doubt that Gayle had a tremendous influence on him and that he became keenly aware of his mortality and of leaving a lasting legacy in the final decade or so of his life. Beneficiaries of his generosity included the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Loyola University of New Orleans, Brother Martin High School, Ochsner Hospital, Tulane University and Yulman Stadium (the field bears his name), the Pro Football Hall of Fame (the stadium bears his name) and Ochsner Hospital and the Gayle and Tom Benson Cancer Center. There are many others as well and many personal donations he made to help those he knew were in need.

Benson impacted the business community in other areas as well, including GMB Racing Stable and employing many in the horse racing industry. He bought and eventually sold WVUE-TV and bought Dixie Brewing Company.

New Orleans is perhaps the biggest “small” city in the country. It is easy to get from one end of the city to the other, one reason why the NFL loves coming here for Super Bowls. It is a very parochial city, where everyone seems to know virtually everyone and a city where natives and long-time locals embrace their own.

Tom Benson was a native, a local, proud of his school heritage at St. Aloysius and Loyola, his military service and his hometown. Today is a day where we should all praise and be proud of what Mr. Benson did for the entire region. The street leading to the Saints and Pelicans facilities is already named Tom Benson Way. A street name in New Orleans should follow.

There is a high-rise office building situated right next to the Superdome. It is named Benson Tower.

The memory of Mr. Benson will linger long beyond most of our lives. That is what occurs when you accomplish so much. His presence will tower over New Orleans and the region for decades, if not centuries to come.

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Ken Trahan

Ken Trahan

Owner/CEO

Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE Owner and CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Football Foundation, College…

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