Saints' Rita Benson LeBlanc stands out
NEW ORLEANS -- The future of the New Orleans Saints wears a pair of ultrachic black boots that ascend to her knees, not because it's comfortable but because the team has been on a roll since she put them on and you don't mess with fate. She cannot ... sit ... down, at least not for more than a few minutes. Did you know that the average executive chair is too big for a woman? Rita Benson LeBlanc, who can't be much more than a bowl of gumbo over 100 pounds, does. Behind her desk is a large gray exercise ball. That's where she sits.
The executive vice president/part owner of the Saints bought the ball because, ultimately, she was going to do sit-ups while she was at work. That didn't work out; she was way too busy for that. Now, it's just used for good posture. But LeBlanc rolls the ball out in the middle of her office on a winter Tuesday recently and belts out at least three sit-ups, just to demonstrate.
"I can bounce on it if I feel like it," LeBlanc says. "It's kind of important to be different."
She is not even 35 years old, and LeBlanc, hands-down, is one of the most unusual executives in the NFL. How many 30-somethings can say they've sat in a boardroom full of some of the richest and most powerful men in sports, mostly much older than her, and fit in seamlessly? How many people have a Christmas card of Mitt Romney on their door, the Republican presidential candidate all smiles with his family decked out in matching shirts, and an empty 9-liter bottle of champagne in their office? We'll get to that later.
The thing about LeBlanc, the thing that is different from most NFL execs, is her transparency. Maybe that's part of the job requirement, something she had to embrace in those dark days in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit and and the Saints' organization was battered and needed a PR boost. LeBlanc was the fresh-faced answer.
She might be different, but LeBlanc can somehow fit in anywhere, in a boardroom full of execs, at an art exhibit, or on the streets with fans. Everything she does, six years since Katrina, is still geared toward promoting New Orleans. The granddaughter of billionaire Saints owner Tom Benson is savvy, goofy, outgoing and kind, but she also gives off a don't-eff-with-me vibe.
Nothing is off limits, really, but some questions might get a long pause or a short answer. So here's one that is sure to annoy her: A Google search of Rita Benson LeBlanc quickly pops up a question that has run through the minds of many red-blooded Southern men: Is Rita Benson LeBlanc married? The answer is no, but it's much more complicated than that.
"Why does everybody care about my dating life?" she says.
"It's interesting. I meet a lot of people, and I'm used to talking to them about their business and whether that can have some tie into New Orleans or not, and I tend to be a very helpful and giving person. So I think any woman reading that understands.
"But I have friends tell me I'm intimidating," she says with a smile. "Why the hell am I intimidating?"
This story does not begin in New Orleans, the city LeBlanc adores, or in some private school where the wealthy send their children to become polished and upwardly mobile. It starts on a ranch near Johnson City, Texas, where the wide-open spaces bored a child, then piqued her curiosity. There were no neighbors, really, no friends within walking distance, so young Rita became a bookworm.
Her mother, Renee, ran the ranch, and little Rita read fantasy books and ghost stories and her mom's Reader's Digests. She tackled "Wuthering Heights" in junior high, but was probably too young to totally grasp it. Freshman year in high school, her grandfather -- they call them PawPaws down in Texas and Louisiana -- flew her and a friend to New York.
"My mother will say that I came back and I realized there was a really big world out there," LeBlanc says.
And LeBlanc was going to try to explore nearly every square foot of it. Before Paris and many other faraway locales, there were hot summer days at Saints training camp, where LeBlanc ran around doing various chores. She went to college at Texas A&M and spent her summers on NFL internships. Her initial interest in the football team was simple: LeBlanc wanted to be around her PawPaw as much as she could. When the team won, he was happy, and she loved being around that enthusiasm.
As she got older, she knew she wanted to be part of the family business, her grandfather's business, from his car dealerships to his football team. Tom Benson was a self-made man, a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Navy and built his empire from the ground level. Surely, there must have been a few internal eye rolls when Rita started knocking around the Saints' offices. Here comes the owner's grandkid
But LeBlanc quickly proved her worth.
"Rather than being the owner's granddaughter and coming in here trying to change everything, she was trying to learn everything," says Saints CFO/executive vice president Dennis Lauscha. "She went from department to department, and she really listened a lot. She asked a lot of questions, and I think that serves her well today.
"She's high energy. She's very passionate in her beliefs. She cares a lot for the people around her and the community."
The way LeBlanc tells the story, the transition from intern to office grunt to the owners' meetings wasn't as dramatic as one might think. Yes, she was one of just a handful of women in a room made up of much older men. But she says she was never asked to fetch a cup of coffee and was never treated poorly.
She's used to being around the guys. She's known many of them since she was a kid. But she likes being different and standing out.
"It's completely different than being in a locker room, and reporters, when they're around that, that is a very physical environment," she says. "There's so much testosterone involved when you're finished playing.
"But that's the athletes, and that has no correlation to what a boardroom of men is like. It's just not supercharged like that, in no way. You sit in there, and I mean, we're talking about statistics as far as game length and how many penalties there are. This is stuff that is not sexy and exciting. It's not "The Apprentice," it's not a reality TV show. It's just not. I really like being there and learning, but it's not made for television as far as what people imagine it to be."
She has a presence in those league meetings and serves as chairwoman of the NFL's employee benefits committee. As the Saints' executive vice president/owner, LeBlanc oversees the team's sales and marketing, community affairs, and youth program initiatives, plus game-day entertainment and stadium operations. According to the team website, she was instrumental in an initiative in 2010 that raised more than $1.5 million to help those affected by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
She was also a key player in New Orleans' successful bid for the 2013 Super Bowl. It is known throughout the franchise that LeBlanc will be her grandfather's successor, although Benson, who's 84, has expressed no plans to retire anytime soon.
Whenever that time comes, her peers say she'll be ready.
"She's not about the next cotillion or the next ball gown from Macy's or the next trip to Colorado to go skiing," says Bob Brown, managing director of the Business Council of New Orleans. "She's really focused on the serious matters that are in front of her.
"I believe she is driven by the desire to be taken seriously and to be recognized as a successful businessperson in her own right."
It is impossible to talk about the New Orleans Saints franchise without talking about Katrina. It's a part of everything LeBlanc does. She won't come out and say it, but it's almost as if, through that disaster, she found out who she really was. She tends to get calmer in high-stress situations. She can physically feel the difference.
For months, her staff worked late into the night until everyone was ready to drop. The staff members were lucky. They had jobs to go to. The Saints had to re-examine their brand after Katrina, and they took a look at their image and their role in the community. LeBlanc was a big part of the restoration project.
"I think our psyche, even six years later, is still a bit tender as a result of the Katrina experience," Brown says. "I can tell you how much the Saints' organization has been a life force for making this community feel better about itself, for making us work harder to get ourselves out of our funk and get up and get busy and clean the place up and make the community healthy again. And Rita has been a huge part of that."
She doesn't just sit on community boards; she actively pursues companies to bring their business to New Orleans. She almost sounds like a politician when she says this community wants to improve, wants to do better. Ever since LeBlanc was a kid, she was biased about New Orleans. Texas heart, Cajun blood, she tells people.
"I always had a romance with the city," LeBlanc says. "I love the architecture, the food I felt everything was better in New Orleans. Even as a kid."
On game days, her suite is a casual mix of friends, business leaders and random charity officials. Second Harvest, a food bank in southern Louisiana, occupied part of the front of LeBlanc's suite during the "Monday Night Football" game on Dec. 26 against the Falcons.
Country singer Clay Walker also got an invite but initially declined. Some of his family was in town for the holidays, and he wanted to go to the game with them. LeBlanc said that was no problem and to bring them along because the Saints are all about family.
"You hear a lot about Southern charm, and it's kind of a stereotype," Walker says. "But she's more than hospitable. You would never know she comes from wealth. I've seen her on the field, with every range of social class. She treats everybody the same.
"She's not afraid to be transparent in a business where a lot of people are reserved and protected. I think that's what endears the fans to her. They love her."
Her office, at the football facility on Airline Drive in nearby Metairie, is one of the truest windows into her mind. There are a hundred stories in that office. Near her desk is the empty 9-liter bottle that held the champagne consumed the night the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010. She has told coach Sean Payton that they'll open another one of those bottles come February, after the Super Bowl, and Payton smiles at that.
"Man," he says, "I'm fired up."
One of the favorite things in her office is a painting of Deuce McAllister hugging LeBlanc in a massive postgame crush. The piece is from a photo from five years ago, in the first game back in the Superdome after Katrina. So much has changed since then. McAllister retired, giving way to Reggie Bush, then Bush left last year for Miami.
LeBlanc sent Bush a message when he left New Orleans. "You will always be a Saint," she told him. "You will always be family." As she gets older, it's easier to understand the reality of constant change in the business. Bodies get old, and faces change.
These days, one of her favorite players to watch is running back Darren Sproles, an offseason acquisition. He's 5-foot-6, tiny like LeBlanc. Sometimes, she feels as if her workday is similar to Sproles' game. He moves fast, then he gets caught up a little bit, then all of a sudden he shoots forward. You don't know which way he's going to go, she says. But he finds the end zone, one way or another.
On the night of Dec. 26, the Superdome was rocking and LeBlanc's black boots were moving briskly. She bounced from the stairway of her suite to the front row to a group of friends gathered around a cake. It was a huge night. The Saints were on the verge of clinching the NFC South -- they eventually did it in a dominating victory over division rival Atlanta -- and quarterback Drew Brees was closing in on Dan Marino's single-season passing record.
In the fourth quarter, LeBlanc finally hunkered into her seat. She was riveted, but once again multitasking. Between snaps, she told stories about the fans, about the man who lost everything to Katrina but held onto his season tickets, about how New Orleans has the greatest fans in the NFL. The place kept getting louder as Brees closed in on the record.
At one point, LeBlanc dropped her BlackBerry in the excitement. She's glued to that thing. Brees completed another pass, and she yelled, "Yes! Woo!" When he finally broke the record, she took a picture of the excitement on the field, then joked about how there was no way it would come out.
A flurry of texts rolled into her phone. WAY TO GO, BREES, one text said. Another said OMG.
Brees delivered an emotional locker-room speech when it was over, but LeBlanc stayed upstairs. Either place, she would've been in her element. That's just Rita. But on this night, she wanted to gather around a table with her friends. She popped open a bottle of Perrier-Jouet. The cork bounced off the ceiling. It was time for a toast.
"So we all look around and know who we were kind of with," LeBlanc said. "After 27 years, Drew Brees broke the record. Poor Dan Marino. But hey, there's got to be a new generation, so cheers to another black-and-gold Super Bowl and Drew Brees tonight."
They raised their glasses.
"Cheers."Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.