On a cross-country flight last week, I sat next to one of those individuals who clearly felt as if she was entitled to everything. She complained about the airline, what they didn’t do, should be doing, etc. She was angry about the fact we were significantly delayed because of the weather and how she needed to be where she was going and the airline needed to get her to her destination on time. She was angry and yelling at her staff on her phone as to why they didn’t think of this, that and the other. She ranted about how her team was comprised of these “young 20 and early 30-somethings who spend so much time training for their triathlons, runs and workouts all the time and just need to just focus on work!” She couldn’t understand why they would reference the parallels between working through challenges in business with their experience as an athlete, especially as part of a team. She finished her tirade several minutes later with a full-on bash about how “stupid” the Super Bowl was and “who cares about the New Orleans Saints anyway!”

Then she asked me what I did for a living. When I told her, she looked like anyone who instantly realizes they have just been stricken with “foot in mouth” disease. I think you see where this is going…

Dreams. Struggle. Inspiration. Drama. Competition. Excitement. Pushing the limits. It’s what sport is about. It’s what life is about.

Sport parallels life and business on many levels. Almost every level when you think about it. It is a way of unifying people across the lines of class, culture and race. Whether it’s pursuing a dream, overcoming challenges, pulling together to achieve greatness, appreciating the spirit of competition, knowing what it means to be an underdog, dealing with loss, winning with grace, losing with dignity, coming back from injury, etc.; learning and understanding how to handle any of these situations contributes to building perhaps the most important thing anyone looks for in a partner, employee, boss or friend – character. Character counts. It matters. And it’s just one of the many things you can truly develop through sport.

The lessons learned through sport give us perspective and teach us how to handle adversity. They provide us with cues on how to deal with whatever life or business throws our way. At some point in each of our lives, we will face adversity in both our professional and personal lives. When we do, we will need our friends, family and faith more than ever. We need our “teammates.” They help get us through and we must do the same for them.

And that is why the New Orleans Saints matter.

Ask any of your friends or family who hail from New Orleans or the Gulf Coast region. Oh, the Saints matter. They are not just a beloved franchise for their fan base, they are a source of inspiration to our fellow Americans who hail from a spirited city with so much culture, that was devastated by one of the worst natural disasters our country has ever experienced in Hurricane Katrina.

The world famous Louisiana Superdome facility they play in has hosted many Super Bowls and events. But in the wake of Katrina, it served as a makeshift home for thousands of people and families who needed refuge after their neighborhoods were decimated.

The Saints understand the role they play in helping their city and region recover. Their stars, like quarterback Drew Brees and running back Reggie Bush, knew that coming to play for New Orleans meant more than just football and a big paycheck. They had the power to influence and help those around them, and they have. We’ll never forget the first Monday Night Football game in the Superdome when the Saints truly came marching in, to the tears and thunderous applause of not just those in the Superdome, but to the millions around the country watching. For 37 seconds, ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew remained quiet (about the 2:21 mark in this link) and let the world hear and feel the emotional impact. It was one of the best moves ever by a broadcast crew. Don’t underestimate the influence and significance of the power of sport. We were all Saints on that day.

Nearly two weeks ago, five years removed from Katrina, those same Saints won their first ever NFC Championship in that same Superdome in front of those same faithful fans. Their coach, Sean Payton, was quite clear after that win (ironically, against another Gulf Coast and Mississippi native, Brett Favre, and his Minnesota Vikings) saying, “Four years ago, there were holes in this roof. The fans in this city and this region deserve it. Like I said before, I’m just proud to be a part of it, to be part of something that is so special for this city and well deserved.”

The Saints in the Super Bowl helps the recovery of a hurricane and flood ravaged area. Does it heal and fix everything? No, but when you’ve been knocked down, you get back up. You keep fighting. You don’t quit. New Orleans has a way to go, but there is a very bright future ahead for this city and the Saints are just one of those bright spots.

The Saints represent the underdog. The one nobody ever thought could do it. There’s no sense of entitlement here. Their achievements, much like those fighting to rebuild this city, are based on hard work, perseverance, fighting to overcome the odds and being a source of inspiration for others. Their fans have suffered long - 43 years of being at the bottom, sans a couple of playoff runs in recent years. Infamously known for wearing the brown paper bags with “AINTS” written across the top, those fans suffer no more.

This is the team that had the first legendary Manning quarterback (Archie) lead their downtrodden franchise for many of those years. Archie Manning gave so much to the Saints and the city. He and his wife Olivia had three boys – Cooper, Peyton and Eli – who they raised in that city. The latter two are now Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, in back-to-back years nonetheless. And on February 7, 2010, Peyton will lead his Colts against none other than those same – check that – newfound New Orleans Saints and the entire “WHO DAT!” Nation.

Let’s not forget, even though Peyton will be on the opposing side this weekend, the Manning Family understands the significance of what it means to New Orleans for the Saints to be here. It is their home. It’s where they’re from. Following Katrina, Peyton and Eli went back to their hometown to help, along with many other celebrities like Brad Pitt, Winton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., and more. They did the right thing and helped pull people and resources together to benefit all of those affected by the horrors of our nation’s worst natural disaster. Character.

By the end of the conversation, that same woman sitting next to me seemed to have a new appreciation for why sports matter, the character and resolve they build in individuals, and how they test the will of a team to pull together to achieve greatness. I expressed to her that she shouldn’t underestimate the power and influence that she has on her staff. She is after all, their coach. I asked her to think about what kind of coach she wants to be, as her staff will take their cues on what and what not to do from her, look to her for inspiration, leadership, direction, and pulling the team together. Hopefully, she’ll embrace this role for their benefit.

As for the significance of sport and how it parallels life and business, the Saints, the city of New Orleans, and the Super Bowl? I think she now understands that the ultimate underdog – representing a city that has been through Hell – playing in the ultimate team sport’s crown jewel, represents a lot more than “just a game.” And I hope she becomes a better team leader.