Carrying The Banner Of An Entire Region

My friend Steven knows better than anyone exactly what’s like to be a Saints fan right now — even though his pro football team of choice has always been the Buffalo Bills.  Steven lived in New Orleans some time back, and his time here did leave him as more than just an interested party as to how the Saints fare on a week-to-week basis.  But more than his time spent as a local, it’s his choice of baseball teams that makes him a spiritual brother to the fans in the Gulf Coast region who’ll be feverishly rooting New Orleans on in Miami this weekend.  You see, Steven is a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan — and that gives him an insight as to how a fan base feels when the impossible finally comes true.

There are a few examples of tortured fan bases who saw their teams finally achieve success and capture the imagination of the city in which they play by winning it all.  The Phillies World Series win in 1980 is one of those (while the 2007 champions are mentioned by many as an example, going 27 years between titles wasn’t nearly as bad as the nearly 100 years the franchise took to go  from inception to the top of the mountain).  The White Sox World Series win in 2005 was another — in a way (for this White Sox fan, at least) — though the majority of Chicago baseball fans are still waiting for the city’s favorite tortured team, the Cubs to break through.  And of course, there’s the story of the “cursed” Red Sox finally vanquishing the Yankees and winning the Series in 2004.  And we won’t even go into the stories of franchises who’ve come close on numerous occasions only to tease their fans with close calls that came up just short (the Minnesota Vikings and the Buffalo Bills, just for starters).

But none of these groups — not even the vaunted Red Sox and their beloved “nation” of fans — can understand what’s gone on here in New Orleans over the years, nor what’s going on here now in the aftermath of New Orleans’ NFC Championship Game heart-stopping win over the Vikings last weekend in the Louisiana Superdome.  In all of sports, you’d be hard-pressed to find a franchise who’d had as little success as the Saints did for so long (no winning seasons for 20 years, and no playoff wins for over 30 years) — and yet have been as loved — and supported — as this football team is in the Crescent City.

The Saints were the first professional major league franchise to land in the city, and in many ways they’ve overshadowed everything else that’s tried to make a go of it here from a sporting perspective.  Louisiana is first and foremost a football state — one of my first shocks as a sports fan moving back down here as a teenager in 1983 was listening to high school pigskin reports taking precedence over major league baseball news even in the heat of the pennant races of September on the local sports telecasts.  Other professional teams have had varying degrees of success — the Jazz spent only five seasons in New Orleans before moving to Salt Lake City (though the team was moderately supported), and while the Hornets have fared much better, they’ve still played a distant second fiddle to the Saints in the hearts of those in the city.

Archie Manning leaving the field after a loss, a common sight for early Saints fans

And that’s because the Saints have never been “just” a pro team in New Orleans, they’ve been like a member of the family for so many people that live here — with all of the good and the bad things that goes with that type of relationship.  There’s always been an unconditional love between the team and its fans, no matter how disappointed the Saints would leave you at the end of the season, and no matter how much they lost (and that was usually a lot).  If anything, the years of losing cemented the bond between the team and its fans.  Even in one of the darkest years of the franchise, the 1980 debacle in which the team went 1-15 after losing its first 14 games and fans took to wearing bags over their heads and calling the team the ” ‘Aints”, the fan support somehow never wavered.  Unlike fan bases who’ve become bitter, angry — or worse– indifferent — about a team’s struggles, the New Orleans faithful remained stubbornly optimistic about their team’s future.  That optimism was rewarded, if only slightly, by successful blips on the radar — the team’s first winning season in 1987, the team’s first playoff win in 2000.

And then, everything changed when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf South in 2005.

It wasn’t just New Orleans itself that was devastated by that killer storm — it was numerous smaller towns and communities scattered around the lakes and bayous of the region, as well as the neighboring cities of Mississippi, and in every one of those places you found die-hard Saints fans, many of which lost everything they had in the world to Katrina: their homes, their possessions, their livelihoods, and in some cases — the lives of people they loved.  In the aftermath of a tragedy, those who’re affected often talk about looking for something — anything — to get their lives back to a semblance of normalcy (no better recent example was the effect the Yankees had on the city of New York following the tragedy of 9/11).

In the depths of the greatest despair in the city's history, there always remained a ray of hope that life would return to normal

But for the people of New Orleans and the Gulf South, it wasn’t the Saints — not at first.  The team wouldn’t play a game in the city for all of that 2005 season — in fact, they would only play a handful of games in the state of Louisiana, spending a large part of their season in San Antonio instead.  Rumors of an imminent departure for the Alamodome, or for another locale such as Los Angeles, was constantly in the news, and in the minds of a populace already reeling from losing everything else.

There was fear that this team was going to vanish without warning — the sports equivalent of seeing your spouse serve up divorce papers after 40+ years of wedded bliss, when you thought you’d be together forever.  Hearing the rumors of owner Tom Benson meeting with San Antonio officials left those who’d remained behind in the ravaged remains of the city numb with grief.  While it seemed more than unjust and unfair, the possibility of life in the future without the Saints was a very real one.  I thought it was an inevitability — and I was far from the only one.

And yet — the team didn’t leave.  Benson and the NFL made a commitment to stay, at least long enough to give the region an opportunity to pull itself off of the ground and show yet again why the team was part of the very fabric of existence for its residents, as necessary a component for the recovery of New Orleans as wood, concrete, and steel were.  Against all odds, the Superdome was reopened in time for the Saints to host Atlanta in a nationally-televised game on ESPN September 24, 2006.

That night, buoyed by one of the loudest crowds in the building’s history, the Saints pulled themselves and their faithful from the ashes, crushing the Falcons and saving the franchise’s future in New Orleans in the process.  It was as emotional a night as I’ve ever experienced in sports, and I’m not ashamed to admit to the lump I had in my throat when the team took the field that night.

Since then, it’s been a roller coaster of a ride for both New Orleans and its team, the city’s recovering mirroring the Saints’ fortunes in more ways than one.  There have been the ups (like the Saints appearance in the 2006 NFC title game, losing to the Bears in Chicago) and the downs (a 7-9 mark the following year) — but this year, something magical happened.  Starting 13-0, easily the best beginning to a season in franchise history, the team captured the imagination of the area like nothing else had before, or likely will again.  The week, more than ever, revolved around the team’s fortunes on Sundays.  People I knew who weren’t even sports fans became caught up in the team’s tremendous start, and fans who’d watched the team for all of their 40+ years of existence began to ask the question they’d never dared to before:  Could this really be our year?

That excitement built to a crescendo in the week leading up to the NFC title game, and it was unbelievable and unlike anything I’d seen firsthand before.  All week long, no matter where you went in the area, you saw people dressed in Saints’ shirts and jerseys: the tellers at my local bank, the waitresses at the local food spots — even local television personalities, like weatherman Bob Breck, wore Saints apparel on the air, while priests in local churches mentioned the team in their sermons.  The team was carrying not only their own hopes and dreams on their backs as they prepared to play the Vikings, they were carrying all of ours as well — and that knowledge was not lost on them.  Quarterback Drew Brees and others with the team talked at length about what a trip to the Super Bowl would mean to the area, as a final exclamation point to the truth that even Katrina couldn’t destroy the heart of the city and its people, and that life here would go on better than before.

I watched the game at my parents’ house, and on the way home afterward, there was no one else driving on the streets.  What I did see, however, were people who’d spilled from their homes into their front yards, many of them wearing Saints jerseys and shouting joyously at the top of their lungs to each other and to me I went by.  When I arrived home, I tried to call my wife (who’d gone out of town on business that night, but had made sure to watch the game in her hotel room) but I couldn’t get through because the phone lines had crashed due to the volume of calls, from people calling and texting one another with the news that the Saints had, at last, made it to the Promised Land.  In time, I heard fireworks being set off around town, and car horns honking in celebration.  It was like New Year’s here, a holiday breaking out in response to a win in a football game.

I’m loathe to pick a winner in this weekend’s Super Bowl, mainly because I don’t trust my judgement to stay impartial in this game.  While I’m a Bears fan first,  I’ll be rooting hard for New Orleans to send the Indianapolis Colts to defeat in Miami.   It’s nothing I have against the city of Indianapolis or its fans, but they’ve won a Super Bowl already (in 2006), and frankly, a title wouldn’t mean anything to that area compared to what it would mean to this region.  And, there’s my well-versed dislike of what the Colts turned into this year:  Indianapolis has become mechanical, robotic, and almost boring in the way they methodically have beaten their opposition this year, and their tossing aside of their chance at immortality represented their shying away from history because they fear losing more than their desire to be something truly special.

This New Orleans team has none of that fear — they’re playing with the weight of a region battered by 40+ years of losing and the aftermath of a storm that nearly killed this great city once and for all, and they’re not letting it intimidate them, but rather to inspire them to heights that no Saints team has ever reached before. They feel like a team of destiny — and I’m hoping that this Sunday, for their sake and for all of their fans who’ve lived and (mostly) died with them over the years, that they find it in themselves to come out on top just one more time.

I’m not going to break down the game any further than that.  I think the Saints win this Sunday, because there’s no other ending that would feel any more right — and that’s enough for me.  If I’ve learned anything from the numerous Saints fans I know, it’s that sometimes you have to ignore everything else — and go where your heart tells you to.

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One Response to “Carrying The Banner Of An Entire Region”

  1. […] That’s what I was saying last Monday when I predicted a New Orleans victory, and it was incredibly satisfying as a football fan to see what transpired last night.  The game itself was an incredible one, continuing the streak of thrilling, close-played games that we’ve seen more often than not for a while now).  Lead changes, momentum shifts, trick plays, gutsy play-calling, clutch performances – we saw all of it and more in Super Bowl XLIV.  As today dawns with the reality that the New Orleans Saints are actually the champions of the football world (and the kings of a week-long carnival celebration in the Big Easy that will culminate in Fat Tuesday a week from now), some thoughts from last night’s contest: […]

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