Archive for Super Bowl XLIV

A Scam Alert, Walking In A Winter Wonderland, And A Brand New Feature

Posted in Idiot Alert, News/Current Events, NFL Football, Personal, Rants, Sports, The Wrapups with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2010 by thelasthonestman

With Valentine’s Day upcoming this weekend, I give to everyone the gift of a look back at some of what got my attention this past week:

**  Scam Alert ** This morning, I was online paying bills when I got a nasty surprise checking my phone bill from AT&T.  My bill is always pretty much the same each month, give or take a penny — I use the same services each month, with no long distance calling (that’s what the cell phone is for) or other variable charges affecting the total.  Today, however, I noticed immediately that my bill had jumped up by an even $20.  A little digging revealed that I was getting hit with a charge from a 3rd-party called Headwind Media — with my account getting charged a CMI Exclusive Monthly Fee of $20.  Who’s Headwind Media and what services was I getting for that $20?  I had never heard of them — and was 100% certain that I hadn’t signed up for anything — so I quickly made a call to AT&T. They were able to put a hold on the charge, pending further investigation that I had to do (since, according to them, this other company wouldn’t talk about the issue to anyone other than me, since I was the one who had “ordered” the service).

What are companies like Headwind Media looking for? An all-day one of these who's not paying attention to their bills.

As it turns out, Headwind Media is something called a “Social Celebrity Network” — what that means, your guess is as good as mine — and they claimed that I had ordered their service and committed to a contract online.  They also claimed that they had gotten personal information from me at that time to verify the order.  When I pressed them on what information they could have possibly had other than the public info which would be easily obtainable with even the slightest bit of digging (e-mail address and home phone, just for examples), they weren’t able to give me anything — in fact, the person I talked to actually tried to get me to tell him other personal information (which, if I had been gullible enough to give to him, they then presumably would have claimed they had already in order to hold me to this supposed contract).

It took a few minutes of my life that I’ll never get back, but I got the service canceled, a credit posted to my phone bill, and I now have a block on the company with AT&T so they can’t do it again.   I had a similar situation crop up with the company three or four months ago (I got a “order confirmation” from them in my inbox on that occasion, but I had stopped that occurrence before it ever hit my phone bill).

After searching online, I saw that this is apparently a popular scam, with stories of other people suffering similar aggravation pretty commonplace.  The advice, as always, is that a struggling economy leads to more and more instances of rip-off/scam artists practicing their tricks.  It’s always a wise idea to read through all of your bills closely, to scrutinize every charge, and to make sure that whatever you’re being charged for, it’s something you actually are receiving — and that it’s something that you actually authorized.  Stopping fraudulent charges beforehand is far less of a headache than trying to recoup the money after they’ve already gotten it.

— Snow is falling everywhere it seems.  Even those of us who’re living in the South aren’t immune to the white stuff — my wife saw snow flurries driving to work this morning, and there was snowfall in parts of Texas (including more than a foot in the Dallas area), Louisiana, southern Mississippi, and Alabama.

Meanwhile, many cities on the East Coast saw record-breaking amounts of snowfall themselves.  This is now the snowiest winter on record for the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. — which was essentially shut down for the 4th day in a row.  People across the Eastern States have been faced with the loss of power and difficulty in traveling.  Thankfully, with the exception of some isolated occurrences, it never turned particularly deadly.

My own memories of blizzard conditions comes from living in the Chicago Metropolitan Area as a young boy, where I witnessed firsthand the great Chicago Blizzard of 1979.  The one thing I remember best from that year (besides the days I didn’t have to go to school) was that the response by the city to the storm was underwhelming, and the perception that the city government — particularly the mayor’s office — had been ill-prepared for such an event played a large part in the upset election of Jane Byrne as mayor over incumbent Michael Bilandic (who had taken over after the death of Richard Daley), making her the only female mayor in the city’s history.  With many local officials in the snow-affected areas feeling the heat (particularly Washington mayor Adrian Fenty), there’s a chance that history might repeat itself in the form of voter discontent in the future over storm response.

Beware: Idiots Ahead

— And finally, a new feature on the blog will be the Idiot Alert — where we’ll look at massive idiocy wherever it can be found.  Unlike the attempts to hand out Ro-Sham-Bo and Le Boo Coaching Awards on a semi-regular schedule, the Idiot Alerts will be given purely at random and when the situation arises.   With that in mind, anyone wanting to contribute a nominee is more than welcome — send your Idiot-worthy note to thelasthonestman@ymail.com and you may get a shout-out here.

Today’s Idiot Alert is for a guy masquerading as a sports journalist on some site called the Bleacher Report (which according to some, is no more than a site allowing random posts by pretty much anyone and often featuring the dedicated ramblings of biased homers).  Which might explain the suggestion by someone with the suspiciously-sounding name of Steve Montana — who claims that the gutsy call by New Orleans head coach Sean Payton to open up the 2nd half of the Super Bowl was little more than a “cheap and dirty” play and an example of poor sportsmanship.  In his piece, Montana goes on to claim others head-scratching gems — such as the fact that the Saints outplayed the Colts only “for the most part”, and that an NFL rule should be enacted banning a team from attempting an onside kick to start a half.

Other than the fact that Montana is likely the owner of a phone number with a 317 area code (Hey, Headwind Media — why don’t you sign him up for your great service?), I would have normally marveled at his complete ignorance of the NFL rules in general, as well as what constitutes “fair play”, as well as the ridiculous bias that could only come from someone who was a Colts fan — or at least a close relative of someone in the organization — if I hadn’t realized that he only intended to be funny and that he wasn’t serious.

So, he was trying to be funny, right?  Definitely sarcastic, no?  Uh …. err …  you mean, he’s wasn’t — he’s … he’s actually serious?

Fail.

Congratulations, Steve Montana — you’re responsible for our first-ever Idiot Alert!  For your own safety, in the future make sure to stay away from any sharp objects — as well as your computer keyboard!

— With that, I hope everyone enjoys the weekend and stays safe in you’re in part of the country that’s experiencing a winter wonderland.   I had hoped to have another piece up for yesterday, but time constraints (and having a plumber all day at the house) has forced me to push that back to Monday.  Join me then for a look back at the Greatest Upset In Boxing History.  What was it?  If you don’t already know, come back then to find out!

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Start The Super Bowl Celebration — New Orleans Is Your Super Bowl Champs

Posted in Le Boo Coaching Awards, NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2010 by thelasthonestman

In the end, could Super Bowl XLIV have gone any other way?

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:

— I talked last week about the different organizational mindsets between the two teams: the conservative, “afraid to fail” approach by the Colts that was no better exemplified than by their willing decline of the challenge of football immortality if they’d gone unbeaten (which was there for their taking), and the fearless, inspirational approach by the Saints, who embraced and welcomed the enormous weight of carrying an entire region of desperate fans onto their shoulders.

We saw those approaches again last night in some of the biggest moments of the game.  First was the decision by Saints coach Sean Payton to go for the TD down by the goal line and trailing by 7 late in the 1st half.  I heard a number of people calling the decision the wrong one — taking the points would have been the safe, cautious decision (and the one the Colts would have certainly made in the same situation — look back to their similar scenario against the Jets two weeks ago).  But Payton’s call was undoubtedly the right one.  To beat Indy, the Saints needed to punch the ball in the end zone, and the drive represented the best chance of doing so they’d had all night.  Settling for 3 would have given the Colts the ball back in normal field position and would have likely ended up with Indy driving for their own field goal, nullifying any momentum the Saints  might have gained by going for the field goal then.

By going for it, Payton was displaying the ultimate confidence, not only in his offense, but in his defense as well.  Even though they didn’t score, Indy was left pinned deep in their own territory, giving New Orleans an opportunity to make a stop defensively and still have enough time left on the clock to try a field goal.

Helping them was the decision by Colts coach Jim Caldwell and the Indy coaching staff to go ultra-conservative at that point — afraid-to-fail, indeed.  Instead of trying to move the ball through the air to get a first down and possibly add some points of their own, the Colts ran the ball up the middle three straight times, giving the Saints the ball right back and with enough time for kicker Garrett Hartley to boot the field goal at the end of the half.

It was a decision that was a classic example of the Colts’ managerial mentality, but why should they have been worried about opening up the playbook, even deep in their own territory?  You have tremendous receivers, arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, and you’ve moved the ball relatively effectively against the New Orleans defense when you’ve had the ball — why not do so now?

Peyton manning can only watch as Tracy Porter scores the game-clinching TD after his interception

— Speaking of the second quarter, the Saints offense finally started getting untracked then after two tough opening drives where they went three-and-out, and it was in time of possession that quarter that New Orleans made their first steps to winning the game.  Even though they had to settle for a single field goal in their first two drives of the quarter, they chewed up an incredible 12:27 off of the clock.  Indy’s only drive before the run-the-clock-out one at the half’s conclusion was a three-and-out series that took up barely over a minute.

Beating the Colts requires ball control, no mistakes (the Saints never turned the ball over and committed only 3 penalties for 19 yards the entire game), and keeping your offense on the field while limiting the time Manning has to beat you.  New Orleans started doing just that after the first quarter was over, and despite being outgained, they won the time of possession battle.  The Colts would have only 8 drives in the game, far below their average on the season.

— The onside kick call at the start of the second half wasn’t just the game-changer and momentum-shifter, it goes down as the gutsiest call ever by a coach in the Super Bowl.   Again, like his call to go for it on 4th and 1, Payton was challenging his team to come up big, part of that fearless approach of the Saints I’ve talked at length about.   It was a crucial call, as a Colts recovery and a short field might have easily led to an Indy TD and the beginning of the end for the Saints’ chances.  But unlike the onside kick at the end of the game that’s a sign of desperation, an onside kick earlier in the game often catches the other team napping and unprepared for it, dramatically increasing its chances of success.  The Saints’ recovery of the onside gave life to the team and certainly demoralized the struggling Colts even further — and New Orleans’ subsequent drive to capitalize with the go-ahead TD was even more key — at that point, New Orleans knew the game was theirs for the taking, and it was likely the first moment all night that the Colts had to begin questioning if they were going to lose.

— Going into the game, there was a lot of talk from the experts (about 80% of so who picked Indy to win) about why the Colts were going to end up as champions — one of those reasons was the supposed status of the AFC as the “superior” conference.

That turned out to be an overstated opinion, and it’s one that the regular season itself didn’t back up.  The NFC’s overall record against the AFC was drug down by some truly inept teams (Tampa, Detroit, and St. Louis, who went 1-11 vs. the AFC in 2009), but the top teams in the NFC fared relatively well in the regular season against the opposing conference:  New Orleans, Minnesota, Dallas, Green Bay, and Arizona went 13-7 combined against the AFC (the Saints finishing 4-0)  Meanwhile, the AFC was populated by some pretty mediocre squads who still made the playoffs: the Pats who couldn’t win on the road, the Jets and Bengals with terrible passing attacks, a 9-7 Ravens team, and a perpetually underachieving Chargers squad represented the best-of-the-best of the conference to challenge Indy — not an overly impressive bunch.  The AFC advantage talked about leading up to the Super Bowl was largely an illusion.

At least they can be proud of that 16-0 mark ... errr .... scratch that

— I’m a firm believer that karma and the football gods got their way in Indy going down to defeat Sunday night.  If you’re been reading here, you should remember my scathing indictment of what I thought Indy’s decision to spit in the face of football immortality (by willingly surrendering a 16-0 season that was theirs for the taking) meant, and what I thought it amounted to in the larger scheme of things.  I find it incredibly ironic that, despite their attempts to keep everyone healthy, Indy still ended up with two of their key players in Dwight Freeney and Reggie Wayne at less-than-100% last night (Freeney was injured at the end of the win against the Jets, while Wayne was hurt in a normal practice).  Both looked like different players last night than what we saw in the regular season — Wayne never showed his usual explosiveness, while Freeney was a shell of himself in the 2nd half.

What’s sad to me about the Colts is that the approach of President Bill Polian and Coach Caldwell — which was implemented, in theory, to keep the team healthy for the Super Bowl — not only didn’t work anyway, but their stated opinion that the regular season meant “nothing” and that winning the Super Bowl was the “only” goal of the franchise has essentially rendered the entire Indy campaign as a failure, by their own standards and admissions.  The Colts players and fans deserved better than that — Indy had a tremendous season in which they won a league-high seven games when trailing in the 4th quarter, and despite rookie receivers and a shaky running game, they had a chance to channel the spirit of those unbeaten Dolphins — a team themselves that was solid and consistent, if not spectacular.  Instead, they threw away their shot at history — and now, they don’t even have the Super Bowl win they needed to validate the decision.

— Finally, a Le Boo Coaching Award to give out this week and it goes to a Colts coach — sort of.  Not Jim Caldwell, but the ex-coach of Indianapolis, Tony Dungy.

All season long while working for NBC, when the subject of the Colts has come up, Dungy has been more shill than analyst, relentlessly complimenting Indianapolis at every turn and seemingly incapable of turning a critical eye to any of their decisions.  That’s understandable, I guess — after all, Caldwell is a disciple of Dungy’s approach to running the team, so it makes perfect sense that everything the rookie coach did would meet with Dungy’s approval — and I certainly understand the former coach’s loyalty to the organziation and its players.

But that didn’t explain Dungy’s assertion this week that, not only would the Colts win on Sunday, but that the game “wouldn’t even be close”.  Throughout his coaching career, Dungy has always been a classy, soft-spoken guy — the type who’d let the other side do the talking.  This week, however, he seemed emboldened in not only anointing Indy as the champs, but cementing Manning’s status alongside Super Bowl immortals like Montana and Bradshaw.

Not only was the proclamation premature, but it was ill-advised.  There’s nothing wrong with Dungy believing that, and there would have been nothing wrong with picking the Colts to win if asked by other media — what else would he say?  But in his dismissive statements about the level of opposition that New Orleans would put up, Dungy not only acted uncharacteristically — but he gave New Orleans some added bulletin-board material.  It may not have amounted to a whole lot, but it certainly didn’t do the Colts any favors.  Maybe the next time Indy makes to the Super Bowl, Dungy will remember that nothing good comes from giving the other team even more reason to beat you than they already have.

— With that, we’ve wrapped up another tremendous NFL season.  Baseball is right around the corner, so that’s what I’m gearing up for next.  Hopefully we’ll see as great a campaign there as we just finished with.

New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , on February 7, 2010 by thelasthonestman

Wow.

As I predicted back on Monday, the Saints are your Super Bowl champions.  What a game, and what a 2nd half tonight for New Orleans.

The party has already started here in Louisiana.  I’ll be by tomorrow with an in-depth look back at the game, so make sure to come back then.  For now, it’s time to celebrate in the Big Easy.

Watching This Show Makes Me VERY Hungry

Posted in Entertainment, Television with tags , , , , on February 3, 2010 by thelasthonestman

One of my recent television discoveries was purely accidental.  I was flipping through the satellite guide a few weeks back and saw a show called Man vs. Food running a marathon on the Travel Channel.  I wasn’t sure what the show was, but the title was intriguing enough, so I flipped over to it.  Needless to say, I was hooked, and I’ve now made it a point to try to catch as many of the reruns of the show’s most current season (its 2nd) whenever possible.  Tonight, Man Vs. Food will be live from Miami and the Super Bowl with a two-hour special, on the Travel Channel at 9:00 ET, and I’ll be one of the ones watching.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the show before, the premise is pretty simple: host Adam Richman (an actor who has two qualities necessary for a show like this — extensive culinary experience and a hearty appetite) travels around the country, sampling popular local dishes at restaurants, diners, and other eating establishments. We’re not talking about high-brow dishes either — no, the choices on this show’s menu are all American classics: pizza, hamburgers, steaks, chili, sandwiches, and more, often coming with unique compositions or constructions.

The highlight of every show is a local “eating challenge” at one of the local establishments in the host city for that week, where Richman tackles a dish that’s often larger than what I manage to put away in a whole day’s worth of eating.   I’ve seen the host tackle 12-pound hamburgers, 12-inch, 22-pound stuffed pizzas, a 74-ounce steak challenge, and foods made with multiple Naga Jolokia peppers, certified as the hottest peppers in the world (so hot, that not only are they rated with an intensity of more than 100 times that of Tabasco sauce, they’re also smeared on fences in India to keep away wild elephants).

As much as I love burgers, I can't even fathom putting this down in one sitting

The eating challenges are absolutely staggering in their size and intensity.  Normally, I’m not a fan of anything that even resembles competitive eating — there’s something unsettling to me about watching one person plow through a ton of food, while knowing how many people in the world still go hungry every day — but Richman is admittedly not a competitive eater (along the lines of a Joey Chestnut).  The challenges themselves, while huge helpings of food, aren’t impossible for the heartiest appetites to overcome.  And boy, do they all look tasty — at some point in the episodes I’ve seen, invariably, I find myself heading to the fridge.

After now seeing most of the episodes of the show’s two seasons, I’ve made a note to myself to check out some of the establishments spotlighted the next time I’m in any of the cities that have been featured (for the regular dishes, and not any of the monster challenges, of course).  The Man vs. Food episode tonight will see Richman tackle a 48 ounce Steak Challenge.  While it’s probably safe to say that none of the dishes you see on the show are the healthiest options for a person’s diet, if you a fan of good food as a guilty pleasure, this show is pretty easy to consume.

April Is The Cruelest Month, While February Is … The Shortest

Posted in Entertainment, Fantasy Baseball, Movies, News/Current Events, NFL Football, Personal, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 2, 2010 by thelasthonestman

We’re now into the second day of the shortest month of the year — and what better way to welcome February than with a entry today filled with nothing but short notes:

— Even though their only game this past weekend was the “Why don’t they just play flag football if no one’s actually going to try and tackle someone?” exhibition known as the Pro Bowl,  the NFL is still in the news today.  The biggest story today from the upcoming Super Bowl is the ankle injury — reportedly a torn ligament — that threatens to knock Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney out of the game.

Maybe the Colts should have kept Freeney in one of these for safe-keeping

If he can’t go, the loss of the Freeney would be huge for the Colts.  He’s listed as questionable for Sunday, having missed every Colts practice last week, though Indianapolis coaches and players are hoping for better news as the week unfolds.  It’s too bad the Colts didn’t just rest him throughout that pesky regular season and playoffs — he might not have gotten hurt then!  Clearly, anything other than moving him around from August to now in any contraption short of having mattresses,  pillows, and pads tied around every inch of his body was unnecessary risk-taking from Indianapolis when it came to safeguarding one of they key players for the ultimate goal, the Super Bowl.  And yes, I’m being sarcastic.  Sort of.

— Meanwhile, the other big NFL news is the ruling from Special Master Stephen Burbank that the league’s attempts to rid themselves of a revenue sharing pool — which adds up to $220 million in 2010 and helps to fund almost 1/3 of the NFL’s lower-revenue clubs — isn’t going to happen.  The league had argued that the pool was only required in years with a salary cap — which the upcoming 2010 season looks like it will not have — but Burbank ruled in favor of the NFL Players Association in stating that such a change couldn’t be made without the consent of the union.

A sight no football fan wants to ever see again

For those of you who’ve forgotten about the ugliness of the labor struggles in the 1980’s that plagued the NFL, you’re about to get a refresher course as this decision is only the first shots fired in what’s going to be a bitter war between players and owners — meaning that we’re about to get another edition of billionaires fighting against millionaires, an idiotic exercise in greed that leaves the common fan like you and me as the real losers.  You’d think that with such a large pie to divide (partly thanks to the ridiculous costs now associated with actually attending or watching NFL games) and incentive to keep the money flowing in, both sides would be able to come to some sort of agreement rather easily — and of course, you’d be thinking wrong.

My own money is on a lockout by the owners next season.  In the past, I’d been on management’s side more often than not when it came to these sports labor disputes, but over time I’ve come to despise both parties when we reach a situation where ridiculous amounts of money coming in isn’t enough for either side.  The NFL has always been at the top of the sports food chain, but both parties in this fight should remember the 1994 baseball strike and the near-crippling effect it had on the game.  In a country where people are losing their jobs and their homes, and where the news is filled with stories of big-money businesses on Wall Street sticking it to the common man, the average NFL fan will have less patience than ever before for people, most  who are out of touch with the realities of life that face most Americans, fighting over billions of dollars.

"With this many films up for Best Picture, I don't understand why they couldn't have given a nomination for 'All About Steve' too."

Oscar nominations were announced today, with a larger roster of films than usual competing for the top prize.  This year marks the first since the change was made to expand the number of movies nominated for best picture to 10, (up from the previous total of 5).  Looking over the list of the films that made the cut, I’m thinking that some of the concerns voiced about the move watering down the honor were well-founded.

Nominated for Best Picture was box-office juggernaut Avatar, as well as the well-reviewed films The Hurt Locker and the animated Up.  None of those three were a surprise in their nominations, and if well-respected film critics are to be believed, all three were more than worthy (even though I still haven’t seen Avatar, everyone who loves the film can’t be wrong, right?).

However, there are some movies on the rest of the list that make it look like the Academy was just trying to fill space.  Several films on the list of ten were entertaining movies, but they just don’t feel like Oscar winners.  District 9Inglorious Basterds? The Blind Side?  Really?  While those three were all solid movies, none of them would have gotten an Oscar nod before this year – and that’s because, frankly, none of them would have deserved one.

The house keeps punching away, but we just won't stay down

— Lastly, I may be spotty this week with updates as I’ll be tied up with renovation work around the house.  I’ve got tile installers invading my life for the next two weeks, as well as upcoming visits from my plumber and carpet installer.  All of this is good news, however, as it means my stalled home renovation is picking up speed again.  My father-in-law picked himself up off the canvas like Rocky Balboa the last two weekends, coming through for the project in a huge way — and the work getting done in the next week or so will be crucial to get the work done here once and for all.

So while the work goes on around me, it gives me an opportunity to start boning up on my upcoming fantasy baseball season.  As we get closer to the start of the season, stay here for some advice guaranteed to probably be of  no help to you in your own leagues, but hopefully it will be entertaining nonetheless.  If you’ve forgotten how I did last season when it came to making predictions, a recap of the carnage can be found here.

Carrying The Banner Of An Entire Region

Posted in NFL Football, Sports with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2010 by thelasthonestman

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.