With the Super Bowl in sight, a transplanted New Orleans Saints fan reflects on football, faith and the meaning of the Black and Gold.
Scaring a baby and making him cry was the first sign.
It was Sunday, Sept. 27, 1998, and Hurricane Georges had made an unexpected last-minute northwestern turn toward Mississippi after we went to sleep the previous night. We had evacuated from New Orleans to stay with my wife's family in New Iberia, and before we headed back to the Crescent City, everyone lazily gathered around the living room TV to watch football. When New Orleans Saints quarterback Danny Wuerffel's overtime touchdown pass to tight end Cam Cleeland beat the Indianapolis Colts to make the Saints' record 3-0, I elatedly jumped off the sofa and yelled so loudly that I shocked my 9-month-old nephew into a fit of tears.
My wife and in-laws gave me that look: What has gotten into you?
The Saints ' and the unwavering devotion of their fans ' were a perplexing oddity to me since I'd moved to Louisiana from Connecticut in 1993. They had never won a playoff game in their 30-year-plus history, but ignoring them was impossible. The Saints were inescapable on talk radio, in the newspapers, and in chatter across the city. The franchise's woebegone history hovered over every fresh loss, and even the most uninterested onlookers knew the lore of downtrodden "Aints" fans wearing paper bags over their heads at games and the theories about voodoo curses on the Superdome. Riding the bus down Canal Street, buying a cup of coffee at a po-boy shop on St. Charles Avenue, waiting in a Lakeview doctor's office or taking the elevator up the old Maison Blanche building, someone would always try and initiate a conversation.
"Can you believe Everett threw that interception?"
"We never shoulda let Morten Anderson go."
"Alex Molden with the No. 1 pick in the draft?"
And on those Monday mornings when the Saints did manage to win on Sunday, the question was always the same, asked with a smile:
"How 'bout dem Saints?"
I was the wrong person to ask. This obsession with a perennially dismal team was downright bizarre. It reached new levels of absurdity for me in 1996 when the team went 3-13 and coach Jim Mora resigned in mid-season. What kind of person wants to spend their autumn Sunday afternoons enduring three hours of indigestion and heartbreak?
Those people aren't just in New Orleans ' they're all over Acadiana and Louisiana.
Mark Meaux was 5 years old when the Saints played their Sept. 17, 1967, debut game in Tulane Stadium. "My Uncle Carol came over to my house, and he and my dad were watching the game," remembers Meaux, lead singer of Lafayette band The Bluerunners. "Then [John] Gilliam ran it back for a touchdown, and both he and my dad were yelling, 'He scored a touchdown!' I didn't even know what a touchdown was, but it's a memory I'll never forget."
A few games later, Meaux's father got out a legal pad and two pens and sat down on the floor with his son. He explained all the terms and rules to him: what a first down was, where the yardage markers were, how many points a field goal was worth. Sundays after the family went to church, they'd often stop at Church's and bring home fried chicken to watch the Saints. "Then when I was 8, Archie Manning came to Cajun Field to throw passes," says Meaux. "I camped out across the street in my neighbors' backyard the night before, and we cooked steaks. I ended up getting terrible food poisoning, and I couldn't go and catch a pass from Archie. It was the darkest day of my life," he says with a laugh.
Lafayette attorney Larry Burleigh started taking his sons to watch the Saints in Tulane Stadium. "Now I have four diehard Saints fans," says Burleigh. "Jack is 40, David's 38, Larry Jr.'s 36, and Bob's 34. We were in the stadium when Tom Dempsey kicked his 63-yard field goal, and we were there when Archie Manning rolled out against Los Angeles and scored his first touchdown. Those were some of the highlights, but there were a lot of lowlights, because the Saints screwed up so bad. When they started televising the games regularly, we'd watch the game every Sunday without fail. We were always tied up in the Saints."
Dan Indest is a Lafayette geologist in the oil business, but he spends two hours a day posting Saints articles and discussion items on the fan Web site saintsreport.com and occasionally co-hosts the Saintsreport radio show at 9 a.m. Tuesday mornings on ESPN 1420 AM. Indest grew up in New Orleans and remembers getting season tickets through a special student offer in 1968. "It cost me $15 for 10 games," he says. "It was a whole different era. I was 12, my cousins were 11 and 10, and we were allowed to travel on the city bus by ourselves to the games." Fifty-two-year-old Indest now travels and stays with friends in Slidell on Saturday nights before tailgating in a parking lot near the Superdome on Saints game days.
The diehard commitments of Meaux, Indest and Burleigh represent a phenomenon that longtime Saints play-by-play announcer Jim Henderson of New Orleans' WWL 870 AM knows well. Henderson worked at other major markets including Atlanta before moving to New Orleans in 1978. "From the very beginning when I got here, comparing and contrasting it to Atlanta, the New Orleans fan is much more hardcore and committed than Atlanta, largely because the Saints were the only major league franchise in town for a long, long time," says Henderson. "People here grow up and live here generation after generation, so you see people who say their fathers used to take them to Tulane Stadium. In Atlanta, you almost never find a native Atlantan. They tend to be very trendy and fickle in their support of the team. If they're doing well, they're going to be there because that's the thing to do; if they aren't, there are too many other things they'd rather be doing. I think the Saints fan is probably as committed a fan as there is in the NFL."
As 70-year-old Burleigh succinctly puts it, "You don't like 'em because they're winning or losing; you like 'em because you like 'em. I've always said I would like them to get to a Super Bowl before I die."
Growing up, football was always part of my family's household. When the Connecticut weather was brutally cold from November through February, we'd spend Sunday afternoons inside watching NFL games. Mom would have a big pot of vegetable soup on in the kitchen while my younger brother and I would argue over whether Lynn Swann or Drew Pearson was a better wide receiver. My father, a traveling salesman during the week, would alternate between watching the games and reading the Sunday New York Times, often taking a brief catnap in his chair during the late afternoon game.
When the weather was tolerable, we'd play pickup games in the back yard. Dad would play quarterback while my brother and I did button hook routes, slants and long routes, trying to tackle each other into the pine trees at every opportunity. And Dad was the play-by-play announcer, calling every play with comedic exaggeration and drama: "Pittsburgh needs a miracle to win ... Bradshaw over center ... four seconds on the clock ... he takes the snap ... scrambles to his right and avoids a tackler ... now he's reversing course and scrambles left ... uh, oh, here comes Harvey Martin and Bradshaw runs toward the sideline ... he sees Swann in the corner of the end zone ... here comes a Hail Mary ... Swann leaps for a one-handed grab ... TOUCHDOWN!"
Connecticut has never had a pro football team, so my friends usually pledged their football allegiance to the New York Giants, New York Jets or New England Patriots, the closest geographical teams. Ditto for baseball; everyone loved the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. For reasons I still don't understand, I disliked all of them. I rooted for whatever football team caught my interest each year, and baseball-wise, I loved the Kansas City Royals, mostly because I played third base and worshipped George Brett.
I spent most of my life not knowing what it was like to root for the home team.
It was Da Coach, the cigar-chomping Super Bowl champ from Chicago, who lured me in. After Jim Mora's resignation, I remember watching an evening newscast and seeing a tank of a man emerge from Saints headquarters one night, with so many photographers' flash bulbs exploding around him it looked like a fireworks display.
Mike Ditka was coming out of retirement to coach the Saints.
Hmm, this could be interesting.
Like Bum Phillips before him, Ditka was a winner and a proven commodity ' and his gruff and salty demeanor seemed like a perfect fit for New Orleans. Season ticket sales rebounded, Da Coach opened a steakhouse in the downtown central business district, and his first 6-10 season in 1997 showed promise. When the Saints opened the '98 season 2-0, the optimism in the city was palpable. It was impossible not to get caught up in the joy of a town and fans so starved for a winner. The day after I leaped off the couch in New Iberia when the Saints beat the Colts, I said to my wife, "Let's go to the Dome this Sunday and see the Saints play the Patriots."
Andre Hastings ran a punt out of the end zone for an electrifying 76-yard gain. Brass bands played in aisles and Gary U.S. Bonds' "New Orleans" blasted over the PA system. You could buy jambalaya and red beans instead of the usual bland stadium fare. The stands were a tapestry of black and gold jerseys, and strangers from all walks of life high-fived and danced together when the Saints scored.
The atmosphere reminded me of the days and nights I spent in stadiums following the Grateful Dead ' the sea of humanity, the sense of community and the neverending hope that on that afternoon or night, you might witness a transcendent moment. Before the show started, you knew the players and framework, but for the next three hours, anything was possible. You shut out the outside world and reveled in a passion that defied logic and puzzled non-believers.
The Saints lost a close game to Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots that day. And my wife, brother and I bought season tickets for next season.
The 1999 Saints were the perfect immersion into my newfound attachment to the Saints ' the team was terrible. There was playcalling from the stone ages, a pair of likeable but unreliable quarterbacks both named Billy Joe, a dreadlocked Heisman Trophy winner who gave bizarre interviews with his helmet on, a last-minute loss to Cleveland on a Hail Mary pass, and the growing realization that Da Coach was now Da Fraud. The Saints went 3-13 that year. I didn't care. I was now locked into the rhythms of Sunday morning gameday drives to the Dome and hanging on every malapropism of beloved marble-mouth Saints commentator Buddy Diliberto on WWL. We renewed our season tickets without a second thought and got to witness the storybook 2000 season when new head coach Jim Haslett led the team to its first-ever playoff victory.
Since my wife is from New Iberia and grew up watching the Saints with her dad, she understands. When she went into labor with our first son, we watched the NFL draft all day in the delivery room so we could see the Saints draft Deuce McAllister.
After we left New Orleans in 2003 and moved to Acadiana, I was elated to discover that Saints games were never blacked out on television here. Both 2003 and 2004 were disappointing years with no playoffs, but not all was lost: my two sons now watch every game with me and have learned the joint chants of "Geaux Saints!" and "Boo Falcons!"
Then came Katrina.
In the midst of all that heartbreak, Saints owner Tom Benson did the unthinkable. He not-so-subtly courted the San Antonio market while the team was displaced there. And the reaction was swift and angry: How dare you try and take our football team and more than three decades of history away from us at a time like this? Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue recognized Benson's callousness, quickly squashing Benson's plans and declaring the Saints were coming back to New Orleans and the Superdome in 2006.
The 3-13 Katrina season sealed head coach Jim Haslett's fate, and he was fired. The Saints hired Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Sean Payton, who'd never had a head coaching job. Drew Brees, a Pro Bowl quarterback from San Diego coming off a major shoulder injury and offseason surgery, was signed to be the new quarterback. And who could have ever imagined the Houston Texans wouldn't take Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush with the No. 1 pick in the draft? Season tickets sold out for the first time in franchise history, a direct rebuke of Benson's earlier concerns about the region not being able to support the team after Katrina.
But every fan knows the routine when a new head coach or an existing coach tries to turn around a losing team. Promises are made, and rhetoric flies about character and discipline and commitment. Why would the 2006 Saints be any different from the 2005 Saints?
WWL's Henderson watched Payton's moves from day one. "Through the security people on the team, he quickly identified who were the good guys and who were the bad guys on this team," Henderson says. "One example, and I'm not saying he was a bad guy, but he just didn't fit into the type of teammate that Sean Payton wanted, is Wayne Gandy. He was a longtime veteran, starting left tackle, and when Sean was shown around the locker room shortly after taking the job, he walked into the locker room and there was this big recliner in front of Wayne Gandy's locker. Sean said, 'Did we buy that for him or did he buy that?' They said, 'He bought it.' He said, 'Get it out of here. Put it by his car, and if it's still there tomorrow morning, we're throwing it out. They traded [Gandy] shortly after that. All the people that had off-the-field issues and that were the biggest complainers about what happened last year in San Antonio, he got rid of them all."
That roster included passive me-first quarterback Aaron Brooks, who was unpopular with many teammates; flashy but inconsistent wide receiver Donte Stallworth; Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley, who badmouthed the team; and franchise defensive end Darren Howard, who balked at running with the scout team last year in San Antonio. "In many ways, I think Katrina was like a crucible for this team, because it really did differentiate who deserved to be a member of this football team and who was going to be a loyal and trusty teammate," says Henderson.
With the exception of the team's core and high-profile running back Bush, Payton started the season with a blue-collar mix of free agents and unproven rookies. The entire linebacking corps wasn't even acquired until the week before the season started.
The result has been an autumn filled with glorious Sundays. Come-from-behind wins against Cleveland and Green Bay to open the season. Convincing wins against the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. Drew Brees leading the NFL in passing yards. Seventh-round draft pick Marques Colston emerging as a serious contender for Offensive Rookie of the Year. A prime-time 42-17 stomping of the Dallas Cowboys.
And no fan will ever forget Monday night, Sept. 25, when the Superdome reopened and the Saints played longtime despised rival the Atlanta Falcons. A giant banner on the side of the Dome proclaimed: "Our home. Our team. Be a Saint." The biggest Monday Night Football viewing audience ever watched the Saints dominate the Falcons 23-3. Steve Gleason's blocked punt to put the Saints up 7-0 in the first quarter sparked a cathartic Superdome celebration like no other.
"The Monday night game against Atlanta when they came back to open the Superdome was one of the most emotional moments and evenings I've ever spent in my life," says Henderson. "The energy and the feeling and the emotion in that place was so great; it was so much more than just a football game that it's something that will always stay with me. It was one of the most difficult games I've ever been a part of, simply because I was afraid I was going to lose it the entire night from the moment I walked in that place. As soon as we got on the air, there were so many moments that you choked up and you felt tears well up in your eyes. Just watching the pregame festivities, listening to the fans as the team ran out on the field, and the whole pregame thing was so well done with U2 and Green Day."
Just before kickoff that night, rock superstars U2 and Green Day debuted "The Saints are Coming," a new version of an obscure 1977 song by Scottish punk band the Skids. Originally written by Skids singer Richard Jobson as a lament for his deceased father, the lyrics took on new meaning of sorrow married with hope in post-Katrina New Orleans, especially when paired with a slightly altered verse from the traditional anthem "House of the Rising Sun":
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Superdome
It's been the ruin of many a poor boy,
And God, I know, I'm one
Cried to my daddy on the telephone, how long now?
Until the clouds unroll and you come home, the line went
But the shadows still remain since your descent, your descent
The saints are coming, the saints are coming
We met my parents two weeks after the Monday Night football game in Destin, Fla. It was my first family vacation since Katrina and Rita, and the first beach vacation for my 5-year-old and 4-year-old boys.
Dad brought a football, and we reprised our epic backyard games of 30 years ago. This time I did most of the play-calling: "Brees under center ... Falcons defense looks confused ... he takes the snap ... sidesteps and makes blitzing Patrick Kearney miss ... sees Joe Horn up the sideline ... it's a 50-yard bomb ... TOUCHDOWN, SAINTS!
It was a magical vacation.
Mom and Dad took their time driving back to their home near West Palm Beach; Dad had some retail accounts in the Florida panhandle he wanted to call on. Eleven days after we said goodbye, I got a letter from him. He'd enclosed a newspaper article about the benefits of keeping your office desk clean and told me I should do the same. Told me how much he enjoyed our vacation. Then this:
I wanted to let you know that on the way home, I had a 15-minute headache one day, a 30-minute dizzy spell another day, and when we drove back into the neighborhood, I had trouble remembering some of our neighbors' names. Mom and I will see some doctors for some tests and I'll keep you posted.
He called me on a Saturday morning the day after I got the letter. The doctors had found a brain tumor, and they were going to perform brain surgery on Monday. Don't worry, everything will be fine, he said.
I went to Florida the next day and stayed a week. It was a blur of waiting rooms, intensive care units and scary medical terms like glioblastoma. The neurosurgeon removed as much of the tumor as he could, but it's a large one. Remarkably, Dad was released from the hospital the next day, in good spirits and physically strong. We took walks in the neighborhood. I'm at peace, no matter what happens, he told me.
My wife and kids and I went back to Florida to visit for Christmas. My dad, brother and I watched the Saints beat the Giants on Christmas Eve. My mom watched the game with a fleur-de-lis charm in her pocket I recently sent my dad. Inscribed on the back in capital letters is one word: BELIEVE.
Dad and I talk every night on the phone now. He's more than halfway through an intense first round of chemotherapy and radiation. He tells me about his morning treatments, the phone calls he's getting from friends across the country, the pictures he's framing for his office. At some point every week, he always asks, "Who do the Saints play this Sunday?"
I play "The Saints Are Coming" on the drive home from work these days, listening to the battle cry of the drums and the chorus. I'll play it before the Saints face the Philadelphia Eagles this Saturday night. And while I tell myself that the Saints have already given us more than we ever imagined this year and can hold their heads high should they lose, I don't want this season to end. I want people all over the world to keep seeing images of New Orleans and realize that our state still needs help. I want the Mark Meauxs, Larry Burleighs and Dan Indests to keep feeling the thrill of victory.
And I want to talk to my Dad next week about the Saints' next opponent and being one game away from the Super Bowl.
New Orleans Saints vs. The Philadelphia Eagles
7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, New Orleans Superdome
KADN FOX 15; KMDL 97.3 FM; WWL 870 AM