ARCHIVES: The perils of living a double life (NFL style)

Roman Harper makes sure native son Eli Manning's first Dome game is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Photo: UPI.

This Franorama World post was from my MySpace blog Oct. 16, 2009, 6:44 p.m. PDT, two days before my New Orleans Saints hosted my New York Giants, both undefeated at the time. I thought it was a 1 p.m. game, only to wake up at 10:30 and find that the Saints were already up 28-10 en route to a 48-27 rout:

I’m a full-fledged, hardcore, middle-of-the-period Gemini, so living a double life is no big thing to me. Two jobs at once (I was a sportswriter and music writer at the same time at my first job, and both entertainment editor and music writer at my second), two genders at once (ask me how), two major life changes at once … and two favorite football teams at the same time.

And it’s inevitable that once in a while, they’ll meet — and one will win and one will lose.

But never have they met when both have been unbeaten.

Let’s just say come 1 p.m. Sunday, I will be planted in front of a set somewhere watching my 4-0 New Orleans Saints host my 5-0 East Rutherford Giants at the Dome. I plan to wear my road Eli jersey one half, my home Deuce McAllister jersey the other. (A coin flip will determine who gets to receive.)

And it’s gonna be great.

And it’s gonna suck.

But hey, there are worse things. Like when both teams suck at the same time, like in the mid-to-late ’90s.

*****

So why the Giants and why the Saints?

The Giants go back to when I was 9, living in Connecticut, the first year I got into watching football. Back in B.C. (Before Cable — there was a time, kids), autumn Sundays in Connecticut meant a choice of the lousy Giants on Channel 3 (the CBS station in Hartford), the mediocre Jets on Channel 30 (the NBC affiliate in West Hartford) or sometimes the godawful Patriots on either 30 or Channel 22 (the NBC affiliate in Springfield, Mass.). I gravitated to the Giants in the days of Ron Johnson, Bob Tucker, Pete Gogolak and the rookie Fred Dryer. I became a fan despite Fran Tarkenton, who I never liked. He would scramble around for 45 seconds, then throw a pass the length of our snowy, 21-inch black-and-white screen and almost always get picked.

I became a fan despite them losing 31-3 to the Rams the final Sunday of the season at Yankee Stadium to miss the playoffs (and I remember a Rams running back walking into the end zone in the fourth quarter as we were decorating the Christmas tree). I somehow became a fan despite the decade-long slide to the bottom. (I was spared The Fumble as it happened because I was riding the bench at a CYO basketball game.) Maybe it was Dave Jennings (the team’s best offensive weapon through most of the ’70s), or maybe the defense — Spider Lockhart, Willie Williams, John Mendenhall, Brad Van Pelt, Jack Gregory, Harry Carson, Dave Gallagher, the ill-fated Troy Archer.

But even then, I had a second team, and through the ’70s, it was the Los Angeles Rams — Roman Gabriel to Jack Snow, then James Harris to Harold Jackson, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen, Dryer, Larry Brooks, the Youngbloods, Ron Jaworski, Lawrence McCutcheon. Still, Rams wins or losses didn’t affect me as much as Giants losses, of which there were plenty. The Rams might have gotten near the Super Bowl a couple of times, but them losing didn’t bother me as much as a Giants loss. I let the Rams go in my mind after their thrilling Super Bowl loss to the Steelers. End of the decade, end of the Pittsburgh dynasty, end of my time with the Rams on amicable terms.

Besides, the Fumble and its aftermath — nowhere to go but up — crystallized my allegiance to Big Blue. I knew things would be better soon — especially after seeing a TV sports clip from the opening day of Giants camp in ’81 and seeing the rookie linebacker Lawrence Taylor wreaking havoc.

But just as the Giants were taking their very shaky steps down the final stretch in ’86 — transforming from a mediocre, uncertain squad in danger of missing the playoffs to Super Bowl champs — along came another second team.

*****

Growing up, the Saints were a team of mystery to me. I would get their football cards in the Topps wax packs (Del Williams, Billy Kilmer, Edd Hargett, Derland Moore, Joe Federspiel, of course Archie), and the first football book I bought at school, “Football Stars of 1970,” included Danny Abramowicz. But until I got to college, I had only seen them on TV once — and that was because they played the Packers in ’72 and CBS was showing Ray Nitschke’s final game.

(And oh yeah — there was the one late night in high school when I saw “Number One” — a lousy movie with a lousy Charlton Heston playing an aged and lousy Saints quarterback and wearing Kilmer’s old No. 17 so they could use game footage).

It wasn’t till later that I found out the real mystery was how they could suck so badly. Which was a shame because they had the coolest uniforms in the league — the original 1967-69 home whites with the gold numbers are the cooolest jerseys of all time, and when I win Megamillions, I’m gonna hunt one down or have one custom-made.

They piqued my interest when Dick Nolan got them to 8-8 in ’79, which made the 1-15 slide (and the birth of the ‘Aints) the next year extremely puzzling.

Anyway, fast-forward to 1986. Jim Mora, fresh from two USFL championships coaching the Baltimore Stars, came to New Orleans — and brought Sam Mills (RIP), one of my all-time favorite players, with him. Suddenly, the Saints had a linebacking corps (Mills, Pat Swilling, Rickey Jackson, Vaughn Johnson) almost as good as the Giants’ (LT, Carson, Carl Banks and Gary Reasons, later Pepper Johnson).

*****

The first Sunday of December, I was in New Orleans. I needed a breather from work really badly, had always wanted to go to New Orleans and wanted to see it at a non-tourist time of year. I arrived the afternoon before. On one hour sleep, I got to the guest house on St. Ann late that afternoon (A Creole House; I was in the old servants’ quarters of Marie Laveau’s house) and immediately encountered a rather exotic-looking couple descending the stairs. (She was in kind of a gothish black; he had a cross between long hair and a pompadour and wore a zebra-pattern suit jacket.)

I asked them if anything was going on that night; they told me Big Audio Dynamite was at Storyville (now the site of Jimmy Buffett’s Margatitaville). I went, and it was the first time I ever fell asleep on my feet (the first song was “C’mon Every Beatbox,” the last was “1999” and everything else, I was unconscious). But I ran into the couple, and we went bar-hopping in the Quarter, especially at the Dungeon — lots of fiery medieval rock’n’roll imagery with an Astroturf flooring that gave it the appearance of a very elaborate mini-golf layout with a bar. They were heading back to California the next day, so they gave me a going-away gift: a baggie with a half-dozen buds in it. (If you got a Christmas card from me that year, chances are I was stoned when I wrote it.)

The Saints were playing their home finale (already, in week 13) in the morning, and since I didn’t have a watch and the room didn’t have a clock, I had no idea what time it was. But I staggered my way through the quarter to the big spaceship on Poydras, got a ticket and headed in.

The Saints were playing Miami. I was in the upper deck behind one of the end zones. The Dolphins were playoff-bound; the Saints weren’t quite there yet, but they would finish 7-9.

The first tipoff that this would be a cool place to watch a game is that it was carpeted. I had covered a few Giants and Jets games at the Meadowlands and thought all football stadia were concrete jungles. Then, there were bars serving mixers. No way in hell that was gonna happen in Jersey, especially with some of the fights I’d seen in the stands.

Then, my trip to the bathroom at the end of the first quarter. I was wearing my Giants jersey; the Giants were playing Washington in a big game that day, and as I went to wash my hands, there in front of skinny little me was this big black guy in a Washington windbreaker, who looked at me and yelled “REDSKINS!” I just smiled a deflecting, disarming smile and said, “Aw, man …” and he smiled at me and said, “Its cool, man,” and shook my hand. That sure WASN’T happening at the Meadowlands. I started thinking it might be very cool supporting a team with a stadium and fans like this.

So Marino was having one of those days — Marino to Clayton, Marino to Duper, Marino to Marino — and the Saints’ offense, with Dave Wilson at QB, was going nowhere. It was 31-10 at the half. Obviously, Mora heard “Wilson sucks!” one too many times at that point, and he sent in Bobby Hebert to start the second half. Hebert, who won the first USFL title with the Michigan Panthers, was not only fiery and pretty decent, he was a Cajun — and if you’re a Saint and a Cajun, you’re golden. Ask Hebert. Or Hokie Gajan. Or Jake Delhomme, who should never, ever have been traded away.

Anyway, Hebert found Eric Martin and Brett Perriman and found the end zone a couple times and got the Saints within four, 31-27 — and they were marching my way in the closing minutes. And the handoff went to Rueben Mayes, the rookie running back with the 1,000-yard season (the high point of his injury-shortened career), and the big Canadian went in for the score with less than a minute to go. Saints take the lead –

but wait! Illegal motion on Mayes. TD called back. The Saints couldn’t get into the end zone. Hebert’s fourth-down pass was broken up. Dolphins win.

But I caught the Saints bandwagon that day and never have mustered the courage to get off. I knew that this was a team that didn’t suck and wasn’t gonna suck. And I was suckered in to a string of anguish longer than the one I endured with the Giants. The first playoff appearance the next year and the 44-10 loss to the Vikings. The big lead they blew in the playoff game against the Eagles (obscured only because of the Oilers’ monumental fold in Buffalo earlier in the day). The Heath Shuler era. Ditka. The figuratively disastrous fold of 2002, when all they had to do was win one game in the final three weeks to make the playoffs — against the shitty Vikings, shitty Bengals or shitty Panthers — and lost them all. The Sunday night when Kyle Turley threw a Jet helmet about 25 yards at the worst possible time. The lateral play in Jacksonville. And the literally disastrous 2005. And the glorious 2006 that ended with the rout by Da Bears in Soldier Field in their first trip to the NFC title game. And last year’s wretched secondary.

But this is 2009. I knew both my teams would be good this year — Brees was no fluke last year, though I didn’t know whether the Giants’ D would suffer when Steve Spagnuolo left for the Lambs. I didn’t think either would be undefeated good.

*****

I’ve been to three of these Saints-Giants clashes in person, thanks to my friend Bob, who splits a season ticket with his sister. (He splits it so he can go see his Cowboys at least once a year.)

He took me Oct. 24, 1999, Williams’ rookie year, and neither team was that great. But I encountered the dilemma in ways I never anticipated on TV. Like the roar of the Meadowlands when a Giant play goes well. (As a sportswriter, I was in a glassed-in press box.) The loudness of the boos when things weren’t going well. The shit I caught for wearing a Saints jersey with my Giants cap. (“You’re from Jersey and you’re giving me shit?” I asked the skinny-ass punk.) And what to do when something goes well for one team, knowing it went badly for your other team. Like the throw that ended the half — Kent Graham heaved his pass to the end zone, and the pass was deflected through a Saint’s hands into the hands of Joe Jurevicius, who was lurking behind the play and timed it as if he’d planned it that way.

My first experience with “Oh yeah! Oh fuck!”

The only other thing I remembered from a 31-3 Giants win was Ricky taking a pitch left for about 25 yards in the second half. This Ditka-trading-the-whole-draft-for-Ricky thing wasn’t working quite as planned.

I went to the Saints’ season-opener against Carolina a month and a half before — Fred Weary popped the Panther returner on the opening kickoff, Tyronne Drakeford scooped it up and brought it back, and there, friends, was THE season highlight, on the opening play of Game 1. Ricky sprained his ankle the last play of the opening quarter that game and never really took off after that. That pitch in the Giants game, I think, was his longest carry of the season.

The next Giants-Saints game I saw with Bob, Sept. 30, 2001, seemed rather insignificant for another reason — namely, the plumes of smoke I saw from the mezzanine level looking southward, where I was used to seeing the tops of the Twin Towers. Just as I was at the first Mets game after 9/11 nine days earlier, I was at the Giants’ first home game after the attack. The crowd on this raw, cloudy afternoon seemed a mix of emotions — on one hand, subdued with the magnitude of the attack and a new sense of priorities that didn’t include fighting over a fucking football game; on the other, the enthusiasm of being able to go to a game and cheer and just be normal again.

After the obligatory apperance of first-responders, and singing from Tony Bennett and the Boys’ Choir of Harlem, it was time. The Giants got touchdowns from both Thunder (Ron Dayne) and Lightning (Tiki) for a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, but John Carney kicked a field goal at the half and the Saints hung close — close enough that Aaron Brooks could throw a game-ending pass into the end zone with a chance to win.  It was broken up — Giants 21, Saints 13, and it was just good to see football again.

The last time I went to a Giants-Saints game was Christmas Eve 2006. Bob gave me the tickets as a Christmas gift; he couldn’t go, so I brought my old friend and ex-sportswriting colleague Joe, who lives in Stamford. It was a cold and glorious Sunday morning — at least until we got stuck in the swarm of traffic invading from the north on Route 17. We got there in plenty of time, though, having left his place around 10, and we soaked in the sights and festive sounds — Phil Spector songs and Bruce on the PA, a big (and big-bearded) Santa in a red suit and blue-and-red toque in our end zone. Striking up conversations with fans around us in the mezzanine (bottom left corner on your TV screen), talking about how I was back from California to see my two favorite teams and how hard it was to watch them play each other.

The Saints were the feel-good story of the league, heading to the playoffs with a bright new coach (Sean Payton, last seen in Jersey aPs the offensive coordinator who was stripped of his play-calling duties by Jim Fassel), an explosive offense (and new QB in Drew Brees) and a glorious rebound that galvanized a traumatized region. The Giants were going nowhere fast, and this was Tiki’s final home game.

Well, the first and only really resounding “Ohyeah! Ohfuck!” came on the Giants’ first drive. Eli planted and fired off his back foot to Burress, who took in the pass for a 55-yard score. But the rest was Saints. Brees to Colston for a score. Reggie picking up a bunch of yardage going up the middle (and getting creamed by Will Demps for his troubles). By halftime, it was the Saints’ game, and it was just a matter of when to leave to get back home for Christmas Eve dinner. (And actually, I couldn’t muster a lot of sympathy for the Giants. The Saints, after what NOLa had gone through, were a great story. The Giants were a fiasco. Never would’ve guessed they’d be winning a Lombardi Trophy about 13 months later.)

“When” was with about 10 minutes left. Deuce walked up the middle untouched for about 10 yards into our end zone to make it 30-7. Joe and I decided it was time, as did about 30,000 of our closest friends. The drive back wasn’t that bad, though, and the traffic on the Tappan Zee was tolerable. But my sleep apnea was kicking in by the time I dropped off Joe. I had to stop at the Merritt Parkway rest area in Fairfield on the way home to catch a few Z’s. Despite that, I walked in the door just as Mom was serving the fish dinner.

Anyway, that’s my Giants-Saints legacy. And this will be the all-time game in this series. I’m expecting a great game on Sunday. Which means a lousy game. Oh yeah! Oh shit!

Besides the obvious storyline, Peter King came up with another interesting one this morning in his “Game Plan” column in Sports Illustrated. Eli Manning has never played in the Superdome. His brothers played there in high school, but by the time he got to playing, the high school series at the Dome had ended. He never played there with Ole Miss. And the Saints’ scheduled home game in ’05 ended up being played in Jersey. So that’ll be something to watch.

So as exhilarating and frustrating as Sunday will be for me, it could be worse — I could be Saints broadcaster and resident legend Archie Manning

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One Response to “ARCHIVES: The perils of living a double life (NFL style)”

  1. Seems as if we’ve been here before (Super Bowl 46) « Franorama World Says:

    [...] (And before I go on: Some of you reading this are saying, “Hey! I thought you were a Saints fan!” Well, as a weirdo Gemini, I fully reserve the right to a dual life, and that includes two favorite teams. I’ve been a Giants fan since I first started watching the NFL in the pre-cable days back home in Connecticut, in 1970; I’ve also been a Saints fan since my first visit to New Orleans in 1986. They’re 1A and 1A in my book. Read about it here.) [...]

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