Who Dat and all that

So I’m killing time, about two hours from kickoff of what will be the greatest day in the history of New Orleans — well, aside from the time Andrew Jackson and crew needlessly slaughtered 2,000 Redcoats in a battle of a war that had officially ended already, or the time Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana from the French for $15 mil, but no one apparently is alive to remember those things …

I’m doing this backwards, I know — I should offer an introductory post first, but this is a big day, so I’ll get to the how-do-you-do next time. For now, I can’t let this day slide any longer without my 59 cents on a day I never thought I’d see.

The New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl.

It feels weird saying it.

It feels great saying it.

I’m sitting at my usual coffee shop (how cliche, I know) in the Drew Brees game jersey that arrived yesterday — with a Super Bowl patch.

I never thought I’d see the day.

*****

So how does someone who grew up in Connecticut and lives in central California become a fan of the Saints? This ain’t no bandwagon, yall …

True to my dual nature, I’ve almost always had two favorite football teams. When I first became aware of the game, at age 9, I followed the New York Football Giants (as opposed to the New York Water Polo Giants — I wish people would stop using that “Football Giants” thang, since the Baseball Giants only left town 53 years ago.) It was in the pre-cable days of Channel Master antennas, when fans were stuck their hometown teams. Living halfway between New York and Boston, we had three choices, if you could call them that — the mediocre-to-shitty Giants on Channel 3, the CBS station in Hartford; the so-so-to-woeful Jets on Channel 30, the NBC station in West Hartford; and the godawful Patriots on Channel 30 or Channel 22, the NBC station in Springfield, Mass.

I started with the Giants in 1970, and through middle school and high school, I had a second team — the Los Angeles Rams. First, it was the Rams of Roman Gabriel, Jack Snow and the Fearsome Foursome, rocking one of the coolest uniforms ever, the white-and-blue helmet-jersey combo; then the Rams of James Harris to Harold Jackson, and the Youngbloods and Fred Dryer. But I lost interest as I got older and realized Rams wins and losses didn’t affect me has much as all those frustrating Sundays of watching those horrible Giants teams during my equally horrible adolescence. I let go of the Rams on good terms after they reached the Super Bowl against the Steelers and gave them more than a run for the money.

It was about seven years before I would glom onto another second team, and I wasn’t expecting it. This one would last a lot longer.

There was no need to follow anyone but the Giants. After The Fumble in 1978, I knew the only place they could go was up, and I saw glimpses of the future during my college days — like the sports clips on the local station from the first day of training camp in 1981 when the first-round draft pick, Lawrence Taylor, wreaked havoc all day. It was much fun to see them go from the perennial losers of my childhood to eventual Super Bowl champs.

And then came the Saints. Just as the Giants were headed to their first Super Bowl.

In late 1986, I was really burned out and needed to get away for a couple weeks before Christmas. So I booked a flight to New Orleans for two weeks at the slow time of the year. I didn’t want to go during the touristy times — Mardi Gras — because I wanted to see the city as it really was. I went very low-budget — A Creole House on St. Ann; actually, their lodging across the street, in the old servant quarters of Marie Laveau’s last house. I flew in on the first Saturday of December. Even though I was on an hour’s sleep, and even though I was out late my first night in the city — a Big Audio Dynamite show at Storyville on Decatur (the site of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville), where I actually fell asleep on my feet for most of the show, and then drinking in the Quarter with this exotic-looking couple from California I met while checking in — I made sure I was up early enough to drag myself down to the Superdome to see the Saints at noon the next day. It was their final home game of the season.

The Saints were always a Team of Mystery when I was growing up. They only appeared once on TV when I was a kid — that was the last game of 1972, in Green Bay, Ray Nitschke’s final game. I would get their cards in Topps wax packs from time to time — Joe Federspiel, Derland Moore, Del Williams, Billy Kilmer, Edd Hargett, of course Archie Manning — but all I knew about the team was what everyone else knew: Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal and Manning. (In the mid-’90s, I bought a Morten Andersen game jersey, and for years after, folks would ask me, “Who’s that? Archie Manning?” Andersen wore No. 7; Archie wore 8.) Plus, their first uniforms — the home whites with the gold-on-black numbers — were the coolest jerseys in the history of football. And oh yeah — there was the late night I turned on the TV to see “Number One,” a 1970 film starring the aging Charlton Heston as an aging quarterback for the Saints. They gave him Kilmer’s No. 17 so they could use actual game footage, and even Kilmer’s dying-seagull passes were better than the ones ol’ Moses threw in his scenes. Chuck was definitely not a quarterback. Threw like a girl — well, like the girls of back then — if you really want to know …

Turns out the great mystery of the Saints was how they could suck so badly. Of course, that’s why we never saw them on TV.

But in 1986, magical things were starting to happen. While the Giants were struggling to make the playoffs — a great uncertainty in late November — the Saints were just struggling to post their first winning record after 20 years, let alone a playoff berth. But there were signs.

They hired Jim Mora to coach, having led the Baltimore Stars to the last two USFL championships, and he brought along with him the leader of his Dog House Defense, a linebacker who was my height (5-9), who was believed to be too small to play in the NFL. Sam Mills (RIP) fit in wonderfully for nearly a decade alongside Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling and Vaughn Johnson, for a foursome that matched the Giants’ LB crew of the Parcells era (LT, Harry Carson, Brad Van Pelt (RIP), Carl Banks, Gary Reasons, Pepper Johnson) as the best ever. They had a couple of solid receivers in Brett Perriman and Eric Martin and a couple solid defensive backs (Dave Waymer, RIP, and Connecticut boy Tommy Myers). They had a bona fide Cajun at fullback (Hokie Gajan). And they had a rookie running back from Canada, Rueben Mayes, who broke out with a 1,000-yard season; who knew he’d be out of the game three years later?

Anyway, the Saints were playing Miami. I plunked down $12 for an upper-deck seat behind one of the goalposts and walked around the massive Superdome — which I’d only seen on TV, in a few games and in that horrible ’70s TV film about killer bees (who were lured into the Dome, where the AC was lowered to the point where the bees were lulled to sleep). The place was massive, of course, but three things struck me.

One was that the place was carpeted. I had covered some Giants and Jets games for my first newspaper, the evil Waterbury Republican-American, and while Giants Stadium was a great place to see a game (and there was no reason to tear the place down, not that anyone asked my opinion), it was definitely a sea of hard, gray concrete, very industrial, without anything resembling warmth.

Another thing was that the Dome sold mixed drinks. Hard liquor. Having seen my share of fights in the stands in Jersey, I could tell you that shit is never happening at the Meadowlands. I figured the fans must be mellow (or rich) if they’re entrusted with the hard stuff at football games.

And the third thing …

I had to hit the bathroom at the end of the first quarter. I was wearing my No. 87 Giants jersey that day, and the G-Men were playing a big game at the same time against Washington. I just got done pissing and washing my hands when I turned around into a huge black man wearing a nylon Washington jacket.

“Redskins!” he boomed at about 90 decibels.

Knowing how the fans in Jersey were, I thought this couldn’t be good. And he was considerably larger than me.

I turned on the charm.

“Aw man,” I kinda aw-shucksed at him.

“That’s cool,” he said, with a big smile on his face. And he stuck out his hand.

That shit definitely was NOT happening in Jersey.

Fans in New Orleans were cool. I really liked that.

And then, the game itself.

The Saints, with Dave Wilson bumbling at quarterback, just plain sucked. And Dan Marino was tearing them up — Clayton, Duper, Garo Yepremian, Flipper, anyone who ever played for the Dolphins caught a pass from him in the first half. It was 31-10 Dolphins at halftime.

And Mora heard enough “Wilson sucks!’ at that point and put in Bobby Hebert to start the second half. Hebert led the Michigan Panthers over Mora’s Philadelphia Stars in the first USFL title game. He was small by QB standards, and he didn’t have a very strong arm, but he was fiery — and he was a Cajun. If you’re a Cajun and a Saint, you’re a Saint for life. Like Gajan. Like Hebert. Like Jake Delhomme, defeater of the Dallas Cowboys on Christmas Eve 1999, who never, ever should have been traded away. And Hebert led the team back, while the defense found a way to shut down Marino.

It was 31-27 Dolphins, the Saints were driving late in the game, headed my way, and with less than a minute to go, Mayes ran around the left side for the go-ahead touchdown.

But wait — illegal motion, No. 36. Mayes left too early. TD called back, and Hebert’s fourth-down pass was knocked away. Dolphins win, but the Saints won a piece of my heart.

I didn’t know they would cause me more frustration than the Giants over the next 23 years.

The first winning record and playoff berth the next season, capped by the 44-10 drubbing by the Vikings. The 1992 playoff loss to the Eagles, a choke job that was only overlooked because of the Oilers’ monumental fold in Buffalo earlier in the day. Heath Shuler. Mike Ditka trading the whole ’99 draft for Ricky Williams. The Ditka-Ricky wedding photo. The horrible 2002 season, when all they had to do was beat either the shitty Vikings, shitty Bengals or shitty Panthers to make the playoffs, and lost them all. The night Kyle Turley threw a Jet’s helmet 25 yards at the worst possible time. Katrina and its aftermath, when it wasn’t certain whether Tom Benson would move the team to San Antonio for good.

You follow a team long enough, you invest something of yourself. (Why we, as sports fans, do this is a great mystery, to be unraveled by some shrink at some point in the distant future.) You think that if a team plays long enough, they’ll actually win big at some point.

Well, if any team deserves to be here, it’s the Saints. And if any city deserves to be represented here, it’s New Orleans. Long before Katrina, it was a hard city, a dangerous place, with the danger coming at you from unexpected angles and dark corners. For the people who live there and not just drop in, it’s a lot of hard work for little pay, with steamy weather, high crime, corrupt politicians and even more corrupt cops. To live there under the best circumstances entailed a bit of resilience. Katrina obviously made things much worse. If the city ever does recover — and it’s been 4 1/2 years already — it won’t be for a long time.

The people who live and work there deserve something fun. And the arrival of Sean Payton and Brees gave the city a lot to look forward to. Brees, who lives Uptown, is committed to the city in a way that goes beyond throwing TD passes and signing autographs. So are several other players and the head coach. The bond, from an outsider’s view, doesn’t seem to be fleeting. This seems to be, to paraphrase one of my favorite songwriters, Paul Weller, a solid bond in their hearts. This is something special, combined with the special new-romance quality of reaching a seemingly unattainable pinnacle for the first time.

I think fans around the country will not be rooting so much today against the Colts — a team led by the greatest QB of all time, a native son of New Orleans sired by the most revered sports figure in the history of the city — as they will be cheering for the Saints. Who doesn’t love a feel-good story? I’m sure as hell glad I stuck around to see this. Kickoff’s in less than an hour — time to go to the party next door. There’s no other way to wrap this than to say:

Who Dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints in the Super Bowl?!? WHO DAT!!!

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