So this is what it feels like — once again.
Twenty-three years ago (already!), when the Giants won their first Super Bowl, we were a bunch of drunken idiots dogpiling and dousing each other with Gatorade on the floor of the house my pal Ron Johnson was renting in New Haven.
My second and final first time — tonight, the New Orleans Saints’ turn at last to hoist the Lombardi Trophy — I was a little more subdued. Well, if yelling “WHO DAT!” and “WOOOOOOO!” at the top of my lungs at the Landmark, my hangout bar in Fresno’s Tower District, is your idea of subdued. But no piling on the floor. I was in Fresno, thousands of miles away, hoisting a shot of Jameson and a Newcastle chaser to toast the people of New Orleans.
Who Dat? Who woulda thunk that? Gawd, this is great!
The first thing I did when I calmed down was call Sal in New Orleans. Sal, or Iggy, as we knew him then, is my oldest New Haven friend; I met him in ’82, and he became one of my favorite people very quickly. Before he sobered up in ’89, he was also one of the wildest frontmen I ever saw with a band. He wasn’t a singer for New Haven garagers The Double Naught Spys as much as he was a screamer. And a real spectacle — a small guy, often in a horizontally striped polo shirt, mop bug haircut flailing, head snapping, beating poor mike stands into submission, dropping to the floor on both knees from three feet up, writhing on stage, humping the floor both front and back. Sal was always a trip. And all these years later, we can still crack each other up on the phone at the drop of a hat. Like tonight, when I asked him, “Doesn’t Jeremy Shockey look like a blonde Shemp?”
He and his then-wife moved to New Orleans early in 1995. He is the farthest thing from a sports fan. He’s passionate about a lot of things — garage, punk, avant-garde, junk culture, B-movies, the Stooges (Three and Iggy varieties), animal rescue, kung fu — but wasn’t into sports … until I turned him into a Saints fan.
Even before Katrina, he was doing yeoman’s work with animal rescue, working at a kennel near his house just off Magazine in the Garden District; the stories he told me about rescuing starving and horribly maimed dogs, especially in the 9th Ward, were heartbreaking, And when the storm happened, he stayed at the kennel for days, guarding the place; at night, he could hear the rattle of doorknobs as looters were looking for unsecured places to break into. He then helped transport the dogs, some temporarily, to places in Texas; he told me about the drive to Baton Rouge, normally just over an hour on an undamaged I-10, taking eight hours. He’s still at the kennel, doing God’s work, or at least St. Francis’ work. (He wouldn’t call it that, but I will.) And like just about anyone who devotes his or her life to caring for animals, he doesn’t make a hell of a lot.
And like everyone else who works and sweats and bleeds to make that city a better place, he has become devoted to the Saints. And the Saints finally paid back devotion tonight. Actually, you can argue that Drew Brees, Sean Payton and crew have paid back their devotion by their helping out their stricken and adopted city with their community efforts. But as far as football goes — yes, it’s now requited love. Forty-three years of valentines were finally answered with a silver bouquet that looked like a football on a pyramidal pedestal. And will last a hell of a lot longer than flowers. Barring a nuclear attack, that Lombardi Trophy is forever.
But it sure didn’t come easy to the Big Easy.
When the Saints fell behind 10-0 in the first, part of me was thinking, “Well, it was a hell of a season, wasn’t it?” I knew they wouldn’t lay down for the Colts, but these weren’t the Dolphins or Jets they were coming back against. These were the Indianapolis Colts — who were safely in the hands of the middle scion of New Orleans’ first family of football, a team that, by right, should have been 18-0 coming into the game — and this was the Super Bowl.
I sat in the first booth stage right of the big-screen TV, watching intently, occasionally whooping, cautiously optimistic, though not getting too bent when things didn’t go right. I did get up, though, when the Saints didn’t get into the end zone on fourth and goal, and headed to the big spread in the back room to get my chow for dinner. I was astounded to see the Saints with the ball again when I returned and lining up for a field goal to end the half.
And the momentum started to build. The onside kick. (Between the fourth-and-goal and this, Payton showed the biggest pair of coaching balls ever in a Super Bowl.) Brees started finding a rhythm. Pierre Garcon, who caught a TD pass from Manning in the first quarter, dropped a sure first-down catch to kill a drive. It was just the little things. Like the city they represented, the Saints refused to surrender. Unlike their city, the Saints came all the way back and then some.
Still, when Shemp Shockey caught the go-ahead pass, followed by the two-point conversion by Lance Moore, the forgotten receiver who was hobbled by hamstring problems most of the year, the best I was expecting was overtime. There were 5 1/2 minutes left and Manning was in charge. Was there any doubt the Colts would come back, especially after drives of 96 and 76 yards for TDs?
During the week, I had a vision that the Saints would win in OT, 51-45, and that the winning score would come on a pick back to the house. By Tracy Porter. I knew at some point that even if the Saints weren’t gonna be able to pound Manning into retirement, like Kurt Warner and (presumably for real this time) Brett Favre, they would pull some defensive stunt that would eventually force the greatest quarterback of all time to make a mistake. And well, I was one-third right. It wasn’t OT and it wasn’t 51-45. But there was Porter, a Louisiana native (Port Allen) who played his college ball at Indiana, stepping in front of New Orleanian Reggie Wayne, and there I was, finally up and screaming and shouting “WHO DAT!” and generally going apeshit as — I can’t believe I’m seeing this! — Porter had nothing but open space the 74 yards between him and the end zone. The one mistake, the one turnover of the whole game, and it iced the Super Bowl. And it was appropriate because, as many points as the Saints’ offense put up the whole year, it was the defense that made the takeaways and pick-sixes that put the team in position to win so many times. The quarter-million Payton paid out of his own pocket to get Gregg Williams to join on as his defensive coordinator? I hope Benson gives Payton at least double that as a bonus. And Porter was the guy who iced Favre in the closing seconds of regulation two weeks ago in the NFC title game. Talk about deserving bonus money …
And I started getting hugs and high-fives from some of the folks there. One of the guys standing at the bar embraced me and said, “I was wondering when you were gonna get up from your seat.”
Still, there was some time for Manning to pull some magic. But I was confident enough to order my shot of Jameson and Newcastle chaser from Ben the bartender for my victory toast. It wasn’t until Manning’s last pass was broken up and Brees took the field for his victory kneel that I was able to let loose.
Such boyish behavior. Shouting “WHO DAT! and yelling at the top of my lungs, both fists in the air, head turned toward the skies, or at least the ceiling. I toasted the people of New Orleans, then got a hug from my pal Kate McKnight, actress extraordinaire, at the bar, then went outside and started fielding texts and voicemails on my phone. Paola, one of my dearest friends back home (and dearest ex-girlfriend). Eddy, my first landlord in Fresno, who has treated me much more like family than a tenant. Jonalynn, my ex-Bee colleague who just moved to Phoenix on Friday with her fiance, Bruce. Heather, my closest pal in Fresno. Chris, one of my poker pals.
But first things first. I had to call Sal.
I actually called him after the third, and I told him, “I’m feeling it, pal!”
“Way to go, bud!” he said when I called him at game’s end. He told me he took his pug, Ainsley, for a walk, and there was a big-screen TV set up on his corner at Magazine — if I’m not mistaken, the very same corner where, just over four years before, an elderly woman named Vera, who died there on the street after Katrina, was covered with a black plastic sheet, her body surrounded by bricks in a makeshift grave, with her name in tape on the plastic, in an iconic Katrina photo. Tonight, it was a place of unbridled joy. Sal said as soon as the game was over, everyone let out into the street whooping and yelling, and he had to take the poor dog home because he was getting scared.
The CBS cameras quickly cut to Bourbon Street, of course, where the celebration will probably go until 8 a.m. — Tuesday, that is. Just in time for the Saints to get back from Miami Gardens and take part in a parade that will accomplish the near-impossible feat of making Mardi Gras take a back seat. But the real celebrations are probably in the streets of neighborhoods far away from the tourists. Like the festivity outside Sal’s place.
He’s not one who likes to mix it up with crowds. But I goaded him.
“Look — do me a favor and do yourself a favor and go out and take it all in. You will never experience this again.”
“Well, maybe this is the start of a dynasty.” (I like the way he’s thinking.)
“Yeah, but there’s nothing like the first time.”
Maybe he will; maybe he won’t. But I want him to savor it. I so wish to hell I was there.
I had to settle for sitting in a bar a couple thousand miles away and making sure I didn’t get too looped to drive, getting kudos from friends and new friends, sporting the Indelible Shit-Eating Grin of Ecstasy. The Flounder-from-“Animal House” “Boy, is this great!” Grin. But I wish I could have shared this with a roomful of Saints fans.
Or a city full of Saints fans.
But maybe it’s better Sal and his fellow New Orleans residents, away from Bourbon, get to share it among themselves. The world may jump in on the fun — though, having been a Saints fan for 23 years, I’m certainly not a bandwagon-jumper — but this is New Orleans’ party. This one is definitely for the people who live there.
So I’ll just step back and enjoy the warm glow and say that I never thought I’d ever hear these seven words strung together in one sentence: the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
How fucking great is that?
Tags: Drew Brees, Fran Fried, Franorama World, Gregg Williams, Indianapolis Colts, Jeremy Shockey, Katrina, Lance Moore, New Orleans Saints, Peyton Manning, Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Sean Payton, Super Bowl XLIV, Tom Benson, Tracy Porter