New Orleans — Around Christmastime, there was an article on espn.com written by Wright Thompson that detailed the strange and beautiful days we’re experiencing here in New Orleans lately, thanks to our Saints. Everyone in this city is walking around on cloud nine, and I mean everyone. Regardless of where you go or who you talk to these days, everyone has a goofy grin on their face and a little extra spring in their step.
I became a Saints fan in 2001, in the unlikeliest of places — my hometown of St. Simons Island, Georgia. My husband and I were living there, during the brief experiment in which he tried life outside of New Orleans. As anyone who is or loves a native New Orleanian knows, they can’t stay away too long — they always come back, eventually.
We didn’t last very long in Georgia. My husband tried to like it, and we had a lot of fun along the way. But there were just too many things that were foreign to him, like getting off of work at midnight and being unable to buy beer. Or last call. Or not being able to buy vodka at the drugstore. No Mardi Gras, no Jazzfest, no crawfish, no where y’at?
Around month two of living on St. Simons, we decided to go to a sports bar and watch a Saints game. I’d lived in New Orleans for four years prior to our brief experiment of living in my home state, so I’d been to a few games. (One of the best days of my life, to this day, revolved around watching the Saints-Rams playoff game of 2000 with friends, followed by a raucous celebration in the French Quarter.) And as a native Georgian, I had the thrill of seeing Herschel Walker in action, so it wasn’t like I’d never watched football before. I mean, how can you go to the University of Georgia and not immerse yourself in the football scene? I think it might be required. But college football with friends was one thing; the NFL scene was an entirely different animal.
So, mostly to make my husband happy and to try to alleviate some of the homesickness he was feeling, we started going to the few sports bars around St. Simons Island on Sundays and tuning into the Saints games. We soon discovered that if we showed up at Loco’s, a local bar, right around opening time at 11:00 a.m., we could claim one of the satellite televisions for ourselves and tune in to the Saints games. Loco’s had a first come, first served policy when it came to their satellite TVs, so even if everyone else in the bar wanted us to change the channel (and often pleaded with us to do so), we had gotten there first and had thus staked our claim.
At first, I just went to get out of the house, to hang out with my husband and give him moral support. But then, sitting there watching those games week after week, I started getting into it. And before long, I knew all of the players’ names. I was rooting for them. I was high-fiving my husband when the Saints made a good play, which didn’t happen very often, and jumping up and down with him when they won a game, which happened even less. In one of football’s finest grandstanding moments, I watched Joe Horn, aka Hollywood Joe, pull a cell phone out of the goalpost padding and make a call to his sons after scoring a touchdown. My husband and I would camp out in Loco’s, Sunday after Sunday, having a ball and telling people that they couldn’t change the channel and we didn’t care how much they wanted to watch the Cowboys or the Packers (the Falcons weren’t real popular on St. Simons). We had gotten there first, and we were watching the Saints.
I continued to watch after we moved back to New Orleans and continued to learn what a labor of love it is to be a Saints fan is. The Saints have never been known to be a winning team. I certainly wasn’t around for the “Aints” days, or the fans wearing paper bags over their heads during the season that ended with an abysmal 1-15 record, but God knows, I’ve heard my fair share about it.
I think I watched maybe two games during the 2005 season. We lost our home in the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina, and life took on a surreal quality that didn’t include watching football. And besides — it was just too depressing, watching the Saints being shuffled back and forth between San Antonio and Baton Rouge. They were homeless as well.
But then came 2006 and that magical season, starting off with the Monday Night Football game against the Falcons and the reopening of the Superdome. It may sound silly to you, but ask any Saints fan who went through Katrina and they will happily admit to you that they openly cried at least once during that night. And we were all thrilled with that season, all the way to the end of it, with the heartbreaking loss to the Chicago Bears, which was made even worse by the behavior of some pretty heartless Bears fans. But…during that incredible season, when the Saints finally made it to the NFC playoffs, do you know what their record was? A not-all-that-remarkable 10-6, although that was one of our best seasons on record.
Every year that I’ve lived in New Orleans, die-hard Saints fans have told me that this will be the year. This is the year that the Saints are going all the way. We all nod our heads and agree that this is it. This is THE year. Until the Saints start losing, which always happens. Always, until now. We have a cartoon on our refrigerator in which a little boy tells his parents that he’s going to ask Santa to let the Saints go to the Super Bowl. His parents are then shown whispering that they should break it to him that there’s no such thing as the Saints going to the Super Bowl. My husband now plans to burn that cartoon at a Super Bowl party.
So this year, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. I remember how excited we all were when the Saints went 4-0. I have the text messages to prove it. And then they went 5-0. And 6-0. And 7-0. And every game became a do-or-die game. I think the residents of this city had a collective heart attack during game 12, when the Redskins’ kicker, Scott Suisham, missed a field goal at the bottom of the fourth quarter and gave the Saints the opportunity they needed to tie up the game and win in overtime. 12-0. And then, somehow, we made it all the way up to 13-0. The Saints earned home field advantage in both the NFC divisional playoffs and the NFC playoffs. Then they beat the Cardinals.
And then, last week, came the night of all nights. The Saints held off the Minnesota Vikings (thanks in no small part to the many fumbles made by the Vikings) and Gulf Coast native Brett freaking Favre, and this city went insane like you cannot imagine. Everyone was in the streets, jumping up and down, screaming and hugging their neighbors (including me). Fireworks lit up the sky. The 504 area code became completely impossible to get a call into or out of, and I think it’s safe to say that at least 250,000 text messages that said nothing but “Who Dat!” were sent out that night. It was, quite simply, a thing of beauty.
And to be quite honest, we’re all still freaking the hell out. But in a good way. How is this possible? We’re used to being the loveable losers and now people are talking about how we’ve replaced the Dallas Cowboys as America’s team. Really? We still all walk around yelling “the Saints are going to the Super Bowl!” to each other. Because it’s just. That. Amazing.
But can I tell you a secret? We don’t want to be America’s team. We’re not used to this spotlight and are unsure of what to do with ourselves. We like being the underdogs, and to be completely honest, I think people around here are relieved to hear that the Colts are currently favored to win the Super Bowl by about six points.
There are more rules to NFL football than I’ll ever learn; although I can now tell you what a safety is, what a pick-six is, and what it means when a penalty is declined. This is the year I’ve begun scaring my husband by asking for the sports section of the paper.
I’m not a sports writer, obviously. All I can really tell you is what this season has meant to us, the fans. We’re all walking around pinching ourselves, trying to believe that this really is the year that the Saints are going all the way. And by God, it’s scary. And wonderful. And strange. And beautiful. The Saints have done something magical for this city. It’s a love affair unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Our football team gets it. They get us. And we’ve all been rewarded by the relationship.
Has the Saints euphoria we feel around here erased all of the post-Katrina problems we have? Of course not. Our mayor is a train wreck and we can’t wait for him to leave office. Our crime rates are staggering. We have to drive 20 mph down many of the streets in this city, even on streets with higher speed limits, because of the damage you’d do to your car if you tried to drive any faster. Our public school system is now a confusing tangle of privately operated charter schools, all of which have different admissions standards and deadlines. Most days, it seems that a large portion of this country hates us for living here — even though they’re more than willing to come here on vacation and vomit in our streets, urinate in our yards, and then complain about how dirty our city is.
But you know what? None of that matters right now. Because we’re going to the Super Bowl, people. And win or lose, we’ll be waiting for the Saints at the airport upon their return from Miami. Win or lose, we’re planning a parade for them. Win or lose, this will be the biggest Mardi Gras you’ve ever seen. It’s been a hell of a ride, and we’ve enjoyed every single minute of it.
And in a city where everyday living has taken on an alternate universe feeling since 2005, we’ll take it. New Orleans gets a lot of bad press, some of it deservedly so. But as someone who’s lived here for quite some time, I can tell you that this is a city whose people are lovely and loving. A people who can’t talk about this dream, finally realized after 43 years, without tearing up just a bit. The Saints deserve this. We deserve this. And win or lose, they’ve already made us proud.
As Jaclyn Fujita, the wife of Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, told him recently in a text message before one of the many big games this season, “The people of New Orleans love the Saints not because they provide a distraction from their fall, but because they are a reflection of their rise.”
Strange and beautiful days, indeed. Pigs have flown. Who Dat!