As a New Orleans native, the Saints have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The first football game I ever attended was against the Detroit Lions in a preseason game in the Superdome. I was 6 or 7 years old. My Dad and uncle were in the old Tulane Stadium in 1967 for the first Saints game when John Gilliam ran back the opening kick-off for a touchdown. I remember Archie Manning, the paper bags, the Aints, and all of the losing. I remember Bobby Hebert, Dalton Hilliard, Eric Martin, and the Dome Patrol. As a kid, I remember having my heart broken over and over again. I remember saying that I was done with them, and then they would always draw me back in, sometimes against my will. I remember my Papaw yelling at the TV and Sunday afternoons in the fall filled with misery as yet another season went down in flames. My Dad and I could always talk about the Saints no matter what else was going on. From time to time, the Saints would make the playoffs, only to be destroyed by the Vikings or the Eagles or Falcons, erasing all of the hope that had built up over the year. Through it all, the city of New Orleans has been in love with their football team since its inception and now that the Saints are going to the Super Bowl, the Who Dat Nation is in delirium.
I think that New Orleans bonded so closely with the Saints, in part, because they were losers. The losing and the loyalty and the promise of "Wait 'till next year," seems to embody the spirit of the New Orleans in some strange way. After Katrina, when there was so much devastation and death and the Superdome was turned into a refuge of last resort, a lot of people lost hope that the city would ever return. But, the Saints did return. A little over a year later when the Saints played their first home game against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night and that punt was blocked for a touchdown two minutes into the game, the rebuilt Superdome, the city, and everyone associated with New Orleans erupted in emotion. I watched on TV and I cried. I knew what it meant. The announcers were quiet for 37 seconds while the fans in Superdome screamed away the pain, the loss, the anger, and the frustration that had gripped their lives over the past year. The cheers of the people of New Orleans carried that team all the way to the NFC Championship Game. 3 years later, the Saints are in the Super Bowl.
It has been said that the Saints are a comfort for a city and a people that have lost so much. No, that is not true. They are a sign of how far the city and the people have come. New Orleans is rebuilding house by house, block by block, business by business. The New Orleans Saints reflect that and the people of South Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have seen their team as reflective not of what was lost, but of what has been gained. Next year has come, and with it the promise of something better for a people who havve suffered so much.
I know that it is just a game. It is just football, not anything eternal, and whether the Saints beat the Colts on Sunday in Miami or not, people will get up the next day and go to work and keep rebuilding and keep looking forward to better days. They will celebrate a great season and how it pulled a city and a region together and they will look forward to next year. I know, it's just a game. But, if a game and a team can embody what it means to be from and miss a place, then this team has done it. When you think about human culture and what it means to be alive and have relationships and shared experiences and memories, then what is happening with the Saints right now, in a sense, does make it more than just a game.
I wish my Papaw could see this.