I've been alive for all 43 years of the Saints' NFL existence ~ rooted passionately for them for four years while I was in high school in southern Mississippi ~ and they have always held a soft spot in my sporting heart. My early personal memories of the Saints (1971-75), which coincided with the beginning of the Archie Manning years, were as lovable ~ sometimes laughable ~ losers, a kind of kinship similar to what Cubs fans everywhere share with their long-suffering team.
You always said an extra prayer in church on Sunday mornings for the Saints and hoped ~ maybe even begged ~ for a miracle to happen. Yet, more likely than not, calamity always seemed to prevail: a goal-line fumble here, an opponent's interception returned for a touchdown there. Hank Stram couldn't make winners out of the Saints, neither could Mike Ditka. Both had Super Bowl pedigrees before trying their luck coaching the Saints. It's amazing that Tom Dempsey once kicked an NFL-record 63-yard field goal to eke out a Saints victory way back in 1970. Back then, the victories were few and far between.
The Saints were, in the words of Wynton Marsalis: "Confined to a purgatory of their own making looking for the fast track to hell." That's putting it politely, but there wasn't a lot of positive spin the early days of the franchise. It didn't help, either, that the city of New Orleans, with a big assist from the state of Louisiana, went out and built the biggest fixed dome structure in the world ~ the dome roof covered 13 acres alone ~ in the very costly ($165 million), budget-overrun (original estimated cost $46 million) Louisiana Superdome. Located in the Central Business District, the Superdome opened for business in 1975 ~ only three years past the 1972 projected date thanks to political delays, construction delays and increased transportation costs caused by the 1973 oil crisis ~ after the Saints spent their early years playing in old Tulane Stadium, former home of the Sugar Bowl on the Tulane University campus. Way down yonder in New Orleans, losing always seemed to find the Saints.
Now, five years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that left New Orleans a tattered, flooded city and forced the Saints to split their "home" games between San Antonio, Tex. and Baton Rouge, La. for a season while the Superdome underwent repairs, fast forward to Sunday evening's Super Bowl XLIV ~ a game brilliantly played by both the Saints and the Indianapolis Colts in the mild but comfortable climate of Miami.
It seemed evident something special was on the horizon for the Saints, playing in their very first Super Bowl game and coming on the heels of a satisfying victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game at home two weeks earlier. Despite being down 10-0 after the first quarter, the Saints stayed close to the Colts throughout the rest of the first half and trailed by only four points at halftime.
Then, the game turned on the very first play of the second half with a very surprising but highly successful onside kick adroitly executed by the Saints that stunned everyone ~ the Colts, the crowd, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms (the CBS-TV broadcasters) and, certainly, Saints and Colts fans everywhere tuning in to the telecast ~ but not the Saints, themselves. On the gridiron, Payton (Saints head coach Sean Payton) was outwitting Peyton (Colts quarterback Peyton Manning).
Suddenly, the upstart Saints had captured the momentum and the rhythm of the game was all theirs. Quarterback Drew Brees led New Orleans on a fourth quarter drive by completing 8 of 8 passes that culminated in a 2-yard TD pass to Jeremy Shockley. A replay challenge of a two-point conversation following the touchdown went the Saints' way and gave them a 24-17 lead. Then, the fourth quarter interception of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, son of the beloved former Saints Archie Manning, by Saints cornerback Tracy Porter sealed the deal and a 31-14 victory sent New Orleans fans rushing for Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and beyond ~ and gave the Who Dat Nation a cause and a reason to celebrate.
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
By the end of Super Bowl XLIV, 43 years of sorrow suddenly turned to laughter ~ and a second line strut could be felt not only in the Crescent City but around the state and around the country. Many of my Facebook friends who live in my former hometown of Ocean Springs, Miss. (about two hours east of New Orleans on the Mississippi Gulf Coast), and a few who have moved to other states, took to the popular social media website for the next several hours after the game ended, posting and sharing in the revelry and celebration of the Who Dat Nation. They posted from Mississippi and Louisiana as well as from California and Florida.
Winning a Super Bowl ~ even one that took more than four decades to achieve ~ changes everything. Now, Saints fans no longer will feel compelled to wear paper bags over their heads at the Superdome to maintain their anonymity, call their once-hapless team the Aints, or hide their black and gold team colors in public.
In the days ahead, don't be surprised if the team's idyllic insignia ~ the Fleur de Lys ~ becomes very trendy as new fans join the Who Dat Nation bandwagon. Don't worry, there's plenty of room in the second line for everyone to join in the number.
Soon, the networks will come courting with prime-time TV slots for next season on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" and ESPN's "Monday Night Football." Already, I sense fans near and far are showing an extra bounce in their steps ~ and Mardi Gras is still a week away.
As the Who Dat celebration continues today with a victory parade in downtown New Orleans with an eye towards next week's Mardi Gras, so many images and memories of New Orleans come to mind ~ some good, some great and some reflective. As a city so deservedly rich in musical culture, I am reminded of one seminal tune, sung very sweetly by the gravely-voiced jazz legend Louis Armstrong, that sums up the feelings of so many, including me: "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans."
Yes, it was an improbable victory for a most improbable team.