Get some crawfish, jambalaya
Red beans and fine pralines
Get some lovin’ that gonna satisfy
Home in New Orleans
Goin’ back home, fe nan e’
In the land of the Carnival Queen
I’m goin’ back home to my baby
Goin’ back to New Orleans
Malcom Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John), 1992
As the Saints’ final walk-through practice in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia drew to a close yesterday afternoon, the organization began making preparations to wrap up what has been a very successful first year stay at the plush Greenbrier Resort in the lush green countryside of the Allegheny Mountains. At almost the exact same time, yours truly was packing a suitcase in preparation for my flight out of Indianapolis tomorrow morning. The connection? Both the team and I are returning to that most wonderful place of our respective births —- we’re going back home to NOLA.
The Saints franchise and the city it represents probably share a bond that truly is unlike any other in professional sports. Never in my estimation has a team meant more to a community, a region, and a culture than the Saints do to New Orleans. If there is indeed an entity that’s popularly known as the “Who Dat Nation”, then certainly New Orleans would be its capital.
New Orleans’ passion began of course back on November 1st, 1966; when the NFL awarded the city its first ever “major league” franchise. Nearly 48 years later, that passion has never wavered; even through the most difficult of times. From Archie Manning’s broken arm to “Big Ben”; from 1-15 and the “Bagheads” to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina —- New Orleans’ devotion to its most beloved team was and is UNQUESTIONABLE.
So, when the Saints make their long-awaited 2014 Pre-Season debut tomorrow night against the Tennessee Titans at the Superdome, an adoring throng of passionate and devoted fans will be there to greet them. It’s more often than not the very same people that have been cheering for and supporting them year after year after year — and likely have done so from one generation of family members to the next.
One of those people of course, would be ME. I’m New Orleans bred and raised, and up until recently had lived there for the majority of my life. From Chalmette to Kenner, and from Old Jefferson to most notably the suburb of Harahan (where I grew up following my parents’ divorce until the time of my mother’s death in 1981), I’ve been a proud New Orleanian.
I was actually born during the heart of the Saints’ inaugural season (October 28, 1967), but didn’t attend my first Saints game at the legendary venue formerly known as Tulane Stadium until that exact same day 6 years later in 1973 (as part of my 6th birthday present from my beloved and late, great “Paw Paw”). From that moment on I became a fan, as my “Paw Paw” patiently and lovingly taught me about the nuances of the sport, and this team called the Saints. Our family had season tickets, and I began attending the games with him regularly. We attended maybe a dozen of those games there at the old stadium, until the team underwent a major change in venue.
I can recall being excited when we’d drive past the structure in downtown New Orleans being built that was visible from the I-10 interstate; that eventually would become what now is the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. My Paw Paw and I were in attendance when the Superdome opened during its debut in August of 1975, in a pre-season game vs. the Houston Oilers. We’d attend a handful more of games inside of the new domed marvel, until throat cancer took him from my life in March of 1978, at the age of 68. I was 10 years old at the time, and it’s a loss that some 35 years plus later, I’ve never truly recovered from.
It’s because of his untimely death back then, along with his love and passion for sports and especially the Saints (like most New Orleanians) which he instilled in me; that I ever wanted to do any of this (make sports writing a career) in the first place. From that moment on, beginning with the 1978 season — that my most distinct memories of Saints football have occurred. Not surprisingly, a majority of those memories happened in New Orleans, at the Superdome (Sorry, but I’m still not quite used to referring to it as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome).
Though they’re far too many of them to discuss at great length, certainly there are several that stand out. Unfortunately, many of them were Saints LOSSES. Among those that I’ll simply NEVER be able to forget are:
- November 12, 1978 vs. the Falcons (also known as the “Big Ben” game; and the actual true beginning of the Saints – Falcons arch-rivalry) – Trailing the Saints 17-13 with 10 seconds remaining, no timeouts and facing 4th and 10, Falcons QB Steve Bartowski heaves a desperation Hail Mary pass (known in the Atlanta playbook as “Big Ben”) down the right sideline, and Saints defensive back Maurice Spencer tips the ball right into the waiting hands of Falcons WR Alfred Jenkins, who catches the ball in stride for a miracle 57 yard TD to win it, 20-17 (Incredibly, just two weeks later the Falcons would win in the final seconds once again at Atlanta, by the exact same score of 20-17).
- September 2, 1979 vs. the Falcons – In the season opener the following year, the Saints and Falcons play a wild and exhilarating game that by today’s standards we’d refer to as an “instant classic” (to this very day, it’s the best football game that I’ve ever seen live in person). After going to overtime tied at 34-34, the Saints are in punt formation at their own 32 yard line. A bad snap by Center John Watson sailed some four feet over rookie punter Russell Erxleben’s head, and the rookie kicker had to give chase. The ball rolled inside the five toward the goal line, where Erxleben grabbed it and tried to toss a two-handed pass to avoid a possible safety. Rookie LB James Mayberry, who was bearing down fast on Erxleben, pulled the throw out of the air and ran six yards untouched into the end zone for the improbable winning touchdown. Atlanta came away with yet another stunning but thrilling win over the Saints by a score of 40-34; or as the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper would painfully note the next day: (20-17 x 2 = 40-34).
- December 18, 1983 vs. the Los Angeles Rams – The Saints, about to clinch their first-ever Playoff berth with a win, lead 24-23 with less than 2 minutes remaining and face a 4th and 1 at the Rams 32. Coach Bum Phillips elects not to have Morten Andersen kick a 49-yard field goal and attempts to pin the Rams deep, but the punt by Guido Merkens (subbing for the injured Russell Erxleben) goes for a touchback, and the Rams get one last possession. Rams QB Vince Ferragamo leads the Rams down the field, and K Mike Lansford’s 50 yard field goal with seconds remaining gives the Rams a 26-24 victory and drives a stake through the hearts of Saints fans everywhere — including me, in attendance that day as a 16-year old high school sophomore.
- September 25, 2006 vs. the Falcons – This is probably the most famous game by the Saints ever played in New Orleans. It was the first game back in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina, and it’s the game that every Saints fan remembers most. I was there in attendance with my younger brother Steven, and as a victim of Hurricane Katrina myself, I felt as emotional about the game as all of my fellow fans were. Rock bands U2 and Green Day started off the night with an incredible pre-game concert, and the crowd was as excited as I’ve ever seen or been a part of. You could literally feel the electricity in the air. Early in the game, Saints backup safety and special teams ace Steve Gleason famously blocked the ball off of the foot of then-Atlanta punter Michael Koenen that went into the end zone and was recovered for a Saints touchdown, spurring them on to a dominant win and against Michael Vick and the Falcons (the play is permanently memorialized by a Gleason statue outside the Superdome).
That last game is a poignant reminder of just how special the connection is, between this team and the city of New Orleans. If there was ever any doubt how much the Saints meant to New Orleans and the surrounding region throughout the team’s nearly 48 year history, it was removed on that night.That fleur-de-lis on the helmet is there for a reason — because it’s symbolic of the people, the place, and the culture that it represents. The Saints franchise as I’ve said before in previous articles, took the lead; and was “on point” from that moment on in the rebuilding process.
It’s been almost nine years now since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The city has come back strong and no one should underestimate the role the Saints played in that. The city, as it was before Katrina, and as it is once again, is beautiful. Around the Superdome now in 2014, traffic moves along. People move along. Businesses are open. It’s actually been this way for some time. The Saints are more popular now and have had more success in recent years than they did in their entire history before the storm.
To say that the Saints’ recent success has uplifted the psyche of the NOLA community and the region that surrounds it, would be an understatement. It was the Saints organization, including both players and coaches, who became personally involved with the rebuilding effort. By doing so, they endeared themselves to both fans and residents who didn’t (and still don’t) care about sports alike.
Despite all of the negative publicity that the city and the surrounding area has gotten in recent months with the increase in criminal activity or the unfortunate incident involving race relations (the string of random beatings that took place in the St. Roch neighborhood), there’s still no better place in the world to be if you’re a football fan. When the Saints are playing, there is no black and white….. there is only black and gold. Tomorrow, I’ll finally once again be among those that still feel that way; because for the first time in nearly a decade — I’m going back home to NOLA………….