The New Orleans Saints are going to the Superbowl.
I’ve been a Saints fan for a long time and through some pretty woeful seasons. When I was a kid, we moved around a bit, out of necessity. From New Orleans to Mexico, to New Jersey, and back to Mexico and then back to New Orleans.
I was a shy, timid child and had a difficult time making friends after we returned to New Orleans. I started fifth grade at Holy Name of Jesus elementary school and spent most of my school days in a kind of dull, bewildered funk. I didn’t make friends easily and I was the target of a good deal of physical abuse and bullying from my classmates. I was small and skinny and shy and awkward and I didn’t stand up for myself.
We lived in the bottom half of a duplex on South Liberty Street in Uptown, New Orleans and the landlords–who lived in the upper story–had a boy my age, my grade, in my school. His name was Maurice.
He was an asshole. He killed rats for fun, abused his parents’ status as our landlord, and rubbed plastic beads around his anus and threw them at my face. He was also the closest thing I had to a friend.
We’d come to New Orleans straight from Tula, Hidalgo and most of our possessions were still in New Jersey. I remember asking my parents if they could make sure that my favorite toy could find its way into the next shipment. It was a 2-XL, a little eight-track cassette player in the shape of a robot.
The eight-track tapes made 2-XL special. The tapes would prompt the listener to answer questions by pressing the buttons–switching the tracks of the cassette. The tapes were constructed so that track switching created an interactive, dynamic experience. There were educational tapes, choose-your-own adventure story tapes and other fun stuff. Plus, his eyes would light up and flash.
I loved him. And more, I missed him.
2-XL would talk to me. He didn’t make fun of me. He didn’t pick on me. He was my friend, the only one I could think of, and I missed him.
My parents knew I was lonely, and they knew I was sad. They searched and tried and did what they could. And eventually, in what had to be an act of desperation, they thought of Saints tickets.
The Saints were bad. Monumentally, abysmally, catastrophically bad. They were the Aints, the worst football team in America. They’d never had a winning season. Years (years!) later Sports Illustrated would name them the worst professional sports franchise in the world.
But that meant that tickets were easy to get.
So one afternoon, I went with my step-father to the Superdome. We lined up with perhaps a couple dozen other people in the access hall leading to the floor of the field. The dome was enormous, huge… massively, impossibly immense. And completely empty. Paper covers hung over the backs of a smattering of seats, like flecks of salt in an endless sea of gray: the seats open for purchase as season tickets. And then we ran. It was a race. Everyone lined up in the hall ran onto the field and into the stands to grab the covers for the seats they wanted. Most made pell-mell down the turf for the low, 50 yard line seats. We ran up. Up the stairs past the first level. Up more stairs past the second level. Up more stairs…. and grabbed the covers off a set of three seats in the upper section, visitor’s side, about the five yard line. They were cheap seats. But for us–one parent working, the other in grad school–they were fantastically expensive. An absurd, ridiculously expensive luxury expense that–had times been better and I been healthier–my parents would certainly would not have undertaken.
We bought the tickets with a family friend, Gus Orphan. And for the next seven years I went to every Saints home game with Gus and my step-father.
None of us knew anything about football when we went. Which was OK, because apparently the Saints didn’t know much about football either. They lost and lost and lost and lost. But even in their astonishing ineptitude, I’d found–my family–had found something to hold on to. And we held on tight.
We went and watched and yelled and screamed and shouted. George and Gus drank beer and ate hot dogs. I drank soda and ate Chipwiches. We watched the away games at home. I had something to look forward to every week. I’d found sanctuary with the Saints and in the Superdome.
I started tossing the football around with a neighbor kid. I got some friends at school.
And I got my step-father. Every week, we sat together and rooted together. We celebrated together and we commiserated together. We laughed and we cursed–and yes, it was too often much more cursing than laughing, but we did it together. It was ours. The Saints were ours. They were what brought us together.
So now, I’m grown. I don’t live in New Orleans and haven’t since 1990. My step-father lives in Mississippi. We don’t have the season tickets anymore and haven’t for many years. But every Sunday, I watch the game. And every Sunday, after the game, I call my step-father. And we laugh. Or we curse.
But lately? Lately we’ve been laughing. As if all those years of losing have been washed away.
I haven’t been back to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. I don’t have any family in the city anymore and when I visit my parents, I visit them in Jackson. But I grew up in New Orleans. Dear friends were deeply affected by the flooding. And I watched in horror, along with everyone else, as the city I loved drowned. I watched as the dome that had sheltered me when I was lost and scared and lonely failed and crumbled in the storm.
But I followed the city and I followed the Saints. And both began to rebuild.
I watched the first home game in the Superdome post Katrina. The dome, so recently broken–a concrete metaphor for a city in ruin–had been patched and repaired. The reconstruction of the Superdome was heavily criticized. It had been a local priority and siphoned money and labor from other areas of the city. It was an expensive, absurd, fantastically ridiculous luxury project that–had the times been better and the people healthier–the city would certainly not have undertaken. But when Steve Gleason blocked that first Atlanta punt, I know that my cry echoed with each and every one of the those seventy thousand in that building, and with each and every other fan watching the game. That same shaking, exultant, desperate cry of hope.
The Saints began to win. And the city clung to them, just as I had. Because the Saints were theirs.
Yeah, it’s just a game. Grown men putting on costumes and throwing a ball. But in New Orleans, putting on costumes and throwing a ball is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The city has grabbed hold of the team in a way that is truly unique. New Orleans has defined itself with its cuisine, Mardi Gras, and now the Saints. It might be silly, it might be trite, but it still seems to be more than just football. Black and gold. The Fleur-de-Lis. A dog that fetched kick-off tees. A silly un-grammatical cheer.
“Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem saints?”
The answer of course was everyone, for years and years. But it didn’t matter to me because what I got from the games I got from the man sitting next to me. What happened on the field was lagniappe.
The city is rebuilding and recovering. And if the Saints have helped, they’ve helped by bringing the people of the city together. By giving them a respite from their troubles. What the people of New Orleans take from the Superdome, they take from each other.
And now the Saints are going to the Superbowl; it’s all lagniappe.
Bless you, boys.