Geaux Saints!

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.

2-XL

2XL

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.

Partron Saint

Partron Saint

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Go Army!

Jamie and I went to an Army game on Saturday night. As it happened, they were playing Tulane. Aside from one-half of one Dartmouth game that I can barely remember (it was a home game…), the only college football games I’ve ever been to have been Tulane games, which I thought was an odd coincidence.

The Army game was way cool, and of course, I found myself rooting for Army, who managed to tie the game on a last second hail-mary touchdown pass, and then win in overtime. We sat with Jamie’s sister and her husband’s family, who are at least second generation season ticket holders and have great seats. Plus, we got to tailgate with them before the game which was a lot of fun (there isn’t much tailgating at the Superdome in New Orleans). My Brother-in-law has a nephew who’s a first year cadet at West Point, and he and some friends came for the extended tailgating. (It happened to be homecoming weekend and a night game, so we had a lot of time before the game.)

But I found the game especially intriguing not because of the action on the field, but because of the context surrounding the field.

The context began to set in as we drove down. We’d been reminded to bring our licenses; we needed a photo ID to get in (that doesn’t happen at every college stadium). As we entered the USMA (United States Military Academy) grounds, we showed our id’s to regular rent-a-cop security personnel and proceeded through the temporary checkpoint. About 100 yards past the gate we came to what looked like a very serious cattle-guard across the road. But, of course, it wasn’t a cattle-guard, it was a very serious, large, steel road blockading device. It’s a reminder that we’re entering an active military base; they can close these roads if they need to.

As we got closer to the stadium we saw fewer rent-a-cops and more MP’s in their gray camouflage (which seemed odd — it’s early October in upstate NY. Grey stands out against the green/red/burnt umber of the trees pretty well). And of course, at the tailgate party there were a slew of handsome young men in their cadet uniforms. (A note to any young single women out there: there are some seriously good-looking boys at West Point.)

So I know that I’m at an Army game, I get it. This is West Point, etc… etc… blah blah blah… cool enough.

But then we take a walk, a little mini-tour of the grounds around the stadium. We don’t see much: athletic facilities which could be on any campus in the country, a very pretty reservoir, and the outside of a very large chapel. But we also see a few monuments. Monuments to fallen soldiers, to fallen cadets. Monuments to young men who gave their lives in service to their country.

Now I’m really starting to get it. Maybe I’m overly sentimental, but I’m starting to get a real sense of… honor. I know it’s corny, but the place itself seemed honorable. Maybe it’s all the young men and women in their pressed, crisp uniforms, or the MP’s and their rifles. Or the fact that the campus is spotless. Or that there are military helicopters overhead and troop vehicles on the road, or maybe it’s the artillery battery lined up across from the stadium….

We went into the stadium and then it really starts to hit me. Before the start of each game, there’s a regimental parade. The cadets at the USMA are divided into four regiments, each with a cadet Captain and cadet staff officers and each regiments is divided into two battalions of four companies — each with a cadet commander. Before the game, one regiment parades into the stadium and the officers are announced. It’s a military parade with precision marching, flags and semaphores to direct the cadets. I learn that in addition to the four regimental cadet-captains there’s a cadet Captain of the Corps each year — and I begin to think about what kind of honor that must be for a 21 year-old.

The cadets take their hats off and salute the opposing team and the visiting fans. How often do you see that? The student body sits in a reserved section like they do at many football games around the country. But these students are all in uniform. They cheer, but their cheers are organized and civil.

Then came the paratroopers.

Before each game, three cadets jump from a helicopter at 4,500 feet. The three that jumped on Saturday each landed dead center at midfield. It was amazing. I was awed not only by the fact that they were willing to jump out of a helicopter at 4,500 feet, and not just by the fact that they came down in even formation, and not just by the fact that they did it with such precision. I was awed by the realization that they would also be willing to do exactly the same thing even if people on the ground were shooting at them.

Then they announced their honorary captains. There was a little girl from the Make-A-Wish foundation — which I’ve seen at other football games. But then there were also two alums. Both were combat veterans and both had lost limbs. Later in the game, they announced and introduced various other combat veterans and alumni in attendance. Now, I know that US Army soldiers come from all walks of life and many different colleges. Even my alma-mater probably has one or two veterans (Abbie Hoffman does not count). But everyone who graduates from West Point will serve in active duty — and we’re at war.

Throughout the game I remained very conscious that it was a game. It wasn’t the most important thing in the world for these young men — it might have been the most important on that night. But each of those players — as well as all of their classmates — have made a fantastically difficult decision at a very young age.

I was overwhelmed. At that age I would have been incapable of making that kind of decision, of committing myself to something as large and dangerous as the USMA. Part of me is envious. Going to West Point makes you a part of something for life — it creates an enormously powerful social network and provides intense psychological visibility. It also requires a great deal of discipline and submission.

It’s not a choice that I think I could or would ever make. There’s a lot wrong in the military and it requires a temperament that I just don’t have. But after that game, I have to admit it.

I’m a fanboy.

Go Army!