26 January 2010
New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton told his second-year kicker, Garrett Hartley, to aim for the fleur-de-lis emblem on the wall above the tunnel to the locker rooms and below thousands of screaming, pleading, praying, long-suffering fans, some 50 yards away and 10 yards beyond the crossbar. Forty-three years of frustration and failure, hopes and haplessness, dreams and despair all bore down on an undrafted free-agent kicker from a little Texas town within spittin distance of the home of the Dallas Cowboys. How many kickers had missed seemingly gimme field goals this year? Have you ever seen a year in the NFL when placekicking was as bad as 2009-10? Had Hartley himself not missed a 37 yarder a few weeks earlier, a potential game winner with 9 seconds left against the (this year) hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game the Saints LOST in overtime? A kick that he missed wide LEFT when he was lined up on the RIGHT hashmark, crossing the entire width of the goalposts?! Now here he stood, in overtime, trying to finally put away the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game, the same Vikings with which his team was still tied despite FIVE MN turnovers. After a timeout by the Vikings to "ice" him (a stupid rule they ought to change), Hartley lined up for the kick. From the moment it cleared the raised hands of the Vikings' D-line, 70,000+ fans in the dome and millions watching nervously on TV (including your truly) knew, it wasn't even going to be close.
He damn near nailed his coach's target.
For the first time in team history, the New Orleans Saints would be going to the Super Bowl. A franchise that is less than three months older than the Super Bowl itself. The perennial Sad Sack of the NFL, once humiliated by their own fans who wore paper bags over their heads and dubbed their boys the "Aints," will be honored guests in Miami without having to buy tickets to the game.
I'll admit it. I cried. Not sobbing or blubbering, but I cried. I have been a Saints fan for more than 35 years. When I was growing up, my dad was a truck driver, and not very athletic, so it was the father of my cross-street friend who threw footballs to me and the other neighborhood kids. His family was from northeastern Mississippi and what few family members went to college went to Ole Miss. This explains how a boy born in Arkansas and raised in Memphis became an Ole Miss fan. And right about that time, an Ole Miss legend was on his way to becoming the Saints' greatest quarterback, Archie Manning. Archie spent eleven long years runnin for his life behind a porous offensive line, throwin to receivers who would sometimes literally stop and stare in amazement as he ran back and forth across the field, doing everything he could to keep plays alive. So, although I was also a Dallas Cowboys fan (in the Staubach days), I developed a love for the Saints that lasts til this day.
You must understand, the Saints have no fair weather fans. Until recently, they only RARELY had fair weather! Oh sure, they had a fierce defense in the early 1990s, when Jim Finks was at the helm. But they had no offense, and it is entirely possible (though I don't think they ever actually did) to lose a football game 2-0. And for the last few years, mainly since the arrival of Drew Brees, they've had a positively explosive offense. But scoring 50 points doesn't help much if you give up 51.
But this year, with the notable additions of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and defensive superstars Darren Sharper and Jonathan Vilma, the Saints finally had all the pieces of the puzzle at the same time.
A little over 4 years ago, the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast was hit by one of the most devastating hurricanes in recorded history, Hurricane Katrina. As clearly unprepared city, state, and federal agencies struggled to aid its citizens, the city turned its largest asset, The Superdome, into a refuge for upwards of 30,000 mainly poor citizens whose already meager housing was utterly destroyed. Before you start back in on the FEMA and George W. jokes and criticisms, keep in mind that this was arguably the worst hurricane in American history, and that it hit in just about the worst possible place it could have hit. But whoever was to blame didn't matter much to the refugees, who endured a bad situation that became unimaginable as electrical power was lost and the cavernous dome, with gaping holes ripped in its roof, was reduced to a lawless, lightless HELL on Earth. I've taken the "tour" of the dome, even got to stand on the actual field surface (something was being painted, so we had to cross the endzone, they don't usually let tours out onto the astroturf, nicknamed "Mardi Grass" which was recently replaced with Field Turf.). I can tell you, the concourses and ingress/egress ramps would have been as dark as anything you can imagine. Even now, over four years later, much of the city is still devastated squalor. But the resilient citizens of New Orleans clung to their team as a symbol of the rebirth of the city. A rebirth that in no small way is creditable to two men: Saints Head Coach, Sean Payton, and franchise quarterback, Drew Brees. Brees in particular is cementing himself in the hearts of Nawlins folk through his tireless humanitarian efforts, in a city that still desperately needs tireless humanitarians.
For the first time ever, I'm cheering for my team in late January!! For the first time in YEARS, I actually CARE who wins the Super Bowl. Some have wondered... "are you satisfied?" "Is it enough just to be in the SB?" "Will a Saints (fully conceivable) drubbing at the hands of the Colts (ironically QB'd by the son of aforementioned legend and STILL New Orleans resident, Archie Manning) make this season, with its record number of wins and memories (especially a systematic dismantling of the Patriots on Monday Night Football) a disappointment?"
No. Do I want them to win? Of course I do. But after so many years, so many sad seasons, so many highs that never quite got high enough, I have to say, I'm pretty happy with what my boys have done.
And only death will keep me from watching the son of the Saints' greatest quarterback try to prevent the Saints' NEW greatest quarterback from bringing a Super Bowl title to each and every long-suffering Saints fan. Including yours truly.
Saints leading rusher, honorary Team Captain, and recent retiree, Deuce McAllister
Saints Pro Bowl quarterback and future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees.
22 January 2010
"So do we pass the ghosts that haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little."