Sunday, February 7, 2010

New Orleans Saints

I guess in some ways it is odd that our subject today is something as "mundane" as pro football. After all, I usually discuss things that are a little more, shall we say, esoteric. But make no mistake, I love the New Orleans Saints just as much as I love things like Japanese superhero TV shows and old comic books.

For me, I suppose I became a real fan of the team during its first truly "magical" period - the 1987 NFL season. That year, the Saints posted their first-ever winning record, and did so in emphatic fashion by going 12-3 (it was a strike year, too). They went on an amazing winning streak, they had the players to do the job, and...well, it felt like a team of destiny. It was only bad luck that they were in the same division as a San Francisco 49ers team with guys like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. New Orleans went into their first-ever playoff game as a wild card, but it seemed like they had the momentum to do something special.

That season was also my first real lesson in the bitter disappointment that can come with being a Saints fan. They got trounced in that first playoff game by a Vikings team with a far-worse record. Even over 20 years later, that final score of 44-10 is still burned into my brain. That day, I learned you can never take anything for granted when it comes to the New Orleans Saints.

There have been good seasons since that time, and some playoff success, too. But I dunno, it never really felt like something special was happening. Until this year. This seemed like a year where something exciting was going down. As the weeks progressed, the Saints' season became more dramatic and unlikely. Finally, it culminated in an NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings, of all teams.

As the weeks rolled on, my confidence in the Saints having a chance in every game grew to the point where I never counted them out until the clock was out of time. But I'll be honest when I say that I was still in disbelief as the game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights. The New Orleans Saints - my team - weren't just a good team. They were going to the Super Bowl.

My Dad swore once he'd never live to see this day. Sadly, he was right by about 12 years. I know a whole lot of people who felt the same. I was one of them. I rooted for the Saints, but expecting them to reach the Super Bowl seemed like a goal that was unapproachable. Even if they had a quality team, something would go wrong. I mean, it always did, right?

Much has been written about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the lowpoint the city and its NFL franchise had reached. All true, but it often misses the bigger picture. Because while that team is the "New Orleans" Saints, it belongs just as much to Baton Rouge. And Shreveport. And Monroe. And Lafayette. And Lake Charles. And Alexandria. It's Louisiana's team. You could even pull in our neighbors in Mississippi.

I often think the Saints are so beloved because they are a metaphor for our state, and our region. We have a massive inferiority complex in these parts. It often feels like no matter how hard we try, we'll fail and/or be laughingstocks. The Saints' nigh-legendary futility has been but a small part of that, but its also the whole thing in a microcosm. No matter how good they were, the Saints would fail in the end. Just like always. Just like Louisiana.

So it's no surprise that when the Saints pulled out victory against the Vikings, it touched off a massive state-wide celebration. In a world where the Saints can make a Super Bowl, it's not hard to imagine that anything is possible. This is why grown men have cried over this. It's not just about a football team. It's about the idea that maybe dreams can come true.

In less than 24 hours, the Super Bowl will kick off, and the Saints will face a tough and favored Indianapolis Colts team. Maybe they will win. Maybe they won't. But just by getting to this stage, the Saints have given a lot to their fans in this state, and all over the country. And in that respect, they are winners in my eyes regardless of the final score.

Thanks for this amazing season, New Orleans Saints. I hope there are many more to come.

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