TV people in far away places keep talking about “what this win means to the people of New Orleans.” They have no idea. There is really no adequate description, but let's give it a shot.
I was born and raised in New Orleans. I was 7 years old when Hurricane Betsy which struck the city. That's when they started building the levees that failed during Katrina. One year after the eye of Betsy passed directly over my house New Orleans was awarded a football franchise.
My dad got season tickets and he walked me and my brother over to Tulane Stadium, a few blocks from our house. We saw John Gilliam run back the opening game kickoff for a touchdown, which gave us a huge dose of false hope (we finished 3-11 in the regular season). A few years later at a halftime show there was a re-enactment of the Battle of New Orleans and a cannon misfired and blew off the hand of one of the soldiers who was packing the cannon. It happened right in front of us and it was heart-wrenching. It wasn't the only gruesome sight that unfolded.
The Saints lost in every imaginable way, and so coach Tom Fears was fired. One week later, under new management, Tom Dempsey kicked a 63 yard field goal to beat the Lions, and we celebrated as though we had won a playoff game. Our hopes were again elevated, but we only won two games that season. And we didn’t have a .500 year for the first ten years of the franchise. We didn’t go to a playoff game until 1987, or twenty years after the franchise was first awarded to New Orleans. Of course, we lost that game. Whenever our hopes were raised they were inevitably cruelly dashed.
Inheriting the curse of the Saints
My son was born the year after the Saints' inaugural playoff game, and he inherited my obsession for the Saints. He was also born with a hearing problem, which started becoming serious when he was about 5 years old. One day I decided to explain that having a handicap was nothing to worry about, using Tom Dempsey as an example. I explained that Dempsey had a handicap, a deformed foot on his kicking leg. He wore a special shoe, but he had overcome his handicap by kicking the longest field goal in NFL history. My son remarked that his friend Shelby thought he was handicapped, but then said “but that’s just because I say what a lot.” He didn't know what it meant to be handicapped which was amazing, but unfortunately he was also Saints fan (as our Ain'ts bag-wearing sportscaster Buddy Diliberto once said: “when you get to the Pearly Gates tell Saint Peter you're a Saints fan and he'll say 'come right in, cause whatever else you've done in life, you've suffered enough.'”)
My next oldest child, Bridget, was not particularly into the Saints until they made the playoffs in 2000. It was the fifth time the Saints had made the playoffs, but they had still never won a playoff game. We were sitting in the end zone where the game changing play occurred that led to their first win. People went nuts and started hugging each other, and Bridget became a full-fledged Saints fan.
An Ill-Wind Blows
Nothing much happened Saints-wise for five years, and then Katrina followed Betsy's path almost to a T, and wiped out the city. Everyone was scattered and there was little concern about sporting events. The Superdome had been devastated, and there wasn't much hope of re-opening it. And so there wasn't much hope of keeping our beloved, but hapless, football team either.
I resigned myself to the idea that pro football was gone. But somehow the Dome was reopened in 2006, and somehow the Saints beat the Falcons and went on to make it all the way to the NFL Championship game. They lost to the Bears who went on to lose to the Colts. That year was amazing, and it brought life back to a city that was living on a tattered shoestring of hope. This year is the culmination of the storm and football driven tragedies. They say that the Superdome was built upon an Indian graveyard, but we were losing long before the Superdome was built. However, this year is the year of real change.
It’s been four years since Katrina and somehow we have amazing new leadership coming in. The Saints made it to the Superbowl after being undefeated in their first 13 games. It's amazing, but until the Superbowl issue was out of the way we still were not fully at peace.
Back in the regular season some people were worried that the number 13 was going to be our bad luck (sure enough we lost the next three games). When the Saints lost to the Cowboys, everyone I know started questioning if they had improperly deviated from a ritual and caused the Saints to lose. Everywhere we looked for signs.
It’s weird and it makes no sense, but people here in New Orleans felt personally responsible for the Saints’ success. And their failure. The Saints and its fans are inextricably intertwined. That bond has been forged over 40 years, and its depth cannot be comprehended by anyone who has not lived here and experienced the ups and downs (mostly downs).
Superbowl of Salvation
To have the Saints rise out of the ashes of Katrina and go on to win the Superbowl is incomprehensible. To win against Peyton Manning, a hometown hero and formidable opponent, is outlandishly strange. Nothing about this rise would should make any sense. And yet, to those of us who live here and who would have had no reason to believe we could do this, it somehow makes perfect sense. Not in an intellectual way. It really only makes sense if you look at it with your heart. Preferably a heart that has been broken many times.
New Orleans isn’t a place you can understand until it sneaks up on you and gets into your skin. Once that happens there is no cure other than complete salvation. And that's what has happened. So, how does that answer the question I posed at the beginning? I don't know.
I guess I don’t really know how to describe what this Saints win means to our city, at least not to someone who hasn't been here. Maybe it’s better to say it in a really shorthand way: whatever Katrina made us feel like, the Superbowl win is the exact opposite of that.
Here's a picture of my kids taken about 3 years before the Saints won their first playoff game. They were young and innocent when the picture was taken; they've suffered a lot since then, especially in the last four years. But they understand the suffering was useful, and they've learned a lot. They're all completely rabid Saints fans (even Charlotte). Other kids are part of the new generation of Saints fans, like these young cuties, and these girls too.
Finally, here's a little slideshow of things I experienced in the past few weeks on the way to Salvation. Hope you enjoy it, and I hope you find the all of the joy that we here in New Orleans have found. If not, come visit us and we'll be happy to share.