Sunday, January 24, 2010

It wasn't just another game

I've been fairly quiet over the course of the last week. I was trying to write something that would do justice to the swelling of fanaticism with respect to the upcoming NFC Championship Game that had the New Orleans Saints pitted against the Minnesota Vikings. Words seemed hollow as the radio waves filled with the taunts of rabid fans determined to bring home a championship to the city for the first time in the franchise's 43 year-0ld history. The Superdome was going to be a major factor in the game and the noise level was predicted to be at all-time high levels. All of the hoopla proved to be horribly understated. The game was thrilling, but not especially well-played by both sides. Brett Favre, who admitted being a New Orleans Saint fan when he was growing up as a boy in nearby Kiln, Mississippi, was determined to defeat the Who Dat Nation, but in the end his tremendous effort was upended by turnovers committed by his teammates and one ill-advised errant toss that proved to be the difference in the game. Led by the incredible Drew Brees, who led the nation in offense, the Saints had terrible offensive production in the second half, but they managed to stay in the game, eventually taking the lead for the first time in the third quarter. The pitched battle continued into sudden death overtime and the largest crowd in the Superdome since 1979 erupted when the Saints won the coin toss that determined who would get possession of the ball first. A huge runback by Pierre Thomas put the Saints in excellent field position and it wasn't long before 23-year-old Garrett Hartley kicked the game winning field goal that put the Saints ahead for good 31-28 and punched their ticket for Miami in early February. As soon as the Saints had won the game, there was a huge noise out in the streets. I opened the door to hear screams throughout the entire neighborhood. Cars were blowing their horns. Fireworks, illegal in Orleans Parish, were going off all over the city. The noise didn't abate for nearly a half hour as Bourbon Street filled up with huge numbers of partying fans. It was as big a crowd as any had ever seen there for a Sugar Bowl, Superbowl or a Mardi Gras gathering. The difference was that most people on Mardi Gras or any other previous sports event being celebrated there were not local. Practically everyone on the street tonight is a resident of the city. So what does this mean to New Orleans? Following the heartbreak of Hurricane Katrina's devastation in 2005, the Saints were forced to move their season to other venues. The Superdome was in shambles and team owner Tom Benson was seriously mulling an offer to move the team away from the city of his birth to San Antonio, the place where much of his business dealings was now centered. Diehard Saints fans were apalled. Arnie Fielkow, the general manager and a relative newcomer to the city, had a well-publicized argument with Benson over the proposed move. He lost his job, but made his point. Fielkow became such a great folk hero that he was elected to the city council almost immediately thereafter and has become a major political force in the post-Katrina recovery. This city has always had a special place in its heart for pro football. LSU has captured three national championships and even Tulane University posted a perfect season a few years ago. However, despite an almost unhealthy loyal fan base, the Saints always seemed to find a way to lose. It took them 21 years before they had their first winning season. Imagine that. There were children born in the first year of the franchise who grew up and were ready to graduate from college before the Saints would win more than half the games on their schedule. That was 1987 when the team went 12-3. It took until 2000 before the team went to the playoffs and registered their first win. They actually played for the NFC Championship once before in Chicago, a debacle of a game played in snowy and frigid conditions in 2006 at Soldier Field during Coach Sean Payton's first year of rebuilding which they lost 39-14. This was more than just a game. The hopes of the city, the demeanor of its people and the culmination of recovery from the horrors of Katrina made this victory all the more sweet. This was a team many years ago that had a brilliant quarterback, who with a better offensive front line and one or two receivers and running backs might have taken the club to the Super Bowl. Try as he might in front of his adoring fans, it wasn't to be. Instead, he married and made New Orleans his home. He raised three strapping boys, passed his raw talent to each and instilled in them a love of the game. Growing up, their team was the Saints. Archie Manning was the color commentator for the radio broadcasts for decades, but it was only in recent years with the success of his two youngest sons, Peyton and Eli, that he felt he had to distance himself somewhat from calling the games. Now, there is the question: who will Archie be pulling for? And like Bret Favre, who lost the championship to his favorite team, will Peyton be up to the task of defeating the team with whom his dad was so closely associated and his own hometown heroes? It will be one heckuva game and I am intrigued. It will be the game of Payton versus Peyton and one more interesting twist on a name. Of all the years for the NFL to pick the halftime act to perform, what made them pick the storied British rock band that stars Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry? Is there any doubt the sportswriters of the world will proclaim the Who as the Who Dat?

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