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sportsass: the united states saints

I spent the summer of 2006 on the Gulf Coast shooting a documentary feature film. On occasion, I found myself in and around the city of New Orleans. Although I had seen the pictures of post-levee break mayhem on television, I was not prepared for the 360 degrees of empty cornhusk that represented this once bustling city.

New Orleans had always been one of my favorite places to visit. I had grown up in Europe and something of the remaining French culture in southern Louisiana echoed the major metropolitan areas of that continent across the Atlantic Ocean.

I remember my mother saying, “New Orleans is the most European city. If you can’t afford a trip to Europe, go to New Orleans.” While something in what she said was indeed true – the balconies, the courtyards, the lack of Puritanical restraint – something about New Orleans was distinctly American as well.

Here we saw cultures intermingle in the quintessential example of the American melting pot, like so many ingredients in a bowl of gumbo. We saw purely American musical forms like blues and jazz come to life and dance on the breezes of this southeastern shore.

And, after the levees broke, we saw this city become a kind of capital for the United States, a place where people from Washington state to Florida could come together, send volunteers, send money, indeed root for. Here was our little orphan who needed help to grow up and be a productive member of our democratic, capitalist society.

And, in this process, the once laughing stock of NFL franchises became the sports team of the United States. The New Orleans Saints, I heard broadcasters announce throughout the NFL playoffs, were really the United States Saints, and folks from Maine to California wanted them to win.

And win they did.

Americans love the come-from-behind-against-all-odds underdog tale, and the Saints provided just that. Their long time coach Jim Haslett had ended the 2005 season 3-13. No matter how strong a talent was brought in, Haslett only seemed to alienate and disenfranchise player after player.

August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city weakening the levees thus transforming much of the landscape to waterscape. Adding insult to injury, the federal government was slow to respond leaving thousands stranded on rooftops while tales of Superdome chaos polluted the airwaves.

Out of all this wreckage walked a head coach – perhaps a little too young for such a position, some might speculate – Sean Payton, a Parcell's protégé. And, in one year, not only did he take the Saints to the playoffs, basically finishing third or fourth in the league, but he managed to win NFL Coach of the Year while quarterback Drew Brees won Fedex Player of the Year and the coveted Walter Payton Man of the Year. Two rookies, Reggie Bush and Marques Colston, were in the running for Rookie of the Year.

When the Saints lost in the playoff game against the Bears, the game that would have taken them to the Super Bowl, they were downtrodden and worried that they had let down the city – and the country – those who desperately needed them to win.

But they hadn’t let anyone down at all.

Saints fans were, of course, disappointed at first, but once they could gain some distance and some perspective, they could see how absolutely unbelievable it was that their team had gone that far one year after Katrina, one year with a new head coach.

When the Saints returned to New Orleans from the Chicago game, they expected no one. After all, their plane was four hours late. It had to be de-iced several times. It was pouring down rain in New Orleans. And they had lost. What they found instead was a mass of humanity lining the street from the airport. Warm, welcoming, and thankful.

Payton commented, “The reception we received from the fans was representative of the reception we received all season from them. We are grateful for it. Their resolve and loyalty to the team is certainly felt in the locker room and throughout the organization. We appreciate the way the players, coaches and everybody on that flight that stepped off the plane and drove through the streets of people were impressed and grateful. I want to thank the fans for their support this season.”

Although I was not there in body. I was among that crowd lining those streets in spirit, and I want to thank the United States Saints for one helluva football season. Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints? Who dat? Who dat?

February 2007

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