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Of all the slings and arrows this annus horribilis has delivered, the likely cancellation of NFL and NCAA football might sting me the worst. In no way do I argue losing a sport for one season is worse than the pandemic itself, the violence and protests in our cities, or the economic struggles of the day. It’s just that no matter what challenges life and history brought in the past, I could always rely on football as my brief escape from those miseries and concerns.
Like my fellow native New Orleanians, I grew up Catholic. But the other real passion there on Sundays is Saints football. The Superdome is my cathedral, I worship at the Church of the Holy Pigskin. Starting in 1978, I learned the rituals sitting at the right hand of my father and grandfather.
To say the Saints stunk back then is a gross understatement. I can’t recall who the Saints played in the first game I saw, but there was something about that shiny gold helmet with the black fleur de lis that just touched something in me and still does. It felt like I always knew those colors and that symbol represented me, my family and the city I love. I loved sitting high up in the terrace and looking at the enormity of the building. I relished sneaking sips of Dixie beer my grandfather offered when my dad got up to go the restroom. I enjoyed playing football with the other kids in the dome’s wide tunnels during halftime.
The first game I saw at the dome was a loss. I was 5 years old, and I cried in my dad’s Datsun 280Z as he and my grandfather listened to the post-game show on WWL 870-AM radio. My dad occasionally pounded a fist in disgust on the steering wheel during the game recap, and my grandfather turned around, looked at me in the backseat and laughed: “Get used to this, kid!” He was right. In 1980, the team went 1-15, fans began putting paper bags on their heads in the stands and we became “The Ain’ts.” They didn’t improve for years.
It didn’t matter to me. By then, I was hooked and obsessed like many in the city. The team is as much a part of the city’s rich culture as jazz music, gumbo and partying to legendary excess. It might be the one thing that brings us all together, regardless of race, wealth, gender or any other isms we usually divide ourselves into.
But when my dad died in 1985, that team became so much more. I began to feel and believe that he was with me in spirit any time I watched a game. Win or lose, I still imagine him cheering or cussing along with me. For three or four hours every Sunday, dad visits and he’s delighted I love the team he loved so much.
In 1995, I moved to Atlanta – home of the despised archrival Falcons. The sight of red and black and that bird with the cheesy can-opener claw disgusts me like few things in this life. But back then, the internet was still in its infancy and I didn’t yet have the NFL Sunday Ticket. I couldn’t see my team, and I had to call my grandfather in the evening to get a full report. The Saints became my touchstone to home and everything I missed about it. Thanks to satellite TV, I haven’t missed a game since 1998.
After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city, the Saints became the rallying point. When the powers that be did the impossible and reopened the dome a year later and the Saints routed the Falcons on Monday Night Football after an inspiring punt block by Steve Gleason, it signaled to us we could achieve anything and bring back our city. Everything was now possible.
My grandfather died one week before the Saints won their first and only Super Bowl. I talked to him the day he passed. Between sharing serious and lovely things, I admonished him: “Hey, old man! Don’t you go to see Jesus yet! We’ve got a big game this weekend!” I remain convinced his hand was the divine intervention of the crazy onside kick recovery the Saints executed to take over the game and eventually used to win that glorious championship. I cried tears of joy surrounded by friends in Atlanta. It felt like a lifetime of sticking with a losing proposition finally paid off and that all was right in my world. It felt as if New Orleans was back fully and on the international stage in a positive light.
Early August is training camp and preseason – a time when my friends and I all truly believe our teams will win it all. Hope springs eternal as the heat of late summer fades into the crisp autumn air.
This season is supposed to be the last for future Hall of Famer and Saints quarterback Drew Brees. The team is loaded with talent after back-to-back 13-3 seasons that ended in heartbreaking playoff losses aided by poor officiating. This is to be the year the Saints finally get back to the Super Bowl and win to send Brees into retirement with a championship that validates the Saints during his era as one of the best teams of all time. It also happens to be the season my LSU Tigers defend a National Championship after going 15-0 with arguably one of the best college teams of all time.
I don’t want to know what Saturdays, Sundays and Monday nights in fall look like without football. I’ll miss the anticipation of the weekly matchups. I’ll miss the smack talk among friends and rivals. I’ll miss the beers while glued to the TV feeling like nothing else in the world matters for three or four hours. I will miss seeing my people in Death Valley and the Super Dome. I’ll miss the Purple and Gold and Black and Gold.
So, I now send up prayers to my dad and grandfather to ask them to put in a good word with the powers that be and ensure we get our beloved games in 2020. Just like in the “normal times” that seem like years ago, I want to be in that number when the Saints go marching in. Who dat!
Jacques Couret is editorial manager of All Told and works out of Allison+Partners’ Atlanta office, where he boasts the company’s best collection of Star Wars desk toys.