You don’t need to read this blog to know that the long-suffering New Orleans Saints won their first Super Bowl this weekend. Their emphatic 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts touched off a party in the French Quarter that will ramble into the Mardi Gras festivities next week. Oh, how I long to be in that number, marching with the jazz bands stepping out down Bourbon Street, celebrating the Saints’ deliverance of the Crescent City from five years of neglect and misery after Hurricane Katrina nearly washed my father’s fabled hometown away.
For centuries, New Orleans has been the cradle of the Barrosse clan. It’s the only town in the United States where you can pick up a phonebook and find lots of people named Barrosse – and they’re all my kin. My father, Peter Adelmard Barrosse, was born there in 1927 (in the 9th Ward, near Jackson Barracks), and though he never again lived in the Big Easy after the Korean War, New Orleans loomed large in our family. We made a couple memorable visits to see my Grandma Barrosse and our many aunts, uncles and cousins – and I returned there several times in the 1980’s to work the Renaissance Faire in nearby Metairie. My grandmother, who lived to be 96, was still alive then – and the New Orleans Saints were still losers.
As if I didn’t suffer enough sports misery as a Cleveland Indians and Browns fan (and later a Cubs fan) – it was also my lot, through my father, to follow the Saints. The team was born at an NFL league meeting on November 1, 1966, which fell on All Saints Day. As New Orleans is just about the only Roman Catholic town in the south, the team’s ownership named them the Saints for the holiday on which they were born. For the next four decades, their heavenly name would be one of the few blessings this star-crossed franchise would receive.
The Saints played their first regular season game on September 17, 1967, in front of 80,879 fans at Tulane Stadium. The Saints returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown – and for 43 seasons, it was mostly downhill from there. Naturally, they lost that first game to the Los Angeles Rams — and ended their first season with a 3-11 record.
On November 8, 1970, the Saints were, of course, trailing by one point in the final seconds of a game against the Detroit Lions. At that point, the only thing remarkable about the game was that the Saints actually had a chance to win it. However, it would take a miracle: a 63-yard field goal. Up to that point, nobody had kicked one longer than 56 yards. And that record was 17 years old.
Adding to the unlikely drama was the fact that the Saints kicker, Tom Dempsey, was born with no right hand and no toes on his right foot. Nonetheless, Dempsey electrified Saints fans – and stunned the football world – by drilling the ball 63 yards through the uprights and into the NFL history books. I was 12 years old at the time – and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. There was finally something about the Saints I could brag about. But that was just a fleeting, fantastical moment. Grim reality soon returned.
Dempsey lives in Metairie now, and because it seems divinely ordained that Saints should suffer — his house was flooded in the Hurricane Katrina deluge.
The year after Dempsey’s epic kick, the Saints drafted the Great Franchise Hope, Archie Manning. With the good-looking and talented Ole Miss star at quarterback, the Saints won the first game of the 1971 season, upsetting the Los Angeles Rams 24-20 at Tulane Stadium. But the Saints finished that year with a 4-8-2 record.
Despite Manning’s talent, and the adoration of his fans throughout Louisiana and Mississippi, Archie could not transform the Saints into a winner. The Manning family would have to wait another generation to put NFL championships in the family trophy case.
For too many years, too many seasons, too many games, and too many crushed hopes, New Orleans beloved Saints would become the ‘Aints. Fans wore bags over their heads, but they still came out to chant, “Who ‘dat? Who ‘dat? Who ‘dat say ‘dey gonna beat ‘dem Saints?”
Ironically, the Saints first Super Bowl victory, nearly 40 years after Archie Manning’s first season in New Orleans, came against Archie’s son, Peyton. Fate is always messing with ‘dem Saints.
Now, perhaps, the Saints curse has been lifted and a new period of hope, optimism and good luck will shine down from the heavens on the city of New Orleans. I sure hope so. My dad did not live to see what Katrina did to his city. It would have broken his heart. And he did not live to see this Super Bowl triumph, which would have thrilled him. But, if there was ever a football team being followed in heaven – wouldn’t it have to be the Saints?
I think I heard you celebrating with the joyous throng in the Quarter last night. “Who ‘dat? Who ‘dat? Who ‘dat say ‘dey gonna beat ‘dem Saints?”