7:24 p.m. Jan. 15---The snow was falling like Super Bowl confetti this afternoon as I drove from the West Side of Chicago to Evanston--I guess that counts as a road trip.
During an early afternoon segment on sports talk WSCR-AM in Chicago two hosts declared that this Sunday's NFC Championship game between the Bears and the New Orleans Saints means nothing to the cultural welfare of New Orleans. "Its just a game," said Dan, with his Howdy Doody partner typically mimicking his statement. "Nothing will change the fact that New Orleans will become the Atlantic City of the South." These guys are always bitter pills to swallow. Dan and Terry took sports talk to a real low a couple of years ago when they made fun of the fact that Chicago Cubs great Ron Santo had lost both his legs to diabetes. Real funny stuff. This tells you about their negative frame of mind.
The positive culture of sports can be found outside their studio door. The 1990s success of Michael Jordan and the Bulls shifted the stereotype of Chicago from 1930s gangsters to a contemporary air of showtime typically seen in Los Angeles and New York. The Bulls still lead the NBA in attendance, which is amazing for a 22-17 team. Chicago is ramping up its bid for the 2016 Olympics by pointing out that it has a NFL franchise -unlike its bidding rival Los Angeles. And the fact that Chicago has two full-time sports talk radio stations that employ hundreds of people says that Sunday's match-up might be a little more than "just a game," just in a business sense.
This is what I know about New Orleans and its beloved Saints.....
1. The Saints were awarded an NFL franchise on Nov. 1, 1966.
New Orleans was hardly a rainbow gumbo in 1966 and 1967, when the Saints began play. The Detroit-New Orleans Stars of baseball's Negro Leagues did not even disband until 1961. Professional football united people in the Gulf Coast region.
The Saints were much more than a game.
"Bringing pro football to the City of New Orleans in the 1960s was an accomplishment beyond the economic impact of a professional franchise," said Dr. Norman Francis, president of Xavier University in a 1991 Saints yearbook I picked up at the Superdome. "Integration was very much an issue in the South. The league had to be satisfied that its black athletes would be accepted in our community." Francis was a member of the Saints' initial ownership syndicate. As racial conflicts of the mid-1960s divided other American cities, New Orleanians worked together to bring the Saints into the NFL fold.
2. The Saints are the Cubs of the NFL.
Sunday's game would be a feel good story beyond the obvious circumstances of Katrina. The Saints have always been my second favorite NFL team to the Bears. This is the 'Aints first trip to a championship game. In 1991 the Saints President/General Manager was Jim Finks. In 1984 Finks was the Cubs president when they won the N.L. East. The Saints even had its own version of the Cubs 1960s College of Coaches. In 1972 former Apollo astronaut Dick Gordon (not the former Bears receiver) was named Executive Vice-President of the Saints. He had no football experience. His "mission" was to instill military efficiency in the front office. Of course, his mission failed.
3. The Saints are the only major sport in New Orleans.
In the 2004 NFL season that preceded Katrina, New Orleans' 23.5 rating was the second highest market for the Fox network -only Milwaukee scored higher. The Saints are simply a way of life. In 1983 New Orleans soul legend Aaron Neville recorded the single "Who Dat?" (The History of the Saints)," a hip-hop version of "When The Saints Go Marching In." In 1985 a bunch of Bears players who couldn't sing and dance recorded "The Super Bowl Shuffle."
The NBA's New Orleans Hornets are still playing most home games in Oklahoma City and baseball's Zephyrs are a member of the Pacific Coast League---believe it or not. The Saints have always been the only major sport in New Orleans. Before Archie Manning made his mark in New Orleans, Saints fans embraced grungy quarterback Billy "Whiskey" Kilmer, who loved to hang out at The Old Absinthe House, my favorite dive on Bourbon Street. The great 6'8" Bears defensive end Doug Atkins ended his career as a Saint and Guido Merkens tried to jump start his career as a Saint. The Saints even once had a player named Remi Prudhomme.
4. I've been to New Orleans twice since Hurricane Katrina. The first visit was three months after the storm and I returned in April, 2006 for the 37th Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Due to hotel and transportation limitations, Jazz Fest '06 was pretty much a local affair.
I saw Gulf Coast residents respond to music with a ragged collage of smiles and tears. If a song could take them somewhere else for a few moments, it was more than "just a song." If Saturday night's resolve of the Saints' Deuce McAllister dragging a bunch of players into the end zone becomes a willful metaphor for just one fan, then it is more than "just a game."
In January, 1986 I spent a week in New Orleans doing color stories for the Sun-Times when the Bears played New England in Super Bowl XX. I was dispatched to Louisiana at the last minute and did not have a place to stay. I was supposed to crash on the floor of some sportswriter in suburban New Orleans. Most of Team Sun Times had already landed: the gentleman columnist Ray Sons, lead writer Ron Rapoport, sportswriters Toni Ginnetti and Dan Pompei. My pal Ernie Tucker was sent down on the City of New Orleans train with a bunch of drunken Bears fans. I got off the plane and went straight to my first story, a sit-down with Mustapha, the mellow assistant curator of the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. He was designing tiny Patriot and Bears voodoo dolls when I dropped in.
After the interview Mustapha said he knew of an extra room in a small French Quarter hotel. I will never forget walking down sunny Bourbon Street with Mustapha. I wore some type of lumpy jean jacket and carried a Radio Shack computer. Mustapha was dressed in a black pinstriped suit with a matching fedora accented by a bright yellow plume. Even by mid-day Bourbon Street standards, we looked weird in a Midnight Cowboy way. But he found time to close up shop and lend a helping hand. New Orleans is still full of such surprises, which is why its still early to make a call on the city's future. No one would have bet that the Saints would be in this year's NFC championship game. They lost 13 games last season.
In sports, despair begets hope, pain grows into solace. I think of myself as a hard core sports fan and try to keep things in perspective; like not calling sports talk shows and maintaining this "just a game" deal. But it is the transcending moments of humanity that endure; the triumphs of Ron Santo, the social conscience of Muhammad Ali, the comforting smile of Buck O'Neil.
After the Saints victory on Saturday, New Orleans head coach Sean Payton walked around the Superdome and shook hands with fans. Of course that's a small form of connection that cynics might mock. But I'll remember that scene. Connections lead to community, which New Orleans is still struggling to find. And, outside the Gulf Coast, America continues to become an impersonal landscape of text messages, computers and downloads. A game is something we can still identify. A game is who we are. And in its best moments it is who we can be.