When the New Orleans Saints march into Miami to clash with the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIV, Big Easy residents will be sporting black and gold T-shirts emboldened with the team’s unofficial “Finish Strong” mission, shouting at their flat-screen TVs, and praying for victory. More important, however, they will be reveling in the reality that their team, the aptly named Saints, will serve as ambassadors and symbols of a city reborn.
I grew up in New Orleans. I’m a life-long Saints fan. And I can tell you: We may be a feel-good story, but we don’t want your sympathetic smiles – we want to win.
Like a bowl full of Bananas Foster from Brennan’s restaurant in the French Quarter, the city’s recovery story is more rich and nuanced than the clichés that so many misinformed sportswriters, bloggers, and TV talking heads have been peddling this week to hype the game.
For a time, the Saints and the refurbished Superdome came to symbolize the indomitable hope for a city struggling to recover from hurricane Katrina. That narrative played out three years ago, however. The tired metaphor of a team serving as a distraction for a troubled city is also out-of-touch. What about the assertion that the Saints simply deserve to win because of the immeasurable tragedy the city has been through? Please – that’s patronizing, at best.
Furthermore, the Saints are also not a symbol of rebuilding efforts. Instead, they reflect what already has been rebuilt – over the course of more than four long years of gritty hard work and sweat and a formidable resolve among residents to build a new and improved New Orleans.
Crescent City residents have grown weary of being portrayed as helpless and sometimes hapless victims. Sure, every New Orleanian can recite impassioned Katrina stories that would make Anne Rice squeamish and Emeril Lagasse lose his appetite.
Yet all of us can also recall an equal number of stories that chronicle the reconstruction of homes and neighbors and strangers who helped one another – not to mention that comfortable feeling we got the first time we ordered a shrimp po’ boy when our favorite eatery reopened after the storm.
No doubt there is more to accomplish. Public schools remain troubled. Crime and corruption still infest the city. Some neighborhoods may never come back. Yet the tangible and metaphorical progress that has unfolded is nothing short of astounding. And the Saints domination over opponents this season and earning, through hard work, a shot at a Super Bowl title exemplify this, particularly given the franchise’s history.
For the longest time, the Saints were the “Ain’ts” – punch lines around the National Football League and punching bags for other squads. As a kid, my dad and I used to sit next to folks who wore brown bags over their heads at home games in the Superdome. It took three decades for the Saints to finally win a playoff game, and a majority of those woeful seasons were fraught with losing records. Yet here they are, Super Bowl contenders for the first time.
Like the Saints, the city has, and continues to, reverse its fortunes. I will never forget driving my pickup truck into the city after the storm, hands trembling as I clutched the steering wheel. I could not believe my eyes. Entire neighborhoods ruined. Mounds of trash everywhere. But it was the smell of rot loitering in the air that I found most disturbing. At that time I thought New Orleans was finished. I couldn’t have been more wrong. If anything, the storm shored up the city’s determination, making folks who were able to stay love New Orleans more than ever.
New Orleans folks are finally witnessing the fruits of progress. Homes, churches, roads, businesses, schools, and relationships have been reestablished with deep roots and firm foundations. Now, like the Saints, the city’s residents are eager to showcase their own victories. Book a trip – you’ll see.
All across the Gulf Coast, people feel a soulful connection with the team because many of its marquee players remind them of themselves: survivors, misfits, and castoffs. There are too many back stories to delve into, but take team captain and quarterback Drew Brees, whose bum shoulder led him to be discarded by the San Diego Chargers. Other teams passed on him, too, but not the Saints. They embraced him and he embraced New Orleans, its culture and people.
“I think you can draw so many parallels between our team and city, but in reality, we kind of leaned on each other in order to survive and in order to get to where we are now,” Brees said after his team defeated Brett Favre’s Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship. “It hasn’t always been easy and we’ve had to fight through plenty of adversity just like this city has.”
The Saints go into the Super Bowl as 5-1/2-point underdogs. Of course this is familiar territory, as they have been in that position since the team was founded in 1966. If, however, the team puts forth the kind of effort that New Orleans residents have seen since Katrina’s waters rolled back, it won’t matter what the Colts throw at them. As Saints fans would say, “Who dat!”
John Christian Hoyle, a lifelong Saints fan, will watch the Super Bowl with his family at his sister’s home in New Orleans.