E. All the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to realize that you’ll never appreciate winning unless you know how to lose.
F. The resilience of the forgotten, the underdogs, the left-behind, and the lost in time, whose story one day becomes everyone’s, making all of us just a little bit better than we were before.
Oh – and the smell of garlic bread and fried oysters, creamy red beans, and my grandmother’s tomato-colored jambalaya. Ernie K-Doe’s mother-in-law. Po-boys at Domilise’s. And above all, the New Orleans Saints.
Half-time, February 7, 2010. Superbowl 44. New Orleans Saints 6, Indianapolis Colts, 10. The glasses aren’t so full. The Maker’s Manhattan was just ordered by a New Orleanian wanting to soothe his anxiety. The next beer, at half mast, was being nursed by a lawyer from New Jersey who wasn’t so deeply invested in the game but nonetheless wanted us all to be happy. The last glass, beer again, belonged to an office administrator from New Jersey who discovered an unforeseen attachment to the Saints as her emotions boiled up and over during the course of this back-and-forth duel between an intrepid underdog and a (s)lumbering giant. Our locale: The Village Pourhouse (64 3rd Ave at 11th Street, Manhattan). An hour and a half later, the game was over: New Orleans Saints 31, Indianapolis Colts 17. Who dat say they gonna beat them Saints?
When I was little, we used to listen to the Saints games on the radio while doing chores around the house – cleaning the garage, trimming the lawn, weeding the gardens, and so on. The games were called on WWL-AM by Wayne Mack and Danny Abramowicz. Mack had achieved fame as “The Great McNutt,” a local radio and television personality who ran Three Stooges shorts on Channel 6. Abramowicz was the Saints’ leading receiver from 1967 (their first season) to 1972.
Whenever I could, I wore my #8 Archie Manning jersey to school beneath my khaki uniform. I used to hide the jersey from my mother to keep it out the wash and continue wearing it. Archie was incarnation of our city, a would-be superstar hobbled by a supporting cast that never allowed him to shine like we all knew he could. Archie’s 35 wins, 101 losses, and 3 ties is the worst winning percentage (26.3) among NFL quarterbacks with more than 100 starts. But you wouldn’t know that from the way we still talk about him. Archie eventually joined Danny and Wayne to call the games on WWL.
On December 9, 1973, I went to my first Saints game at what was then Tulane (or Sugar Bowl) Stadium. I was all of 9. We drove up and parked somewhere uptown, and then we walked to the stadium on the “neutral ground” (what folks in New Orleans called the median) of South Claiborne Avenue – my brother, my father, me, Uncle Howard, and cousin Brett. The Saints played the San Francisco 49ers that day and won, 16 to 10. The odds of catching a winning game at that point in the team’s history were about 1 in 3.
Later, in high school, our band joined 3 other Catholic High Schools to form a mega-marching band when the Saints played Philadelphia on September 16, 1979. Conley, the tuba player, ran into to Archie coming out of the tunnel and reported the encounter to all of us like one who had run into a Titan. The Saints’ first touchdown was a 52 yard bomb from Archie to Wes Chandler. Our guys lost, but it didn’t matter. They were our heroes and we got to march on the greatest field in the world in front of all the fans. It was the highlight of our marching band season.
The next year, the Saints went 1 and 15 and the fans began coming to the games with paper bags over their faces – mimicking the then-famous Unknown Comic of Gong Show fame and calling the team The New Orleans Ain’ts. The agony of what it was to be a Saints fan can be summed up, Harper’s Index-like, by reviewing their stats over the team’s 44 years of history, including the Superbowl season of 2009.
First season: 1967
First season to break-even: 1979
First winning season: 1987
First playoff victory: 2000
Total winning seasons: 9 (of 44)
Total break-even seasons: 7
Total losing seasons: 27
Number of seasons with double-digit losses: 14
I was of course elated and ecstatic on February 7 when Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton Manning, Archie’s hall-of-fame son, toward the end of Superbowl 44 and returned the pic for a touchdown, all but sealing the Saints’ victory. As they shouted “who dat” here in New York, I remembered when they first started saying “Who Dat?” back in the day when winning 2 games in a row resulted in shouts of “The Saints are going to the Superbowl!” Now here it was. Finally. And they actually won the game. The Bible itself holds no words to describe such an event.
From my perch at The Village Pourhouse on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I called my father, who was at my brother’s house in Nacogdoches, Texas. Over the background din in both of our respective locales, I choked up a bit and said, “Mom would have loved to see this. She must be smiling up in heaven.”
Mom’s First Big Superbowl
The Saints victory brought me back in time, to 1975, when the Pittsburgh Steelers won their first Superbowl. It was a family event that had us all together around the television, breathless, excited, and cheering. My mother grew up in Monessen, Pennsylvania, a steeltown on the Monongahela River about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. In 1969, her mother left Pennsylvania and moved in with us in Louisiana. I remember them talking about it after the game – “after 40 years, finally! It’s about time!” The Steelers were apparently as hapless as the Saints for most of their history to that point. It took the mighty Steelers, who now own 6 Superbowl titles (more than any other team) 42 years to get it done. The Steelers pre-Superbowl stats:
First season: 1933
First season to break even: 1936
Mom is born, Monessen, Pennsylvania: 1940
First winning season: 1942
Total winning seasons, of first 42: 10
Total break-even seasons: 5
Total losing seasons: 25
Number of seasons with double-digit losses: 4
Superbowl: 1974 (season)
Of Fathers and Sons
Nowadays in my Brooklyn apartment, I sometimes listen to the Giants games on 660 WFAN. Archie’s youngest son, Eli, calls the signals for Big Blue. “Manning drops back and fires one over the middle . . .” and I am right there in 1978, cleaning the garage, growing up, wearing my Archie Manning jersey. Only I’m not. I’m 46 and my 7-year old son is listening to the Giants game with me. He’s got his own Manning jersey, big and blue #10, for Eli.
One of the beautiful things about life is its circularity, and that’s how it felt on February 7. The great wheel goes round again and again, and with it our memories and lives lived, yet alive again. Archie Manning never played in a Superbowl, much less a winning season, but his sons Peyton and Eli each quarterbacked Superbowl victories in 2007 and 2008, and each was named MVP for the game. In the moments after drew Brees won his Superbowl MVP in 2010, he lifted his own baby boy up in the blaring lights. Father to son, and father to son, so it goes.
Of all this, my mom, mother to two sons, would be proud.
Notes and Credits
The opening photo of glasses on the bar at the Village Pourhouse is from the author’s personal collection.
The photo of Drew Brees with his son, Baylen, and wife Brittany, was taken by David Bergman and is used here with permission. The photo made the cover of Sports Illustrated – Bergman’s 8th SI cover – the week after the game. David’s site has much more about his work, and you can watch the slides roll past of photo after wonderful photo.
The New Jersey office administrator whose quarter-filled beer is in the lead photo is hereby forgiven for her devotion to the Boston Red Sox.
On a personal note, I began writing this post the day after the Superbowl, but it took a while to finish. The main reason was that I recently took a regular paying job and had a bottleneck of work to complete that is finally playing out. The light at the end of the tunnel seems to be growing, with new essays and a number of E/F postings in the weeks to come.