From Chicago, to New Orleans, to the Super Bowl

Gab reader Michael Masson sent in this interesting piece leading up to Super Sunday:

Saturday.

I pack my #57 Rickey Jackson jersey with pride and care, and walk to my car on a cold Chicago morning. When I pull up to my brother’s house a few blocks away, we exchange cautiously optimistic looks. We’ve been in this position before. We all have, albeit only very recently. Dan hoists his suitcase – with his #9 Drew Brees jersey inside – in the trunk and we make our way to Chicago’s Midway airport. It’s the beginning of what we hope to be a memorable journey, in a good way.

When the cabin door of the 737 opens, I’m hit with an immediate, familiar, and welcome rush of humidity. This is not my first time in New Orleans. I was born here, and spent the better part of my childhood exploring the city with my family and slopping through the bayou with my dog, Petey, next to the Pearl River in Slidell. Maybe humidity is the same everywhere. But I don’t think so.

It’s lunch time. And although a trip to Mandina’s is in the game plan, I’m just too hungry to wait. So, Dan and I stop at the airport Acme and decide to split some red beans and rice while waiting for my Dad’s plane to land. It’s a good primer for the tour de feast I have planned, and it doesn’t disappoint. I’m pretty sure there’s no other airport on the planet with food like this.

My Dad – a New Orleanian who transferred to Chicago in 1985 – gets on the ground and we hop on a shuttle to rent a car. It’s beautiful outside. Overcast, sure, but a vast improvement over the frozen midwest. After an obligatory joke with the Avis agent about the Saints’ futility and nervous laughter, we’re on the way to Mandina’s for gumbo and po boys. We talk about the big game and Dad says, “Oh well … I’m glad we came.” Its part of an inner conversation that escaped – the same conversation he’s been having with himself since booking the hotel in November. Of course, he wants the Saints to win as badly as anyone else. He’s an original season ticket holder. But 43 years of the Saints have a way of making you talk to yourself. Console yourself, rather.

We drive past Lake Lawn Park Cemetery, where my grandfather rests. He was a life-long resident of this great city, and a hell-raiser. He used to own a bar. In that bar, my Dad would run drinks to the men in the back room who were betting on the races. That would constitute a “visit” – Grandma and Grandpa divorced when Dad was three years-old. Grandpa lost that bar in a poker game.

A little further down the causeway and we drive past Grandma’s old apartment on Veteran’s Boulevard. She was a lifelong Saints fan … or sympathizer, at least. Katrina wrecked her place and stole most of her possessions. So, she moved to Chicago and settled in a nice retirement home where she lived her final few years fawning over her grandchildren and great-grandchild, playing Wii, and entertaining her friends with her southern style, dialect and disposition. She passed over a year ago. Unfortunately, she never saw the Saints get this far. But she did see her “boys in black and gold” win their first ever playoff game. Thanks, fellas.

After Mandina’s and a ridiculous amount of delicious food, we make our way downtown. We pass through the remnants of a once-vibrant section of the city, past dilapidated relics of Dad’s childhood, including the site of his high school prom, where Professor Longhair provided the entertainment. We coast past a former Pontiac dealership where, Dad tells me, his grandmother used to buy all her cars.

We come down Canal street and loop behind the hotel on Iberville where a Vikings fan, clad in a Favre jersey, hears two “Who Dat” chants from the other side of the street. It’s rather friendly taunting. Southern hospitality-hostility, I suppose.

A quick tour of Bourbon Street is in order before dinner. In the doorway to my left is a pot-bellied stripper, chatting pleasantly with a New Orleans police officer. A little further down the street are a couple of painted men. The silver guy is familiar to me, but the gold guy is new. They put on their robotic show to amusement, some uneasiness and plenty of camera flashes. This is when I first notice the throngs of Saints jerseys around me. They are everywhere.

Further on down we come across four tap-dancing boys (to be fair, one of them looked at least 21). They are working hard and earning a little cash. On the other side of the street is a lone boy. He’s not nearly as coordinated as the others, and his shoes don’t seem to make the same “click.” There’s considerably less money in his collection box. He must be earning his stripes, I guess.

A turn down Toulouse, then Chartres, and we walk into The Napoleon House. It’s one of my favorites. The windows and doors are open and the air is sticky, and slightly scented of fresh horse manure from the street. The bartender is working fast, making Pimms and popping bottle tops. I choose to have a Sam Adams in Napoleon’s House and feel quite patriotic about it. I’m getting hungry again, so we head back to the hotel before dining at Mr. B’s. Some shrimp, redfish and bread pudding later, it’s time to turn in. Big day tomorrow.

Sunday.

It’s morning on game day. Milling around the hotel lobby are several jerseys – some black and gold, some purple and white. The bar is already filling up and mimosas and bloody mary’s are flowing freely. But we have more important affairs to attend to.

We take a drive to Dad’s college roommate’s house. He has cancer and the diagnosis is not good. Still, he greets us at the door with a big smile, a handshake and, of course, is clad in his Drew Brees jersey. He’s lost weight and looks older than the last time I saw him at my Grandmother’s funeral. But he’s most definitely excited – talking to us while keeping one eye on the television for the latest news surrounding the game. He and Dad are sharing old stories and I feel incredibly fortunate to be a witness. We all talk about the game. We talk about the Saints teams of yore (if you can call them ‘teams’) and we laugh. On the TV, Tom Dempsey is recalling his record-setting field goal. Only when it comes to the Saints could a kicker be a legend. We shake hands again as we’re getting ready to leave and I can’t help but wonder if this is the last time I will see Dad’s friend.

I’ve seen three people fight cancer. Here’s what I’ve learned: First, people who battle cancer are incredibly strong. Second, cancer is no match for the human spirit. It’s not even close.

We are headed back to the hotel to get our gear on and make the pilgrimage to the dome. Dan and I have a surprise for Dad … a retro Archie Manning jersey, circa 1978. Putting the jersey on, you can see it in his eyes – this is real. There’s no turning back now. The Saints hold our hearts in their hands and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

The walk to the dome is like a scene straight out of movie – the ones where a lone person starts walking and people slowly join in, to the point where it’s a massive crowd with a singular purpose. “Who Dat” is ringing freely, and impromptu street vendors are selling beers by the handful. So we grab a few $4 cans of beer and keep walking. Interestingly, the beers get cheaper the closer we get to the stadium, and this surprises me. The first guy told us they would be much more expensive … how interesting.

Inside the dome, the atmosphere is tense. We all know something monumental is coming, for better or worse. Still, blind optimism abounds. There’s just no possible way our boys will let us down. Can’t happen. Impossible.

The dome is rocking. Then a terrifying silence comes after the Vikings score first. It’s a slow start. I hear mutterings of “C’mon boys,” and “Settle down, boys.” Then an unlikely play – a screen pass for a touchdown – sends the dome into a frenzy. The upper deck sways with every movement of fans dancing to the adopted “Crunk” song. High-fives are flying. And these are hand-stinging, hard slaps. And it feels good.

After a flurry of scoring, everything slows down and the punting begins. And before every Viking punt fans chant, “Reggie, Reggie, Reggie.” This is significant to understand and will play a big part in the game. You see, Saints fans have this inherent, unshakable faith in Reggie Bush. We want to believe that he’s everything we thought he would be. We want him to succeed and believe we can help him do just that. But Reggie hasn’t been able to turn those cheers into results yet. Then, as if on cue, our faith is tested yet again. Perhaps Reggie Bush became drunk on the crowd’s chants, because he fumbles a key punt. Only the Saints could pull a move like this. It’s late in the half and the Vikings are poised to capitalize on the mishap. It’s unraveling.

But it doesn’t go down that way. On the next play, the Vikings fumble and we get the ball back. This is New Orleans. We’re the Saints, and someone is clearly looking out for us from above.

The game carries on, and it’s intense. There are fumbles, missed opportunities, bad calls by the referees, and some missed calls. Favre is banged up, but won’t stay down. And that’s scary. He’s surely growing more determined with each hit he takes.

Reggie makes an outstanding play for a touchdown, and the chants resume. Our faith is restored, yet again.

Then, it begins. Time is running out in a tie game. Time is running out on the Saints. The Vikings and Brett Favre have the ball and are slowly, dreadfully moving down the field. They are in range to kick a game-winning, soul-crushing field goal. It’s quiet. The air is trapped in our lungs and you can see utter despair all around. But wait, the Vikings have too many men on the field and draw a crucial five-yard penalty. What? How is this possible? It’s the Saints. Anything – and everything – is possible. Brett Favre, one of the most revered, reviled and legendary men to ever play the game, needs a play. So he throws the ball and we can hardly watch.

Interception! No … intervention. Divine intervention. I really believe that.

The dome is on fire. The man in front of me is screaming so hard, he’s drooling on the #12 Colston jersey next to him.

Naturally, overtime is grueling. It’s filled with challenges and a jittery fourth down plunge. There’s only one play left for a chance to go to the Saints’ first Super Bowl. This could very well be one of the most important events in the city’s rich history. At least, it feels that way. We have faith. Faith in a young, inexperienced kicker.

It’s up and it’s true … it finally happens. After 43 years of torture, we have redemption!

After the pleasant shock of disbelief wears off and a speech by Tom Benson and a few players, the gleeful exodus to Bourbon street begins. Who Dat Nation is beaming.

We hide out in our hotel courtyard for a few minutes and light cigars we brought from Chicago. Our voices are raspy from shouting and swallowing hard throughout much of the game. No matter, we don’t need to talk right now.

It sounds like a war zone down on Bourbon. There’s shouting, wailing sirens and hovering helicopters overhead. I recognize a few Vikings fans across the courtyard from earlier. They stopped upstairs to remove their jerseys.

Of course, we must go to Bourbon street and celebrate. It’s packed – every bit as packed as the busiest day of Mardi Gras. In fact, Dad says, “It’s like Mardi Gras, except everyone likes everyone.” A woman I’ve never met before bumps into me at The Old Absinthe House and spills half of my beer on the ground. Instead of an apology, she just hugs me with tears in her eyes. Enough said. People are delirious and slightly cautious. We’re not quite relaxed. We’re not sure this is all real just yet … like it could be taken away from us at any moment.

But it wont’ be taken away. This game, this night is for New Orleans. In the days ahead people will tell us they are happy for us. But it doesn’t matter. This is ours. We earned it, we deserve it and we’re grateful to our boys for giving it to us.

Monday.

It’s getaway day, so to speak. Time to head back to Chicago. But first, some coffee and beignets are in order.

I love walking through the French Quarter early in the morning. Sure, I have to sidestep spraying hoses and, on this day, hop over the remains of someone’s over indulgence. But mornings in the Quarter are peaceful. The energy has dissipated, but there is most certainly a happy vibe pulsating off of the historic buildings and trodden sidewalks and streets.

Cafe Du Monde is bathed in sunlight. The coffee is the best I’ve had since the last time I was here and the beignets are light and fluffy – the only place on earth where they come out that way. We talk about the game and I can overhear other people talking about the game too. Individual plays are recounted and near-tragedies are laughed off.

A man plays a trumpet lightly as we get another coffee to go. As we walk out, he holds a single note for what seems like forever. Light applause follows and as I cross the street to Jackson Square, in the distance I hear the lasting memories of a joyous adventure … “Who Dat, Who Dat.”

– Michael Masson is a writer living in Chicago, and the Saints are his boys.


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