Sunday, October 3, 2010

Entering Sainthood


"Every Saint Has a Past, Ever Sinner Has a Future"
- Oscar Wilde

I grew up a football-hater. This is because I went to a Catholic school with a huge football program. When I was a senior, the team won both state and national championships. We had days off if the team won certain games. We got the luxury of wearing our own clothes instead of uniforms on pep rally days. We skipped classes for those pep rallies, and priests led us in prayer for the team to win.

And I, well, I hated football; or maybe I just resented it. Though I had grade-school friends who ended up being stars on the team, to me the game seemed appropriate only for neanderthals--violent ones at that--and it puzzled me how it could be so celebrated by educators who went to college and who ostensibly were trying to make us better people. I found football uniforms excessive and ridiculous--these supposedly manly men wearing tight, shiny, capri pants. In college, I began to associate the game with boorish alcoholic frat boys, and later, lazy, alcoholic husbands of friends and cousins. Football hasn't held a warm place in my heart for a long time, even if I did occasionally enjoy the high school ritual of attending games on a Friday night.

But that ill will has changed as of late. To be accurate, it changed once I moved to New Orleans, a place in which it would be sacreligious not to believe in the power of Saints. But don't assume I regularly become a sports fan of any local team. Afterall, I hated the Yankees with a passion when I lived in New York City, frequently characterizing them in public as the big tobacco of baseball. But with the Saints, there's a runt flair about them--and about this town--that you gotta love.

Five years ago the New Orleans Saints finished a football season of three wins, and thirteen losses. It was the year of Hurricane Katrina--the year that their home stadium was used as an emergency hospital, a shelter, and a morgue, amongst other things. In 2009, they won the Superbowl.

The Saints were born in 1966. The team was a brainchild of back room dealings involving a sports entrepreneur, a Congressman, a Senator, and an NFL Commissioner, making a bunch of agreements to do things they probably weren't supposed to, with a certain Louisiana flair. One of the team's first majority stockholders was a Louisiana oilman, and by no coincidence the colors of black and gold were chosen to commemorate oil, the black gold of Louisiana. (An interesting choice of colors for a team whose hometown is a hot swamp.) On November 1st--All Saints' Day--the team was born and named in honor of the famed song "When the Saints Come Marching In." Supposedly the local Archbishop approved of their choice of name, saying that "the team was going to need all the help it could get."

Like true comeback kids, the Saints enjoy a noteworthy and lengthy past of defeats. They existed for two decades before celebrating their first winning season. In 1980, the team lost its first 14 games, and were dubbed the "Aints". Heartbroken fans were known to wear paper bags over their heads.

Even today, some of the current team's hotshots were far from NFL shining stars before becoming a Saint. By the time he finished college ball at Purdue, concerns about Drew Brees' relatively short stature (6'0") and supposed weak arm made him the second quarterback selected in the 2001 draft by the San Diego Chargers. Following a series of injuries, the Chargers dealt the final insult in his fifth year by offering a contract based on performance incentives. It was then that he turned to the Saints, and won the Superbowl just a few years later. But even after a stellar performance in his 2009 season, Brees is still known for working up to 14 hour days, some of which consist of him running plays by himself on an empty field.

Tight end Jeremy Shockey enjoys an equally infamous relationship with his NFL alma mater, the New York Giants. Despite his athletic abilities, the former high school honor student frequently mouthed off to coaches and other players, and generously shared his not-so-warm and fuzzy feelings with the media. After suffering a number of injuries, in 2008 the Giants finally traded him to the Saints for second and fifth-round picks in the 2009 draft.

In true New Orleans style, the Saints have persevered. And in true New Orleans style, the locals eagerly celebrate their people.


It was a sunny Friday afternoon when my co-worker and I met Clarence during lunchtime, sitting in his streetcar. Clarence, is a black man with a salt and pepper beard, neatly dressed in a starch white shirt and black vest. Now in his sixties, Clarence has been driving a streetcar for twenty-some years. Like everyone in New Orleans on this day, he is eager to exchange opinions on the upcoming Saints game. Clarence describes his new scoreboard system of tracking the Saints 2010 record. "I've attached 16 Saints flags to the outside of my truck. If the Saints lose a game, I'll take a flag down. Otherwise, they all stay up."

That same day, the public parking lot under the highway overpass near the Superdome is packed with tailgaters who have set up their grills and radios at 1pm on this game day. During away games, New Orleanians line the streets to welcome home their boys and an impromptu parade ensues. In the evenings of game days, the typically bustling streets of the Big Easy are empty, and the bars have tucked away the usual crowds of loiterers who instead are perched around televisions as if drawn there by a magnetic force. Heartbreaks and heart attacks were spared that night; the Saints have won.

As I've gotten older, I've grown to appreciate the few things in this world that are able to unite masses of people without hatred, even if I don't have a strong affinity for the thing itself. Soccer is one of those events. Mardi Gras is another. And now football. It almost seems like anything that can make so many people so happy, especially in a hard luck town like New Orleans, can't be all that bad, even if shiny capri pants are involved.

Though it's not my first choice of pastimes, like many things about a new place, it's one I strive to understand better in order to learn and respect this community in which I am a guest. And the Saints, with all their baggage, are lovable louts, playing hard for a damaged city. So now I watch football. When the Saints go marching in, how I long to be in the number.

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