A number of friends have remarked recently at how surprised they are to see me writing about sports, and about football in particular, since they remember when I didn’t know anything about the game except that the ball’s shaped funny.
It was not that long ago, really.
One thing I should perhaps clarify: I am not a football fan. I am a Saints fan. There is a difference.
I’ve already recounted how I came to appreciate the game of football in my fortieth year. If you missed this fascinating disclosure, I suggest you revisit my Confessions of a Football Skeptic. Most everything I’ve learned about the game has come from watching the Saints. I still haven’t taken much of an interest in watching other teams play.
But there’s more to it than that.
People here love the team. I remember years ago seeing a statistical proof that Saints fans were the most loyal in the nations, as a ratio of ticket sales to losses, or some such. The fans are off-the-chain crazy devoted, and that’s somewhat infectious.
But there’s more to it than that.
Dare I say it? The Saints have a cool image. They have an unusual name, an awesome logo (which goes back to the 12th century if not earlier) and classy colors. Even before I started following the game, I could be seen sporting Saints gear occasionally, just because I wanted to look cool.
But, again, there’s so much more to it than that.
I could go on and on in this vein, but I’ll cut to the chase. After the floods of 2005, when everything about this city was called into question, interest in every aspect of the local culture intensified greatly, and I too was caught up in that. I decided to actually check the Saints out and try to understand what all these incredibly loyal fans were on about. It just so happened that I started paying attention as the team started to catch fire under Brees and Payton. The success of the team has been, quite simply, an inspiration to just about everyone living here. The team’s public rhetoric about rebuilding together has supported this. They are more than a metaphor. They are an example.
If they can succeed, so can we. Here’s a video clip wherein Garland Robinette says “they have awakened us to our own recovery.”
Despite many positive aspects, New Orleans had been on the decline for a good century, and thus falling from the national consciousness, when the city flooded in 2005. All of a sudden we were thrust into the spotlight, and it wasn’t pretty. Everything negative about the city, all our failings and shortcomings were on display — even as the nation was reminded of all the unique things New Orleans contributes.
So now here we are in 2010 and New Orleans is again a focus of national media attention, only this time the story is positive. More people watched this Super Bowl than any televised event in human history. As the saying goes, you can’t buy that sort of publicity. This is huge, and we need it.
But maybe even more importantly than how this makes us look to others, is how this makes us look at ourselves, like Garland said. It’s a reminder of the simple truism that if we pull together and work hard we can accomplish great things. We need that reminder.
Has there ever been a time when an NFL team has meant so much to a city, to a region, as what the Saints have meant over the past four and half years to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast? I don’t know enough about the history of the league to answer that question. But I suspect not.
The closest I can imagine is the Detroit Lions. Now that the Saints have made it all the way, the Lions are the only old team to never play in the Super Bowl. And furthermore the Detroit area has been weathering an economic storm for years that has in some ways been worse than the flooding New Orleans experienced. If the Lions were ever to mount a resurgence such as the Saints have done, it might have a similar feel to it.
Until then, I think it’s safe to say that New Orleans has a very special relationship to its team. Sure, there are plenty of football fanatics here. But I believe there are also a great number of fans, like myself, who simply would not be following any team if they lived elsewhere.
To reiterate, I am not a football fan. I’m a Saints fan. There is a difference.