“This place is huge.” I blurted it out almost unwittingly. I then wittingly tweeted it shortly after. Having driven by the Superdome numerous times, I knew it intuitively: it dwarfs everything around it. However, until you walk up the stone and concrete walkways surrounding this monolith, gradually rising until you overlook “Champions Square,” you don’t really get a sense how big and how imposing a structure it really is. Streams of people ran everywhere, like the bayous and canals that feed off of and into the Mississippi. Streams of black and gold coalescing into pools the size of Pontchartrain. This is a home stadium and a home crowd. And if I were an opposing fan, I’d feel more than a little uneasy.
And as luck would have it, the opposing team and fan-base for my very first Saints game were the Atlanta Falcons. I know not all of my readers are local to New Orleans or Louisiana, and not all are football fans, so I’m going to try to create an analogue for exactly how bitter this rivalry is: but I can’t. It’s almost unfathomable. In New Orleans, the word Falcons is almost always preceded by the words “Fuck the,” or followed by the words “Two Points” (referencing Atlanta’s dismal playoff showing against the NY Giants last season). Players such as Matt Ryan and Roddy White are abused with language and contortionist suggestions that would make a seaport hooker blush. And the Atlanta fan-base itself is pilloried as everything from classless, uneducated louts to more creative clauses that are probably unfit to print here but can be easily searched on the web. Atlanta’s fans are similarly ruthless, perhaps moreso, as their team has been a perpetual, championship-less bridesmaid. The Saints Super Bowl victory in February 2010 did nothing to assuage the acrid taste of failure for Falcons’ fans.
How I found myself at this game in the first place is a story in and of itself, and once again, tangentially, I owe Café Reconcile a debt of gratitude. It was my decision to leave the Creole Gumbo Festival early to check out the Central City Festival that led to my good fortune. And what led to that decision, more than anything, was the fact that the line for Ms. Linda’s Yakamein was too damn long. I love Ms. Linda, and I love yakamein, but I hate waiting in line for anything (if I wanted to wait in line I could live in NYC). So I filled up on Lil’ Dizzy’s Gumbo for the road and headed on over to O.C. Haley Boulevard and Central City Fest. When I got there, I saw three things that immediately warmed my heart: the Jones Sisters Four, a Gospel act consisting of four middle school aged sisters that sing like angels; the Café Reconcile booth, serving up big bowls of jambalaya; and a satellite Ms. Linda’s Yakamein stand with no line… who knew that my good luck was just beginning at that point.
After devouring a big bowl of Yakamein, I listened to the Gospel sets of the Jones Sisters Four and the Zion Harmonizers, among others, until I eventually worked up enough of an appetitive for a bowl of jambalaya. So I headed over to talk to the Café Reconcile staff, who remembered me from my chef demo and article a few months earlier, to grab a bowl. By this time, the sun was starting to get lower, and the music changed from gospel to jazz standards, as Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield took the stage. The energy changed from reverent to raucous as Kermit gravelly exclaimed “We partying!” Also, by this time, the rest of Café Reconcile’s staff returned from another event they were catering, including their culinary director, also James, who almost immediately offered me a Saints ticket. And I immediately accepted…
I picked James up the following morning around 9:45 AM. I wanted to make sure we got there early so I could soak it all in. After a short drive down Tulane and through the byzantine maze of street closures and road and streetcar construction, we found his parking garage and ditched my 1999 black Ford Ranger (which I really need to trick out with gold flour de lys). The streets outside the garage were teeming with black and gold, like schools of fish seen from above — a black and gold salmon run. Everywhere I looked something was going on. Heartbreakingly pretty women in oversized Saints jerseys doing “The Wobble.” Beer being swilled from koozy protected metal cans and plastic cups. Guys grilling, smoking, and boiling everything imaginable. And music. Live music. Canned music. Hip-Hop. Classic Rock. Brass Band. I was enveloped by people and smells and sounds. It was electrifying.
If I’ve learned anything about New Orleans, what you know is okay, but who you know is what gets things done. And we were fortunate to know someone over at the WDSU Who Dat Shack, which meant free beers. Because free beers are key, especially in light of the $8.50 Bud Lights inside the Dome. The Who Dat Shack is one of those places where they ply you with pretty bartenders and food and good times: in other words, the kind of place you want to be before a game. The outdoor deck is packed with people who all seem to know each other from either work or high school or Saints games. In fact, my friend James seemed to know everyone, and I just smiled and nodded as I met what seemed like hundreds of people who could trace their relationships back to grade school. New Orleans is a very small town wrapped in the cloak of a large city.
About 45 minutes before the game, we left the WhoDat shack and made our way over to the Dome, it’s bronze façade and white half moon top sparkling. In a city where everything seems to be slowly sinking back into the primordial, the fact that something as large as the Superdome can float atop the soft soil is somewhat of a marvel. I can almost picture it 1000 years in the future, the Dome defiantly rising out of the ground like the torch of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, the vestige of a new Atlantis. The gradual slope of the walkways, with people ambling slowly forwards, resembles some sort of religious ceremony or sacrifice. And the steady, almost monastic chants of Who Dat did nothing to disabuse me of this notion. No, as we scaled the temple to the volcanic mouth, it was indeed obvious a sacrifice was underway: we were about to sacrifice the “Dirty Birds.”
We traveled up, and then farther up, and then a little farther, until we reached our seats in Section 639 — aisle seats, the Holy Grail of seats. Having experienced NFL football before at Giants’ Stadium and Three Rivers Stadium, it was jarring at first to look up and see roof. I could only imagine it was jarring for the opponents as well, as a tide of black and gold swirled around them, as if they were being sucked down into a whirlpool into a skyless gray roofed ocean. For a such a large place, it felt surprisingly intimate inside, and I couldn’t believe how well I could see the field — like I was right on top of it.
We bought two onerously priced Bud Lights and squeezed into our seats and waited… for something. There is a pregnant atmosphere just before the start of a game. It’s like waiting on the runway for takeoff. There is a mixture of excitement and almost a little dread as you imagine the possibilities of what was about to happen — what could happen. I leaned forward anxiously, my elbows on my knees, my hands holding my head, focused on the Saints tunnel, and the gradual smoke that began to appear. First, the Falcons took the field to a chorus of angry boos and other choice words. It is a unique feature of a dome that it can go from whisper quiet to deafening in a matter of seconds, and as our manmade rain of vocal displeasure fell from the rafters, the Superdome literally rocked. It was nothing, however, compared to when the Saints burst out of the tunnel — first the defense, than the offense — through a gauntlet of fire and smoke and lithe Saintsations. My eardrums popped as if I’d just hit 30,000 feet or broken the sound barrier. I felt like I was standing on a keelless canoe, rocking back and forth to the waves of sound that crescendoed when Drew Brees ran out of the tunnel to join his teammates at midfield. “It’s on like Donkeykong” fell from somewhere behind me. It was on.
And it seemed like Atlanta scored almost immediately. I looked over at the clock and I think it read 11:36. It was under four minutes into the game and we were down 7-0. And then, only seconds later (it could have been minutes, but the way time pulls and pushes during a football game is almost surreal), Drew Brees threw a bad interception. The Saints D held them to a field goal, but we were down 10-0 in almost a blink. And I felt like a jinx. Or maybe it was the jersey. Did I wash it? Suddenly a million unwelcome thoughts entered my mind…
But then there was “the run.”
Chris Ivory, who’d been missing in action for much of the Saints season, tore through the Atlanta defense like a Hubig’s pie wrapper on Mardi Gras morning. He juked, stiff-armed, and ran over everyone for a 56 yard run that was eerily reminiscent of the Marshawn Lynch run against the Saints a few years back. It was Beast Mode. It set the Dome on fire.
All of the sudden Mark Ingram was running between the tackles like Emmit Smith. Ingram, who many Saints fans were ready to give up on, ground out yards relentlessly — angrily. I turned to James and said “I hope Alabama loses next week, too.”
Jimmy Graham became a one man gang, part of a new wave of tight ends that are dominating the game. He had an answer for everything Tony Gonzalez did, pounding the ball into the end zone for two touchdowns.
Moore made a one handed grab so unbelievable that it stunned everyone, including Atlanta, who were on their heels as Colston converted a touchdown a few plays later. The game that had begun so ominously was now 28-17 Saints, and it seemed like the rout was on.
Except that Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez weren’t finished, and a Saints defense that was porous on 3rd downs allowed a touchdown to Gonzalez that got the Falcons within four. There was a nervous energy that belied the confidence of Saints’ fans. The roof of the Dome hung on tenuously, about to blow off. The Saints field goal that followed was mostly for show… we all knew that a TD would have iced it. So we waited.
It is axiomatic in sports that it is always the weakest link that comes into play at the most critical moments. The reason A-Rod always comes to bat for the Yankees with bases loaded and two outs in the 9th. The reason Tom Brady finds the soft spot in your coverage as the clock winds down. So it was only fitting that it was the Saints D — under the much maligned Coach Spagnulo — who were out on the field as the Falcons marched inexorably to the goal line. Because, truth be told, no matter how great your offense is, if you can’t stop anyone, you don’t win many ballgames. And statistically speaking, the Saints haven’t stopped anybody all year.
However, a funny thing has happened lately when this D has it’s back to the wall: it becomes galvanized. It goes from bend, break, give, what have you, to a stone wall. The same defense that gives up third downs like Carnival throws controls the goal line like Checkpoint Charlie. Maligned players like Roman Harper suddenly look like Ed Reed.
Still, the outcome was far from certain when Roddy White, the arch-villian of this rivalry, slipped to the back of the end zone, behind the twice burned already Jabari Greer. Maybe Ryan saw him a second too late. Maybe the ball wasn’t placed just right. Maybe White cut his route off a little too soon. I don’t really know. I just remember screaming, and then I don’t remember anything. Then somehow Greer reestablished position and got his fingertips on the ball, batting it harmlessly to the turf. The game was over. The Saints won. My hand was numb from high-fives. I hugged everyone around me, including the lady next to me who I entertained all game with “69 should always be in play” every time they declared him an eligible receiver. I was elated, and as we drifted out of the dome, past the statue of Steve Gleason, I put my sunglasses down because I felt like crying. Something momentous, some kind of initiation of sorts, happened to me. I felt like a New Orleans Pinocchio… I felt real.
Later that evening, after a few celebratory drinks at Finn McCool’s Pub, I got a call from my son’s mother. She was in the hospital with blood clots, probably a complication from her recent C-section. My heart dropped in my chest. I felt tingly. I felt like I was floating. Then I felt numb. The joy was sucked out of me an transmuted into fear and uncertainty. And again I felt like I was about to cry. There is something about this place that never lets you get too high, that always reminds you of mortality, whether it’s the Gleason Statue, or a late night phone call. It is the price we pay, I suppose, for moments of unadulterated joy, and endless days of summer…