Monday night is not just a special anniversary for the Saints and the city of New Orleans as they celebrate the “Rebirth in the Dome.”
It’s also a special night for me, the anniversary of the day I joined Who Dat Nation.
Now first, I have a confession to make.
I was not born in New Orleans, and I’m not from Louisiana.
Hell, I’m not even from the Gulf Coast.
I was born amongst the rolling hills of Virginia, and raised next door below the border, in the heart of North Carolina.
For the first 15 years of my life, I didn’t care much, or really at all, about New Orleans or the Saints.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH FOOTBALL
Football was actually my second favorite sport at the time, growing up, all I wanted to do was become a professional baseball player.
Once I got to middle school, my attitude towards football started to change.
While I was focused on following the MLB teams — specifically my Grandpa’s favorite team, the Chicago Cubs — other kids would talk about football.
Growing up in North Carolina people either raved about Duke and Carolina basketball or moaned about Panthers football.
But I could NEVER “love” the Carolina Panthers.
I started watching the Carolina Panthers play, just so I wouldn’t be left out of the conversation come Monday mornings.
I can’t really remember much about those games, except that my support of the Panthers was lukewarm at best.
Everything about them was just so boring, their head coach at the time John Fox, chewing his gum with a blank expression of confusion on his face, their quarterback Jake Delhomme, whining every time the Panthers were forced to punt (which was quite often back then.)
I had no idea watching him that Saints fans had been forced to endure Delhomme’s quarterback play for years.
Sep 1, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bears head coach John Fox talks before the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Chicago Bears at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
It’s not like my parents were Panthers fans, either.
My Mom was a die hard Bears fan, because of the Chicago connection with her father, my grandfather, and my Dad didn’t like football as much as either of us.
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I’d cheer with my mom for the Bears when they came on television, but they rarely did in North Carolina, we didn’t have NFL Sunday ticket back in those days.
The thing I remember most was just how much I liked the game of football.
I loved how close the games were, the last minute victories snatched from the jaws of defeat, the heart pounding drives with two minutes to play.
I even liked the different styles of play, the hard hitting defense of the Baltimore Ravens, the high flying aerial connection of Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
I was still fixated on my quest to become a professional baseball player, but by the time I reached high school, NFL football was my favorite sport to watch on television.
THE LEGENDARY “COLLEGE ERA” REGGIE BUSH
It was about this time that Reggie Bush burst onto the scene at USC.
Reggie Bush encapsulated everything that I loved about sports.
He was explosive and electric, he was fast, and when he had to, he could lower his shoulder and lay a hit on somebody – at least in college.
This was also during the time that Pete Carroll was establishing his dynasty in Southern California, so the Trojans were both good, and fun to watch.
Back then, USC was televised almost as often as Alabama is today so I had a chance to see a lot of the games.
To this day, I can still remember that epic Rose Bowl game where the USC Trojans and the Texas Longhorns engaged in what will go down as one of the most epic college championship games ever.
I remember watching Vince Young take over that game, much to my chagrin, the orange numbers blazing against his white jersey as he ran up and down the field against USC. I also remember Reggie Bush coming up short despite a valiant effort.
But most of all, after that game I remember wondering: “I wonder what NFL team he will end up on? I’ll have to watch them.”
HURRICANE KATRINA — AUGUST 29TH, 2005
Tragically, it was also during this time that New Orleans was enduring one of the lowest points in their storied history.
Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city, and the levees had broken.
I remember watching without even comprehending, an American city underwater, its citizens literally being left for dead on national television as a country watched.
I remember seeing the Superdome turned into a shelter, the roof torn and scarred, a physical manifestation of the broken heart of the city.
There were also rumors flying that Tom Benson and the Saints were going to abandon New Orleans in its darkest hour.
Even from my distant vantage point in North Carolina, at just 15 years old, I started to care about the city of New Orleans.
While I was cheering for Reggie Bush and worrying about playing baseball and chasing girls, the city of New Orleans was fighting for survival, and the Saints played all of 2005 on the road — including “home games” in Baton Rouge and San Antonio (seen right below).
Oct 2, 2005; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio fans outside of the of the Alamodome, before a game between the New Orleans Saints and the Buffalo Bills. The Saints beat the Bills, 19-7. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
JOINING THE “WHO DAT NATION”
When Reggie Bush was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, that’s when I really started to pay attention.
I casually learned a few things in passing, like they had a new coach in Sean Payton, and that they had signed some quarterback coming off a shoulder injury.
It seems ironic now, as I write this in my Drew Brees jersey that I paid such little attention to when the Saints acquired him.
Then, ten years ago, on a fateful Monday night everything changed.
I forced my parents to change the channel from whatever dreadful show was playing to watch the Saints take on the Falcons on Monday Night Football.
If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t even know it was the return to the same Superdome that had been the focal point of such despair just a year earlier — I just wanted to see Reggie Bush play.
But from the first moment our television began projecting images of the screen, I felt a connection.
The energy and passion of Saints fans, the celebratory nature, the pure euphoria of that moment was so palpable, I could feel it from over 800 miles away, sitting in my living room.
As the game got underway, I was committed to rooting for the Saints in a way I never had for the Panthers.
I lived and died by each snap, every yard gained was a thrilling victory, while every yard allowed was like losing a treasured possession, a personal insult of the highest order.
Then came THE MOMENT.
Steve Gleason broke through the Falcons line and lifted the spirits of a city, and planted a seed in the heart of a 16 year old.
Sean Payton was running down the sideline, pumping his fist like a little kid.
The Saints were mobbing Gleason in the end zone, and the crowd was going wilder than anything I’ve heard before or since.
It’s a moment of time that is seared into my memory, and only now, writing this years later do I realize, I had completely forgotten about Reggie Bush.
I was rooting for the Saints, and I was rooting for New Orleans.
And I’ve rooted for them ever since.
A DECADE AS A SAINTS FAN
Since then, I’ve been to New Orleans a few times, and been to the Superdome although I have yet to see a game in person.
When I was teaching English overseas, I would stay up into the wee hours of the morning going exhausted to work the next day, just to watch the Saints play.
I bought a streaming package through NFL.com that allowed me to see the games.
I still remember the Saints 2011 season opener against the Green Bay Packers as Mark Ingram was stuffed at the one-yard line.
It was almost 5 am local time, and I was miserable the next day, not only because I was tired, but mostly because the Saints had lost a heart-breaker.
I suffered similar painful nights and early mornings, staying up late to watch the Saints fall to Seattle twice (in 2013), once during a Sunday Night Football collapse, and again, in a heart wrenching playoff loss.
I remember the day “Beast Mode” was born, when Marshawn Lynch broke that epic run against the Saints (the 2010 season Wild Card Playoff round), and Roman Harper had his worst day in the Black and Gold.
I remember Alex Smith and Vernon Davis sticking what felt like a literal dagger into my heart, as they defeated the Saints in San Francisco (the 2011 Divisional Playoffs), the last time Gregg Williams would stand on the Saints sideline.
I remember being shocked and angry last March when the Saints dealt away Jimmy Graham for Max Unger and a first round pick.
I remember feeling sad as Will Smith, Jabari Greer, and Jonathan Vilma all moved on from the Saints.
And worst of all, I remember feeling crushed when my personal favorite, Reggie Bush, went to Miami.
I’ve even done my due diligence to learn the lore of the Saints history.
I hold Archie Manning in high esteem, and I know the names of the famous “Dome Patrol” linebackers: Ricky Jackson, Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills, and Pat Swilling.
Sept 22, 1991; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson (57) and Pat Swilling (56) stop Minnesota Vikings running back Herschel Walker (34) for a loss during the second half of a game at the Louisiana Superdome. The Saints defeated the Vikings, 26-0. Mandatory Credit: neworleanssaints.com
I’ve even watched the famous “Cha Ching” commercial featuring actor Seth Green that was such a good luck charm.
To those who would call me a “bandwagon” fan, I would say this:
I may not be a native son of New Orleans, but through the last ten years I’ve been there every step of the way.
I love New Orleans, both the spirit of the city and its people, and I will always be grateful for watching that Monday Night game, because it has brought incredible joy and opportunity to my life.
Aug 25, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints fans before a Preseason game against the Houston Texans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
There’s also this, since I’ve started watching the Saints, they have enjoyed their most success in franchise history.
Coincidence? Maybe, but I’d keep me around, just in case.
Monday night will be a magical one, not just for the Saints and their city, but also for me.
It will be even sweeter if we can manage to knock off those damn Dirty Birds.
And as our Editor here at Big Easy Believer — Barry Hirstius — a New Orleans native who himself was caught IN the middle of the storm (literally) and was in attendance on that unforgettable Grand Re-Opening of the Superdome on that fateful night 10 years ago; told me not long before I wrote this story:
“It was more than just a football game. It was the Rebirth of our city. It was the Rebirth of our community. It was the Rebirth of our entire region.”
“And it was the Rebirth of our unbreakable spirit, the very same spirit that so many others were so quickly willing to dispose of.
“We were BACK, and we wanted the show the entire world that as a people — that no matter what obstacle was put in our way — we were willing to do whatever it took to stay there”.
“It was the night that New Orleans — and the team that has always so very proudly represented it, the Saints — were both reborn”.
Amen to that…….