3 February 2010: NO Saints: Win one for the Gipper

The Saints can ‘win one for the Gipper’

The Big Easy: one moniker for New Orleans. For many, though, life has been anything but easy there.

It’s one of two cities I’ve come to love, albeit the circumstances when I twice visited were scenes of havoc for my adopted hometown heroes. Despite the Broncos’ 55-10 drubbing at the hands of Joe Montana and the San Francisco (the other city I have come to love) 49ers, “N’awlins” has become near and dear. A stroll down Bourbon Street through the French Quarter is a walk into a surrealistic world.

It was then with complete dismay watching in August 2006 Hurricane Katrina leveling her lethal blow. The results, the actual destruction and the seeming indifference to it by top leaders, shocked most of the nation. New Orleans is seared in our collective national consciousness with memories of thousands of victims trapped first inside and then outside the Superdome and of the citywide destruction especially in the Ninth Ward, one of the poorest districts in the town.

While many were outraged over the maligned neglect personified by “Heckuva Job Brownie,” those rising in the president’s defense delivered the people another hit: Essentially, they, the critics insisted, were shiftless, clueless and lacking in judgment by not fleeing sooner.

When the recent earthquake shook and devastated Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti, Americans stepped up overwhelmingly in their support and generosity. Maybe it was due to our pride and reputation having taken a big-time hit.

With Hurricane Katrina serving as the turning point, America 2010 is not America 2006. And the 2010 New Orleans Saints are not the “Aints” of their 43-year history.

If someone asks, “Who dat nation?” we can now collectively reply, “We’re dat ‘Who Dat Nation!’ ” Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Saints and their city are heading to the Super Bowl.

New Orleans could petition the Arizona capital to swap names, but then N’awlins is the Big Easy, the former home of the “Aints.” Phoenix is Los Angeles redux in the desert.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees, calling the whole experience “surreal,” understands the connection between the plight of the town and the fortunes of the team.

“I’ll never forget coming here, post-Katrina,” he commented after the game, “and getting the call from (coach) Sean (Payton) saying they wanted me to be their quarterback. I’d never have believed that things would work out the way they have. We had a goal and a dream way back then, and it’s unbelievable to see it happen.

“You can draw so many parallels between our team and our city. In reality, we had to lean on each other in this city in order to survive and get to where we are right now. The city is on its way to recovery and, in a lot of ways, has come back better than ever. This shows we can do it together and achieve what we want.”

Yes, pro athletes are too often overpaid neurotics who live life in a bubble, paid millions to play out childhood fantasies and obsessions well into adulthood — my way of saying many don’t grow up. Nonetheless, major league sports provide markers by which we identify with our community, past or present.

Some 30 years ago, the Dallas Cowboys dubbed themselves “America’s Team.” Since then, we have seen the rise of various “Nations” — Steeler Nation, Raider Nation, Cornhusker Nation — within the landscape of the American nation. Sport-team rivalries are basically jingoism at the parochial local level, consisting of local fanatics and émigrés of said regions that couldn’t bear the thought of continuing life in their communities of birth but cannot bear the thought of severing ties to it.

It’s hard to separate sports from the events of daily life; they are so intertwined within our cultural psyche. Witness the upcoming Winter Olympics: Since America’s hockey team upended the Soviet team in 1980 — “The Miracle on Ice” — chants of “USA! USA! USA!” have resounded time and time again as our athletes have competed against the greats from other nations.

Jay Mariotti, a national columnist for an online sports blog, writes, “The Colts will be favored because of (Peyton) Manning. But the Saints will have the support of a nation that has little reason to root for Indianapolis and every reason to devote its collective heart to New Orleans.”

Brees adds, “It hasn’t been easy for this team. We’ve had to fight through adversity, just like the city. But what this story has done for the economy and for the spirit of the people. It’s so special.”

Mariotti captures it well by stating: “New Orleans isn’t supposed to go to a Super Bowl. New Orleans isn’t supposed to do anything but ache and suffer and build tents for the homeless.”

Not anymore. No town in the USA, no matter size, location or population, should “ache and suffer.”

In his role as George Gipp, Ronald Reagan uttered the memorable line, “Win one for the Gipper.” Here’s to the N’awlins Saints, erstwhile Aints. May they win one for every Gipper: every person and every town that has been beaten down but never defeated.

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