The ghosts of football seasons past

by Brian Clarey

For the first time since the days following Hurricane Katrina, a group of New Orleanian expatriates and aficionados got together Sunday on West Market Street to pay homage to the city they love.

For the city of New Orleans and the Saints are one and the same. The Saints are the rice in the gumbo, the lemon peel in the sazerac — or, if you prefer, the cucumber in the Pimm’s Cup.

It’s bigger than that, actually. The Saints are more than a just football team. And New Orleans is more than just a city.

Much has been made in the weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLIV of the symbiotic relationship between the people of New Orleans and the team they love. And I’m here to tell you it is real, a palpable bond that has endured decades of losing seasons, squandered leads, dropped passes and unwise draft choices. Saints fans never cared if their team won a Super Bowl. And when we finally got there, we decided there would be celebration regardless of the outcome.

And so it was that I watched cornerback Tracy Porter’s game-changing, fourth-quarter interception with Linda Morphis of Hattiesburg, Miss., a lifelong Saints fan who has been tuning in on Sunday afternoons since 1967, when John Gilliam ran back the very first opening kick against the Rams in Tulane Stadium.

“After church,” she said, “we’d all come home and watch the Saints.”

We were at her son Emmett’s house, drinking Abita beer, she in her Who Dat sweatshirt and me with a fleur de lis stenciled on my neck. We never thought we’d see the day.

And while black and gold confetti rained down upon Sun Life Stadium down in Miami, my thoughts turned to New Orleans and my own experience with the Saints, a torrid love affair that began quickly and has never quite left me.

I went to nearly every home game between 1995 and 2000, heading to the Superdome after ending my bar shift at about 10 a.m., usually with my friend Ray who held season tickets near the end zone.

Ray was a bar customer — one of my best, actually, who could put away vodka and Sprites at a pace that, even by New Orleans standards, was impressive. He was an engineer who worked in one of the city’s shipyards designing systems for the gigantic vessels that navigated down to the mouth of the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. He was the first visitor in the hospital when my oldest son was born, and the most generous gifter at my wedding. And he was a low-key homosexual who once confided in me that he had absolutely no sexual interest in women at all.

“I’ve tried it,” he said. “It just doesn’t do it for me.” Whatever. I’ve never really concerned myself with the ways other adults like to achieve orgasm.

But Ray and I would hit the Superdome hard on Sunday afternoons, knocking back Bloody Marys in the upstairs bar, screaming ourselves hoarse, dancing to the music until the cameraman would project us onto the Diamond Vision screen high above the field. Then we’d cruise the French Quarter looking for sexual conquests — that is, until I met the woman who would become my wife and Ray met Sammy, a hairdresser from Baton Rouge, La. who captured his heart in a way that no woman ever could.

I thought of Ray a lot during this miracle Saints season, particularly when CBS declined to air a commercial for a gay dating website called ManCrunch. Here’s a bit of news: Lots of gay guys like football. Some of them even play it professionally.

I wish I could have called him, but he’s gone — died five years ago, the morning my daughter was born. It’s likely he drank himself to death, something for which I am at least partially responsible. Those vodka Sprites didn’t pour themselves.

A lot of the old guys from the bar have moved on from this world: Roger the Dodger, Old Rick, Navy Dave — Saints fans one and all.

They’re joined by a horde of Who Dats who couldn’t hang on long enough to witness this miracle in Miami performed by the only Saints who mattered on football Sunday afternoons. But down in New Orleans, where spirits seem to linger far longer than they do in other places, I am sure they know what went down this weekend. And the ones who lived through the thrill were surely doing their part to raise the dead.

I’m sure Ray heard the fracas emanating from the French Quarter, and Roger the Dodger and Old Rick and all the rest, too. I can actually picture them out there in the ether, arguing about statistics, second-guessing play calls and gesturing for more rounds of drinks. While I don’t exactly wish I were sitting there beside them, I sure do miss them. And I would have loved to see their faces as the game clock wound down to zero and the Saints became champions of the world.