Tonight my beloved New Orleans Saints took on the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football, and it was one of those historic games that will be mentioned for the kind of impact a crowd has on the outcome of a sport. This was the first game to actually be played in New Orleans since Katrina hit, 23 games ago. The Saints won 23-3, and thunderous ecstasy was heard from the same seats where entire families lived for weeks surrounded by filth and excrement. Tonight wasn’t just a win, it was a rebirth.
The emotion of the players reminded me of another game we all saw in 1990, when Loyola Marymount met Michigan in the NCAA tournament. LM’s best player, a kid named Hank Gathers, had just died mid-game in their own tournament, and the rest of the team bounced back with a performance that was so unbelievable, so unconscious, so thirty-foot-swishes, that you believed them to be temporarily touched by the God of their choice. They upset Michigan, the defending champions, 149-115.
Tonight, the Saints played with the kind of fury reserved for a team whose town almost died. While the offense performed admirably, it was New Orleans’ defense that seemed to be an extension of the 50,000 faithful who packed the Superdome; every wide receiver was covered like white on rice, with Michael Vick becoming a human piñata.
If you saw the Superdome a year ago, it looked like it needed to be imploded into the ground and the land sold for parking. Thank god nobody listened to the naysayers and the place was built up again, better than new. Monday night’s telecast even featured past moments from the Dome’s history, including (you guessed it) Michael Jordan’s “The Shot,” and Dean Smith cutting down the nets.
After 9/11, New York turned to its sports teams for a measure of succor: they had the Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants, Knicks, Nets and Rangers. New Orleans has only the Saints. Now that half the population lives elsewhere, they needed this victory, and the rest of the season (we’re now 3-0) as a signal that New Orleans isn’t going anywhere. No offense to Atlanta fans, but in a game that usually disintegrates into money, thuggery and gracelessness, this was a victory won by a team who deserved it more: a town with a horrible wound, trying desperately to cobble together its soul.
a pregnant Tessa and me, New Orleans Superdome, October 2004