The cheer, with its inside joke of a “French” spelling for go, serves as the standard greeting among New Orleanians these days. The NFC champions have become so much more than a football team to the citizens of Cokie’s hometown – those big guys in black and gold stand as a symbol of resurrection and resurgence.
Words such as “faith” crop up when people in the Crescent City talk about their gridiron heroes. “It’s not because we’re selling it,” team owner Rita LeBlanc told ESPN. “You cannot watch this football team and not have faith.”
Faith sustained New Orleans after the storm when boats sat atop houses and cars toppled onto the “neutral ground”; it was faith that brought people back to this quirky and querulous city. Rita LeBlanc, the grandchild of Saints owner Tom Benson, was among them.
Wary New Orleanians worried that the Bensons would take the team out of town after the Superdome became the public image of disaster. Instead, the family improbably turned the stadium into a church (as well as the home of exuberant obscenity-laced cheers). A private mass before home games often finds the local prelate presiding: “I pray for all the saints,” says Archbishop Gregory Aymond, “those in heaven and those who will be on the field.” On the Sunday of the championship game, the archbishop cut quite a picture greeting St. Louis Cathedral churchgoers – the Saints’ spirit moved him to pull a Drew Brees jersey over his white cassock.
President Obama gave a nod to that spirit when ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked about his Super Bowl pick. His answer wasn’t about football: “When I think about what’s happened in New Orleans over the last several years and how much that team means to them – you know, I’m pretty sympathetic.”
No one can say exactly what the team does mean. All we know is that our New Orleans diaspora is in constant touch, trading stories about our great team, reading excited e-mails from our relatives at home, laughing at pictures of fanatic fans with fleur-de-lis tattoos, reminding us of what an improbable place we hail from. We haven’t felt this urgent need to make contact since Katrina – but this time it’s with joy.
We know this isn’t just any group of football players headed to the Super Bowl; it’s a bunch of has-beens and rejects from other teams that have come out on top. That’s why it required faith to root for this team. But faith is what the people who returned to our flooded and forlorn city after the hurricane specialize in. And coach Sean Payton understands that. After the Saints clinched the championship, he surveyed the scene: “This stadium used to have holes in it and used to be wet,” he said. “It’s not wet anymore. This is for the city of New Orleans.”
New Orleans has been called “The City That Care Forgot.” What Payton and his players keep demonstrating is that they won’t forget; they will care. After the championship game, quarterback Drew Brees drew a direct connection between the team and the city: “In reality, we’ve had to lean on each other in order to survive ... We’ve used the strength and resilience of our fans to go out and play with confidence.”
Brees defines a relationship between players and fans at its best. These aren’t arrogant millionaires disdainful of the people cheering them on. The guys on the field, the folks yelling “Who dat?” in the stands, the musicians riffing new Saints songs on the streets, the school kids assigned to “write an essay about waking up one day as Drew Brees,” and we exiles who hang on the team’s every play – we’re all in this game together.
Economists and politicians often argue about whether a sports franchise adds anything to the well-being of a city. For many years, some New Orleanians joined in that argument as the Saints perennially disappointed them – but no more. Even in a cold economic calculus, the city benefits from the fact that the Saints and their owners are there.
Soon after the storm, Rita LeBlanc handed out a million dollars for relief efforts. And now the family has bought land around the Superdome to help revitalize downtown New Orleans. More important, the team itself is a huge part of that revitalization. As Drew Brees put it, “We’ve had to play through plenty of adversity. Just like this town has.”
Amen. Both sides kept the faith. Now it’s on to the Super Bowl.
Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.