Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More than a Game

So the New Orleans Saints are finally in the Super Bowl, after 43 long years of mostly heartbreaking, laughable seasons. Being a New Orleans native (now living in North Carolina), I am walking on air. I am still stunned. I truly felt like I entered an alternate universe the moment Garrett Hartley’s kick went through the uprights. I’m not sure, but I think I’m still there.

When I write, which hasn’t been very often in recent years, it isn’t usually about sports. Yet here I find myself taking pen in hand for the first time in quite a while to write about the Saints in the Super Bowl.

But really, this is not about sports. It's not. And it’s not even just about Katrina, either… at least not as depicted in the maudlin “Oooh, they went through so much, so isn’t it great to see their team win?” storyline.

Maybe you could only understand what it’s really about if you're from New Orleans. But I'll try to explain anyway.

Put aside Katrina for the moment.

Growing up in New Orleans, you grew up separate from the nation. Growing up in the ‘70s as I did, you grew up in a surreal version of "The Wonder Years", where instead of the local fair, your parents took you to the bar on the parade route to while away the day waiting for the parade. But it was wholesome. Really.

New Orleans was a wonderful place to grow up. It is one of the most unique and culturally significant cities in the country, if not on the planet. Browsing around the French Quarter on a lazy Sunday, as my family often did during my childhood, didn’t mean taking your kids to Bourbon Street for a little "early education". It meant checking out the latest products at the farmers' and flea markets, having some of the best food known to humankind, and soaking in more art, music and culture in one day… by mere osmosis… than most families exposed their kids to in a year.

But New Orleans has always been under-appreciated, unrecognized... that uncouth but fun friend you try to avoid when inconvenient. To the rest of the country, New Orleans was always good for a party, but seldom acceptable in mixed company.

New Orleans, of course, is SO much more than Bourbon Street, and SO much more than Mardi Gras. New Orleans is Life. New Orleans is Death. New Orleans is Light. New Orleans is Depth. New Orleans is Music. New Orleans has a depth of character that few places in a young country such as the United States can equal. New Orleanians are scarred and emboldened by the influenza pandemic of 1918 every bit as much as by Katrina. Every New Orleanian has a connection to jazz, funk, soul, and rock and roll, that no one else in the world can feel because… as we all know… it all started in NOLA. New Orleanians today have centuries of cotton and sugar and slavery and floods and voodoo and poverty and elegance and decadence running through their bloodstreams. These things have all added up to what makes New Orleans, and New Orleanians, so special.

Admittedly, we have a history of under-achievement by many socio-economic standards. "The City That Care Forgot" is perhaps not an undeserved title (although that has changed with Katrina). But when most of the country thinks New Orleans, they still think: Bourbon Street and corruption and, backdoor deals and Mardi Gras.

The New Orleans Saints, in their long and (un)storied history, have always held the promise of being our “foot in the door”. They were, perhaps misguidedly so, a path to respectability… to joining the fraternity of American cities, and becoming a fully functioning member of society. However, throughout most of the past 4 decades, our teams haven't exactly competed with the Pittsburghs and Chicagos of the world. It took 20 years to have our first winning season, and longer to win even one game in the playoffs. Those years were full of record comebacks and stellar performances... by the other teams. Our team… and by proxy, our city… has been laughed at and derided. We even took to wearing bags over our heads, to hide our pride in shame (New Orleans is full of contradictions).

But those bags made a point. Despite being so bad that their play inspired covering one’s face, those who did so... and thousands of others... never gave up. New Orleans fans, New Orleanians in general, are the most loyal and stubborn people on the planet. They never give up, no matter what they are made to endure. They take it all in stride. "Laissez les bons temps rouler" is not just a slogan for good times, but for bad times as well. It's all about your perspective on life. Being from New Orleans gives you a healthy perspective. Thus, long-suffering New Orleanians have dealt with the insults… to the city and the team… admirably. They have always known they were so much more than the popular perception.

So as the woes grew, so did the derision from outside. But more importantly, so did the loyalty inside, and so did the relationship of the city with the team. More than a sports team, the Saints have become akin to a common cultural or ethnic group that ties all of us all together. In a city that is more a melting pot than any other in this melting pot of a nation, the New Orleans Saints have become our unifying identity. Winning the Super Bowl would be much more than getting a monkey off our backs. It would be a statement that “we are here!” It would be a sign that we, as a people, matter.

And all that is, as I said, Katrina aside.

Katrina, of course, affected everything. But this is not a simple story of a team lightening the loads of a downtrodden people. In the wake of K, the city and the team have pulled each other up by the bootstraps, and the success of one is a mirror of the other. In seeing the Saints succeed, the world is seeing New Orleans succeed… in spite of all odds, in the face of criticism that the locals are lazy, corrupt, deserve what they got, and even the ridiculous heresy that the city shouldn’t be rebuilt, or should never have been built at all.

Just as Katrina affected the citizens of New Orleans, it affected the Saints as well, and deeply. It affected the team in so many more ways than just kicking them out of town for a year, and lifting them to the over-achieving emotional high of the NFC Championship Game in 2006. As with so much else that happens in New Orleans, Katrina gave the Saints perspective… not just to the players who were there when it happened, but to any who have come aboard since.
The best players in any sport usually achieve the most when they have their heads on straight, when they have the proper perspective. But in this case, the day to day reality of what happened to New Orleans, and more to the point, what her people are doing day in and day out to recover, has forced everyone involved with the Saints to put their lives into perspective. I would venture to say that there has seldom been a sports team, or perhaps an organization of any kind, where everyone has had their heads so firmly planted on their shoulders. Not like this. In that light, the success of the New Orleans Saints is not just the success of a sports team, but a direct reflection of has happened to, and more importantly, what is happening now in the city. This is a Saints team revitalized because this is a city revitalized. This is a city revitalized because this is a Saints team revitalized. They have, all of them, seen the truth and know what is important, and know what must be done. And it is not to “win a Super Bowl”. It is to work, to do your job, to do unto others, and to make things better.

The people of New Orleans are simply going about the day to day business of rebuilding their tattered, nearly decimated, home into something better than it ever was before. The New Orleans Saints, for their part, have taken it upon themselves to show the world that this city is so much more than the popular perception. It is more than a party. It is more than a city of foolhardy inhabitants begging for sympathy, and not in fact that at all. The Saints are out to win the Super Bowl, yes. But they are also out to show everyone that New Orleans is deserving of the nation’s consideration and honor.

Before Katrina, the Saints winning the Super Bowl would still have been more than a game. It would have served as a symbol that we matter, that New Orleans is more than just a party, that we can succeed. Of course, it would also have served as a reward to long-suffering fans, and a message that if you’re faithful and stick with something, good things can happen.

After Katrina, the Saints winning the Super Bowl would, of course, serve as a strong sign of recovery. But more than that, it would be a signal to the rest of the world that New Orleans is a place worthy of recovery, and indeed, a place worthy of national pride. There are few stages in the world bigger than the Super Bowl to send that message.