As we write these words, we don't know if the New Orleans Saints will be getting fitted for their Super Bowl rings this week or if Drew Brees and company will have been defeated by the most worthy of opponents, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. What we do know is that there will be a parade in the team's honor this Tuesday (Feb. 9 — one week before Mardi Gras), the city will turn out for it as if it were Rex, and, win or lose, no team has ever deserved a parade more.
Until this weekend, the Saints were one of only five current NFL franchises never to have made it to a Super Bowl (the others being the Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns). Our team hadn't even won an NFC championship. That changed Jan. 24, when a Tracy Porter interception pushed the Minnesota Vikings into overtime, and few New Orleanians will forget where they were that night as the Saints advanced down the field toward a 40-yard field goal. As the team's young kicker lined up, many of those lucky enough to be in the Louisiana Superdome spontaneously held hands ... and then, like the final moments of a movie, it happened.
Garrett Hartley, the 23-year-old who kicked that perfect field goal, created one of the most indelible images of the Saints' 2009 season. In truth, there were many thrilling moments, and it's impossible to name the best. There was Robert Meachem's interception-turned-fumble-turned touchdown in the Washington game; the baffled look on the face of New England quarterback Tom Brady, one of the best of the best, as the Saints racked up a 38-17 victory against the Pats; and, of course, Reggie Bush's astounding 83-yard punt return against the Arizona Cardinals, silencing critics who wondered where Bush had been all season. Pierre Thomas, Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, Scott Fujita — all had their moments as well. This season was truly a team effort.
ESPN.com's Gregg Easterbrook, in praising the team's joy and unpredictability on the field, called them "the wacky, laissez-faire Saints," and added, "Watching New Orleans is like watching an outdoor cocktail party play football." Wrong. You don't go 13-0 without being smart and disciplined, and that comes from the top — particularly QB Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton.
Truth be told, the team's long-suffering fans supplied the wacky, and we did it with panache. When a local T-shirt artist got a letter from the National Football League with a cease and desist order regarding her "Who Dat" shirts, the league's ham-fisted move grabbed the city's attention and ignited statewide outrage. Politicians of both parties issued press releases defending "Who Dat," and after a ruling from state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, the NFL cried uncle, saying it had been misunderstood.
Then there was the salute to the late sportscaster Buddy Diliberto, who had famously said he would walk down Bourbon Street in a dress should the Saints ever reach the Super Bowl. Buddy D died in 2005, but on Jan. 31, thousands of male Who Dats (led by former Saints QB Bobby Hebert) honored Diliberto's memory by doing just that.
The nation seems amused by our enthusiasm. Everyone loves a good underdog story, and ESPN's Rick Reilly summed up the mood of many reporters when he wrote, "You must either have had your heart removed by corn tongs or be in the Manning family if you're not pulling for the Saints."
Of course, there were some who thought this magical season was just a fluke, that all the cheerleading reflected sentiment more than achievement. "It's a Katrina thing, isn't it?" groused one Internet commenter, and to a lot of national sportswriters, the story was just that facile: A city, physically and psychically damaged by an unthinkable disaster, subsequently buoyed by a triumphant sports franchise. To them, we say: No, it's not a "Katrina thing," any more than the New York Yankees advancing to the 2001 World Series was a "9/11 thing."
The 2009 Saints are a New Orleans thing — and this thing has been 43 years coming.