The NFL Playoffs

Why I Take the Saints Personally
The stadium scene.
Jan. 18 2007 11:42 AM

The NFL Playoffs

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Seth and Brendan, I appreciate your kind words about the Saints' chances this weekend. You are great Americans. As Brendan alluded to, a bunch of nonbelievers are predicting the frigid January weather will be New Orleans' undoing. "The Bears are playing at home, in the cold and in their elements," writes ESPN's John Clayton, in an essay explaining why Chicago will win the NFC championship game. Well, I'm not buying it.

To the best of my knowledge, Bears scouts do not mush across the 49th parallel via dog sled in search of burly, snowbound men in shoulder pads. Devin Hester is from Florida. Cedric Benson is from West Texas. Lance Briggs is a Californian. You're telling me those guys are "in their elements" when an Arctic air mass plunges into Soldier Field? The Saints' Reggie Bush might slip on the frosty turf. And so might Chicago's Bernard Berrian. Advantage: nobody. Everyone, on both sidelines, will be cold. Everyone except Tank Johnson. If Jack Frost nips at Tank's nose, Jack Frost is going to get hurt.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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My fixation on the Chicago weather report is a good sign that I'm thinking about the Saints too much. I've clocked a dangerous number of hours on Saints message boards this week, and I've been devouring the copious national news stories about my team. Just today, I read the Sports Illustrated cover story on Drew Brees, a strangely detailed Len Pasquarelli article about the Saints' nondescript right tackle, a New York Times piece on Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, and an infuriating Times story on the team's supposedly pitiful balance sheet. I could go on about this last item for days, but let me just say that Tom Benson bought the team for $70 million. It is now worth $738 million. Benson also receives an annual bribe—I mean, subsidy—from the state government to keep the team in Louisiana, a 10-year, $186.5 million deal that predates Katrina. If, as the NYT suggests, it's "unlikely the Saints would ever earn enough in New Orleans to satisfy the Benson family," then I know a great place where they could move the team: up Tom Benson's wrinkled old caboose. Rents are very reasonable there, I hear.

My problem is not that I'm thinking about the Saints too much. It's that I've started to take the Saints really personally. I've loved the Saints for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I watched every game, cherished my autographed photo of Dalton Hilliard, and wiled away one long season by writing a rhapsodic, Saints-inspired short story. My feelings about the Saints weren't at all unusual—just the typical boyhood passion for the hometown team. After Katrina, though, I realized that the Saints will always be a fundamental part of my  New Orleans. In October 2005, when my relatives were still displaced in Houston, news reports started circulating that the Saints would never play at home again. Even with the city in shambles and my family in limbo, I think it took the Saints' impending departure to convince me the city I grew up in was gone.

Of course, the Saints didn't leave, Tom Benson be damned. And this year, after 40 years of futility, they started winning. It's foolish to think the team's success will somehow "revitalize" New Orleans. The Saints can't build affordable housing, and they can't fight crime. But there's no question that watching one of the city's most prominent, most beloved institutions slough off its historical incompetence—and even flirt with greatness—has been a cathartic experience for New Orleans and the New Orleans diaspora. A telling detail from this week's SI story: Drew Brees says that people in the city don't ask for autographs—they stop him and say, "Thank you."

The town's rapport with Brees is one of many signs that, like me, New Orleanians see the Saints players as comrades-in-arms. Rooting for professional athletes requires a certain suspension of disbelief—a fantasy that some millionaire out-of-towner cares as much about the name on the front of his jersey as you do. When our favorite team wins a championship, we endow a bunch of athletes we don't know with the virtues that we'd like to attribute to ourselves—intelligence, toughness, dedication. (Brendan, I'm sure, believes he shares a talent for celebratory dancing with the Colts' Robert Mathis.) What's different about these Saints—my Saints—is that it doesn't require much suspension of disbelief to think the players care about New Orleans, or that they have something in common with the people who cheer them on from the upper deck.

There are probably a bunch of guys on the Saints roster who see New Orleans as nothing more than the place they earn their paycheck. But there's also Deuce McAllister. Last week against the Eagles, the Gulf Coast native carried the Saints to victory, dragging the whole Philly defense into the end zone for a crucial touchdown and smashing through the line for the first down that sealed the game. And, a few days before Saturday night's playoff game, he took an ESPN reporter on a lengthy tour of the city's most devastated neighborhoods, telling him to "[j]ust get that word out."

Seth, the '06 Saints remind me of your beloved 2004 Red Sox, the team who vanquished the Yankees, won the World Series, and unburdened New Englanders of a century's worth of self-doubt and self-loathing. Two years ago, when Boston desperately needed its team to succeed, a Red Sox fan posted a plea on the Web site Sons of Sam Horn called "Win it For." That first message grew into a list of more than 1,000 tributes to Sox players, friends, and beloved relatives who deserved the gift of a World Series title—a written testament to what a sports team can mean to a city and a group of fans.

This week, someone at the message board SaintsReport.com started a "Win it For" thread about our team. The best post so far, written by someone with the handle MSSaintfan, is an incredibly moving autobiography of fandom. (You have to scroll down a bit to read it.) "Win it for the forty-five year old, who saw his hometown of Biloxi destroyed again, along with New Orleans, by yet another hurricane, and watched his Saints live a vagabond existence, not knowing if he would ever see them at home again," he writes near the end. "Win it for the forty-six year old that has been there all 39 years. Win it for the forty-six year old that has laughed and cried and cheered and wept. Win it for the forty-six year old that always believed, even when everything looked bleak."

In spite of that outpouring of love and devotion, I bet you guys still want your teams to win. Heartless bastards. So, what's your mantra this year, Seth? How about, "Win it for Bill Belichick, because three Super Bowl rings aren't nearly as good as four."

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