Fourteen years to the date after America detonated its first hydrogen bomb in the Marshall Islands, New Orleans was awarded a professional football franchise. For diehard fans in need of pigskin, the second event is what really made the earth shake. Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner of the National Football League, made his announcement on Nov. 1, 1966, from the city's cherished Pontchartrain Hotel. The now-defunct States-Item spread the news in large, bolded letters: "N.O. Goes Pro!"
A few months later, the team picked up the Saints moniker and signed its first player, former Ole Miss kicker Paige Cothren. The franchise would go on to win a few games here and there -- one or two, to be precise, during a couple of seasons -- and to make history on occasion, such as its decision six years ago to give up all eight draft picks for a single dreadlocked player that eventually became Miami's problem.
Local fans have learned to adapt, as well as react. When times got rough during Dome Life, when dramatic losses were commonplace or our favorite umbrella-wielding owner threatened to relocate, the late Bernard "Buddy D" Diliberto would lead the moaning like a symphony director, mixing sounds of cries with concertos of hope.
In other corners of Louisiana and across state lines, however, Saints fans were doing the same grumbling and celebrating, but in a much quieter fashion. Fans of the fleur-de-lis in places like Ruston and Lake Charles and even Chicago don't benefit from the brotherhood that exists in New Orleans. It can be difficult to find someone to share your misery or cheer with you in triumph. In many ways, these fans are loners. The farther one travels away from New Orleans, the harder it is to find Saints fans in large numbers. But they are there.
Matt Gresham, 33, is a communications consultant from Thibodaux. He's seen the ups and downs personally, usually with a Bloody Mary in his hand. When he travels to the Dome for a home game, the first spirits of the day are usually consumed along U.S. 190 at Frank's Lounge in Des Allemands. It has become a gathering spot for commuters before the big game, a tribunal of sorts where everyone knows your face but not necessarily your name -- like the guy who's always there with a truck covered in Astroturf, Gresham says.
For inspiration, and a slight chuckle, Gresham refers to this year's marketing slogan: "You Gotta Have Faith." The nostalgic TV spots take a look back at the Saints' 39-year history, beginning with a fan in an Afro placing "The Saints Come Marching In" sticker on his ride. Other slogans from memory lane are also shown: "Sockit to 'em Saints," "Faith, Hope and Bum," "Cha-Ching," "Bless You Boys."
"It's hard sometimes because you live and die with them," Gresham says. "They bring you to the cusp of something special and then let you down. When you grow up watching the Saints, it gets in your blood. I think the marketing campaign is just about perfect."
But keeping the faith isn't easy in Lafourche Parish, especially in recent years. In 2000, the Saints named Nicholls State University in Thibodaux as the home of the team's summer training camp. A four-year deal was eventually brokered, but the Saints bailed in 2003 and moved to Metairie.
An estimated 75,000 fans attended the Thibodaux camp each year, which translated into more than $1 million for the local economy annually. The local newspapers decried the move, as did residents. But the disappointment wasn't that different from a regular losing season and many people had developed thick skin, Gresham says. It was probably for the best, as the team had possibly worn out its welcome, he adds.
"I have to be honest, that last camp they had here wasn't very well attended and the newness had worn off by then," he says. "And a couple of players had made a few comments about Thibodaux and Nicholls State that weren't glowing. They rubbed a few people the wrong way."
In north Louisiana, the problem isn't controversy, but rather apathy. Edwin Alexander, 38, a Ruston-based architect and software engineer, has found himself watching fewer games each year due to a lack of kindred spirits. Even chatter at the local diner seems to miss the topic. "I've never even really heard a mention of the Saints," he says.
During the mid-80s, when Rickey Jackson and Morten Andersen were gods of the gridiron, Alexander says he never missed a game, although he was encouraged to. "I think I was jinxed," he says. "No matter how good they were doing, as soon as I saw a fleur-de-lis, they would start losing. I've even had friends ask me not to watch the games."
Since his move to Ruston, Alexander says he'd rather just spend time with his family. He still follows the trials and tribulations through newspaper accounts, shaking his head or smiling with each win or loss. Furthermore, he still has to defend himself and his team to relatives looking to rub it in.
But no matter what comes up, he contends a little piece of the Saints follows him around -- even into other sports. "I don't actually like baseball per se, but Astros baseball," Alexander says. "Rooting for the 'Stros is sort of like being a Saints fan, but with the paper bag headgear optional."
Jim Beam, 71, the Lake Charles American Press politics columnist, is likewise starved for conversation occasionally. "I haven't found too many that want to talk about the Saints," he says. "People are always surprised and they ask me why I go all the way down there to see those guys play that kind of football. I guess the further you get out from New Orleans, the less Saints fans you find."
In fact, when the Saints conducted a marketing launch in Calcasieu Parish to sell tickets, the response was so lukewarm they embraced Beam with open arms when he approached them. "They were just so excited to find a season-ticket holder," he says.
Beam also has a ticket from a Saints playoff victory. "My son and I are saving those stubs because they might not win another one," he says. "But we always have high hopes. We enjoy to see them win and we hate to see them lose, but we get used to it. I think people in Louisiana just love their football, and they love to gripe about it."
Born in the New Orleans area and still a Saints fan, Andrew Ganucheau, 27, a Chicago resident pursuing his masters degree in education, has found a common thread with his neighbors in the Windy City -- Mike Ditka, the Saints' 12th head coach and the man who led the Chicago Bears to victory in Super Bowl XX. He also says Cubs fans can relate to the Saints because both teams are cursed.
But for more of a localized release, Ganucheau hooks up with a group of fellow Louisiana State University graduates to watch Saints games on DirectTV. And when the team is nearby, they'll make a road trip to St. Louis or Green Bay, Wisc., no matter the circumstances.
"The thing that keeps people dedicated to the Saints is that Louisiana spirit, where people just keep believing," he says. "Fans believe deep down that something can go their way, but deep down they also know the Saints will find a way to screw it up."
As for being the brunt of jokes, Ganucheau says Packer fans like to rub it in on a regular basis, but most others are kind-hearted. Yet one question always seems to crop up: "People are always telling me that God is obviously on Notre Dame's side, but then they ask why God isn't a Saints fan."
Faith is indeed a major part of being a follower of the Saints, regardless of geography. When asked why he continues to keep an eye on the team, even from a town like Ruston, Alexander remarked it was all about family. He would never turn his back on the team. The franchise has yielded a troubled history, but it's one that Alexander embraces with pride.
"It's a lot like having a relative who gets in trouble all the time," he says. "Sometimes you get angry and frustrated, but there's a loyalty there. It transcends their inadequacy. It's more about being proud of where you're from, and them being a part of your identity and you being a part of their identity. It's about sharing something in common and I love it."
Freelance writer Jeremy Alford can be contacted through his Web site at www.jeremyalford.com.
- Lake Charles American Press
- Lake Charles American Press politics columnist Jim Beam admits he's starved for conversation about his favorite team. "I haven't found too many that want to talk about the Saints," he says. "People ask me why I go all the way down there to see those guys play that kind of football."