A few years ago, if you'd have told me I'd be spending my Sundays at a sports bar in Skokie, Ill., I'd have said you were one cheese fry short of a full appetizer.
Of course, these days we're all doing things we'd never have predicted pre-K.
I'd always been a casual football fan at best. That changed this year. As one of several thousand New Orleanians now living (in more proper New Orleanese, "staying") in the Chicago area, I was first hooked by the Monday night game against the Falcons. That night, I met New Orleans friends at a bar in Chicago; we waved flags and danced in the street after the game. That same night, I realized that I needed to follow the Saints. Closely. All season.
I called my old friend Scott, who for years had tried to guide me into being a better sports fan. He told me I needed to call around to find a bar with Direct TV's NFL Sunday Ticket. With a few calls, I found a chain restaurant/bar in a shopping complex called Old Orchard, presumably named after the apple farms that once dotted these snowy Midwestern plains.
I was set. On any given Sunday, I told my wife I had to go watch the game. I delivered this news in a matter-of-fact tone that one would use when saying, "I have to go help out a friend." My wife is the daughter of a former Wisconsin football jock who used to keep the games on in every room of the house, and I believe she might have married me specifically because it was unlikely that I would ever follow the NFL. But she understands the new post-K rules, too. Every Sunday, she just nodded.
In truth, I don't think I'd ever been in a sports bar before. I didn't know the code, the cues. At first I sat down quietly at a front table, staring at a large screen that carried about five games at once. I located the black-and-gold uniforms in the corner of the screen. I watched them run around for awhile and strained to make out the score. Then I realized that there were more screens in the back of the restaurant, by the kitchen. One of them carried the Saints. I drifted back and sat down at an empty table, ordered a burger, and joined the game.
The sound, of course, was tuned to the Bears game. Most of the crowd was there for the Bears, too. After awhile, I noticed two women at a nearby table, also watching the Saints screen. One was wearing a Reggie Bush jersey. Always on the prowl for people from New Orleans, I introduced myself.
The woman in the jersey, Patrice, introduced herself and her daughter, Bridget. No, they weren't from New Orleans. She was a special ed teacher from the area. They were Saints fans because Patrice was Saints Coach Sean Payton's older sister.
Oh. I went back to my table. The Saints won and we smiled and waved good-bye.
The next week, we were all back at the bar. The Saints won again and we talked some more. And the next week. Sometimes, I came alone. Another time, I brought my kid after her soccer game, promising ice cream. Once, I planned ahead and we had a table of about a dozen ex-New Orleanians there, cheering as loudly as the Bears fans up front.
By this time, Patrice and Bridget and I had started saving room at the table for each other. In between plays, I told them about New Orleans, which they had never visited. I and the other New Orleanians talked up the city and its wonders, and discussed its current struggles. Patrice responded with stories about growing up with Sean -- typical brother-sister stuff, like getting each other to quit tobacco (smoking for Patrice, chewing for Sean), and what kind of presents Sean gives his family for Christmas. (Team shirts. Every year.)
I never tired of the way she talked to the TV after a bad play. "Sean, why'd you do that?" she'd ask in a pleading, big-sister voice. It was as if one day he'd turn back to her and snap that he was the coach now, leave him alone. But mostly, she beamed with family pride when he began receiving his deserved accolades, including NFL Coach of the Year.
Toward the end of the season, the Saints and Bears began careening toward each other for the playoffs. For me, it was like some over-the-top metaphor of my family's relocation, a literal helmet-to-helmet clash between our two homes. The upcoming championship game also gave Patrice and me a new bond: we were both Saints fans in increasingly hostile Bears country. The Saturday night before the game, she kicked off tailgating early by throwing a Saints party at her home. My wife -- finally converted after the 10th straight playing of "The Saints Are Coming" in the car -- came along. With various Paytons and local special ed teachers in attendance, we danced to the Aaron Neville "Who Dat" song, ate cake decorated with a picture of brother Sean's face, and talked Saints and Superbowl.
The next morning, whenever we saw people on the sidewalk, we stopped and the kids rolled down the window to yell "Who Dat."
Of course, things didn't work out as planned. Patrice and her family watched the game from the Soldier Field stands; I was with a party of about 50 people who had relocated to Chicago from Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. Unlike most Saints fans -- who are still celebrating a magical season -- those of us in Chicago are now eating deep-fried crow. We awoke Monday morning to find a Bears balloon clipped to our front door.
I haven't yet talked with Patrice since the loss. I hope she's holding up well. Next season, if we're all still here, it'll be back to the sports bar. Meanwhile, one thought keeps me going.
- Saints Coach Sean Payton's sister Patrice and her daughter (right) often watch Saints games on a big-screen TV at a bar i n the Chicago area with other Saints fans.