"Don't tell me you expected it. If you did, you reside in la-la land," writes Buddy Diliberto of the New Orleans Saints' magical 2000 season in his new book, When the Saints Came Marching In (Pelican Publishing). That proclamation is vintage Diliberto, and just the kind of goofy, outdated colloquialism that helps make his Sportstalk radio show on WWL-870 AM one of the most entertaining and infuriating outlets in local radio. But before his present stature as "the mouth of the South," Diliberto was a longtime sportswriter for The Times-Picayune and a columnist for Gambit, and has covered the Saints since their inaugural season in 1967. Those credentials give him a unique take on the rebuilt Saints -- and a chance for Saints fans to evaluate Diliberto's football knowledge and print reporting without the tortured syntax of his broadcast delivery.
When the Saints Came Marching In begins with the firing of Mike Ditka and Bill Kuharich and subsequent hires of new general manager Randy Mueller and head coach Jim Haslett. The Saints organization gave Diliberto its blessing and cooperation for the book, which helps him establish an authoritative voice early with extensive quotes on the hiring process from notoriously press-wary Saints owner Tom Benson.
The following 14 chapters are loosely chronological, structured around short profiles of standout players like La'Roi Glover, Joe Horn and Aaron Brooks, with a parade of statistics trumpeting each man's achievements. The book drags in spots when it hits a predictable amount of tired soundbites, like defensive coordinator Ron Zook saying his philosophy is "play fast and play hard," and Jeff Blake's assertion, "It's not about statistics. It's about winning games." Diliberto's fascination with his frequent WWL guest and Saints' novelty song composer Abdul D. Tentmaker becomes a steady annoyance, as Diliberto wastes text by reprinting lyrics that often weren't that funny the first time around.
But there are some choice anecdotes that pop up and keep the narrative moving, like Kyle Turley smashing the rearview mirror of an equipment truck during pre-game introductions for the playoff game against St. Louis, and WWL announcer Jim Henderson defiantly throwing away the note cards with information on the Saints' greatest collapses as St. Louis made a furious comeback during the game.
It makes for an ultimately breezy and entertaining read, but it's the stunning photographs by Michael Hebert that make When the Saints Go Marching In a must-have souvenir for Saints fans. Hebert is the team's director of photography, and his unlimited access yields some candid behind-the-scenes shots from team meetings, film sessions and the locker room. Those documentary-style photos are blended with some tremendous full-frame, four-color action shots on the field, and Hebert's Sports Illustrated-quality work elevates the book to the sports equivalent of a fine-art coffee table mainstay.
While Diliberto and Hebert are veterans, Woody Falgoux is a rookie. Falgoux is a Thibodeaux lawyer who was inspired to write a book chronicling the training camp trials of eight undrafted rookie free agents trying to make the Saints roster, and the result is One Dream: The NFL (Sleeping Bear Press). It's a great idea that suffers from a cavalcade of over-the-top cliches and Falgoux's naivete.
For starters, Falgoux can't believe the media restrictions at training camp, lamenting the fact that he isn't allowed in the player dorms or lobby, or can't interview players while they're eating in the dining room. He's incredulous that he can't sit on the practice field (a steadfast Haslett rule that the coach also applies to his players), calls the Saints PR staff "the media police" and vows that "he won't let media police brutality get in the way of the plight of our eight heroes." Well, welcome to the NFL. Falgoux himself writes that the NFL is a business, but his railing on its corporate culture doesn't come off as idealistic, but amateurish.
Similarly, his enthusiasm over the Saints returning to train in his hometown is admirable, yet it colors his view of the on-field action through rose-colored glasses. In Falgoux's prose, the Saints are gladiators, the fans attending scrimmages howl at the moon, and goal-line drills are "empty the zoo, animals on the loose ... apeshit bedlam ... ball-busting, ass-blowing football."
Such descriptions -- and Falgoux's first-person accounts of the minute details surrounding his player interviews -- are unfortunate, because they're a distraction from the book's protagonists. Cornerback Amp Campbell survived a broken neck in college football, and still hasn't given up on his gridiron career. D.J. Cooper is broke, and trying to stay focused as his wife and 11-month-old daughter in Arkansas aren't answering their door, so the furniture won't be repossessed. Desmond Gibson is a preacher's son who reads the Bible in his dorm room at night. They're all rookies with a dream -- and their stories would have been better served by a veteran reporter.