Everyone loves underdogs, unlikely heros and moments of glory. They tickle the part of us that whispers, “I believe.” They show us that anything can happen. Pigs can fly, hell can freeze over, the Saints can win the Super Bowl. And since anything can happen, maybe they can even win it twice. Who Dat? 2 Dat. Believe Dat!
I’ve blogged a few times about “Why Football Matters,” but I haven’t talked about why the Saints matter. As we once again secure our place in the play-offs by defeating longtime-rivals Atlanta Falcons (ending their 8 game winning streak as well as their 2 year home game winning streak), I am again reminded of all the Saints have battled and how their band of “lesser” draft choices and flat out rejects have become an international symbol for the city’s resilience and indomitable spirit.
Our Super Bowl MVP quarterback, Drew Brees, was drafted by the Chargers in the second round of the 2001 draft. Despite his amazing college career, he sat through the first round because he was seen as short, weak-armed and potentially not ready for the big leagues. He was replaced as starting quarterback for the Chargers in 2003. In 2004, he was named Comeback Player of the Year. In 2005, he was rated the 10th best quarterback in the NFL… until he tore his shoulder in the last game of the year.
The Chargers didn’t want to match his offers, so brand new Saints coach, Sean Payton took a chance that Brees’ best days were not behind him. 2005 had been a disastrous year for the Saints as Katrina took out the team’s home field and most of its audience. Just as scattered to the winds as the other 1 million displaced citizens, the team’s season was just another defeat barely noticeable against that backdrop.
Brees’ first year with the Saints ended with a 10–6 season and the NFC South division title. As Brees and the team grew stronger, more used to victory, so did the city, all culminating in that magical Super Bowl victory, the most watched show in the history of American television (Canada too!).
But, you may already know Drew Brees’ extraordinary story, how he became Offensive Player of the Year in 2008, then Super Bowl MVP 2009, then Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year 2010 for his work on the field and his efforts in the city’s reconstruction, and 2010 ESPY Awards male athlete of the year, collecting four trophies in total. Perhaps you even read his No. 3 on the New York Times best sellers debuting book, Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity. But maybe you don’t know as much about the unlikely heroes surrounding him.
There’s Jeremy Shockey, the former Giants tight end who broke his calf bone and suffered damage to his ankle in 2007. In 2008, he was traded to Payton’s Saints. He went on to catch a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
Wide receiver, Marques Colston was selected in the seventh round of the 2006 draft as a “supplemental compensatory pick” (read – hopes were not high for his career). In 2007, he set a team record for receptions. He holds the record for most receptions in an NFL player’s first two seasons (168).
Lance Moore, the 2005 Cleveland Browns undrafted free agent (read – no one wanted him during the draft) was released and signed to the Saints’ practice squad. By 2007, he was starting as wide receiver and made his first touchdown. In 2008, he started for injured Marques Colston and ended the season with 79 receptions for 928 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Kick returner, Courtney Roby, was signed by the Colts in 2008 and released that same year. In 2009, He was brought into the Saints and returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.
Darren Sharper, a 2008 unrestricted free agent, signed with the Saints in 2009 then returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown (the longest in Saints history). That season, he also returned an interception 95 yards for a touchdown and set a team record when he returned 4 receptions for touchdowns in 1 season. His 376 interception return yards broke the NFL record for a single season and he holds the NFL record for most games with 75 or more interception return yards.
Love him or hate him, placekicker Garrett Hartley was signed by the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2008 then released just before training camp. He was signed by the Saints in 2008. He made a 40-yard field goal in overtime against the Vikings in the game that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl, where he was 3 for 3 on field goals (up to 47 yards) and became the first kicker in Super Bowl history to convert three field goals of 40 yards or more.
Running back Pierre Thomas was undrafted in 2007. He became the first player in Saints history to gain more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game and scored the Saints first Super Bowl touchdown.
And Payton’s insightful eye continues to bring new underdogs to light. Chris Ivory was an undrafted free agent picked up in the 2010. After injuries to Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas made Ivory the starting running back, in Week 6 his 158 yards were the most by any Saints running back since 2003 and the most by a Saints rookie since 1999.
Jimmy Graham, tight end, played college basketball from 2005 to 2009. Graham graduated in 2009 then stayed at Miami to take graduate classes while playing a season of football. He was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 2010 draft. He’s scored 4 touchdowns in the last 7 games, 2 in the game against the Ravens.
As if our scrappy band of NFL rejects turned heroes weren’t enough, the Superdome itself has become another symbol of this town’s resilience. Finished in 1975, the Superdome is the largest fixed domed structure in the world (there are larger ones with retractable roofs). In 2005, in the wake of the failed levy system’s destruction of New Orleans, the Dome became a “shelter of last resort” for 35,000 people stranded by the storm and an iconic image of all that had gone wrong.
Since it’s reopening in 2006, it’s become well known for the home team advantage of housing its super-loud fan base, disrupting opposing teams’ ability to be heard when calling plays. The Saints’ first post-Katrina home game was against their longest and biggest rivals, then undefeated Atlanta Falcons. The Saints won with the largest ever ESPN audience watching (the 2nd highest rated cable program of all time at the time) and went on to their first ever NFC Championship game.
When the NFL suggested that the Dome was not fit to host a Super Bowl and ought to be torn down and replaced by a new stadium, owner Tom Benson asked why we couldn’t just make the old Dome look like new. Replacing old things with new (supposedly better) is a complete misunderstanding of New Orleans culture. When the NFL explained that new stadiums have Jumbotrons and posh box seats and outdoor gathering areas, etc. Benson decided to include those items in the stadiums rebuilding. He believed that like the 6 Million Dollar Man, he could rebuild it, make it better than it was before.
Benson hasn’t always been a city favorite. He bought the Saints in 1985 when he heard that the team might be moved to Florida. Louisiana was hard hit by falling oil prices and losing the franchise would have been devastating to tourism and the local economy. Benson became known for the “Benson Boogie,” a second line dance he performed after victories carrying a black and gold decorated umbrella. He became a bad guy after the storm when he toyed with the idea of moving the Saints, at that time still known as the Ain’ts, to San Antonio. But, in 2006, Benson said he was committed to New Orleans “forever, as long as the community commits to me.”
As if the colorful history of the teams players, owner and field weren’t enough, there’s also the story of its fans. For over 40 years, the city enjoyed a love-hate relationship with their mostly losing team. In other cities, football plays every Sunday and yet there are people at movies, shopping, wearing non-team clothing and behaving normally. In New Orleans and all across the great state of Louisiana, when the Saints play, all else ceases. Roads, malls and restaurants are empty. Homes and bars are packed with black and gold wearing fans.
82% of local televisions were tuned to the Super Bowl and 78% of local TV’s were tuned to this year’s season opener against the Vikings. But it’s not just locals who love watching the Saints, for the last 2 years they’ve had the highest NFL ratings in the country. A record 106.5 million people watched the Saints win the Super Bowl. It wasn’t just the biggest audience for the Super Bowl, it was the biggest audience for anything on U.S. TV ever.
The Saints’ 2009 win over the Vikings was the most-viewed non-Super Bowl telecast on U.S. TV since the Seinfeld finale in 1998 (which had 76.3 million viewers). It also ranked as the 8th most-watched show in the history of FOX. (This year’s Thanksgiving game against Dallas gave Fox its best ratings in 15 years)
More than 200,000 people came to town to watch the Vikings rematch at the 2010 NFL season opener. Considering New Orleans’ population is normally under 400,000, that’s a lot of extra revelers (though nothing compared to the 800,000 to 1 million people who attended the Super Bowl victory parade). The game was the highest rating for a primetime NFL opening game ever. They may play for a state with a small population but our humble, unbreakable former-Ain’ts have become the nation’s most watched team in the NFL, bringing added revenue to every team we play.
If you love heart and second chances, you can love the Saints. If you love winners and champions, we’ve got the team for you. If you believe in renewal and rebirth, you too can cheer loud and proud.
I came to this city for my own rebirth, so like many people here, the Saints have become a symbol for my own struggles and victories, my own indomitable spirit. Whenever I face insurmountable odds, I remember that anything can happen, the Saints can win the Super Bowl. And maybe, just maybe, they can do it again. Who Dat? 2 Dat. Believe Dat!