In a few short hours the New Orleans Saints will play the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl.
I bet you remembered that.
Four and a half years ago, Hurricane Katrina gave the city of New Orleans what can be described as a devastating near-miss. The city was spared the direct hit from a powerful hurricane that had long been feared in a place largely below sea level, but failed levees flooded it nonetheless, leading to a disaster marked by terrible human suffering, anger and anguish and searing visuals beamed to a shocked country.
I bet you remembered that too.
The once-lowly Saints’ march through the NFC South and the playoffs has been accompanied by something else: Katrina fatigue. On one level, this is completely natural. If we haven’t already given our hearts over to a team, we turn reflexively cynical when we hear the stentorian tones of sports announcers trying to channel epic seriousness to describe the outcome of a contest between a bunch of young men running around on an athletic field wearing motley. When Fox or CBS or ESPN gets its Ken Burns on and shows black and white pictures accompanied by mournful music, we dig in our heels, because we know soon enough there will be martial music and fireworks and CGI logos and the whole rest of the routine sports show.
I get all that. But I’m asking you, on the doorstep of this Super Bowl, not to be jaded. I understand what motivated all those people who responded to Garrett Hartley’s kick against the Vikings by groaning about the number of Katrina columns they’d now have to endure for two weeks. I know that the miseries of Katrina are not going to be magically remedied by flights of fancy from knights of the keyboard who watched a little CNN on YouTube. But those people who bemoaned the coming Katrina frenzy were letting the cliché get the better of them. They needed to look past all that, to look deeper.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I am a Saints fan. Though truth be told, I’m really a New Orleans fan. This was inevitable: New Orleans was the city where I drew my first real adult paycheck. It’s where I first lived by myself without the immediate safety net of parents or college administrators. It was the first place I was taught my craft, was treated as an adult, had to figure out grown-up stuff on my own, and succeeded tolerably enough at all of those things to give me hope that I might find my way through. (And, a summer later, it’s where I’d meet my wife.) Even if it weren’t one of the world’s greatest cities — which it most certainly is — that would be enough to grant New Orleans a lifelong place in my heart.
For me the Saints were and always have been secondary to New Orleans. I’m a half-assed Saints fan by any real measure. I can moan about Bobby Hebert and John Fourcade and Jim Everett, but this isn’t real knowledge or real suffering. I can’t name all the guys on this year’s team, or most of them, or even an acceptable percentage of them. If the Saints lose, I will be sad for a couple of hours and wake up on Monday morning thinking about spring training and complaining about Omar. I have nothing against the good people of Indianapolis. I think the Colts should be admired for the scientific way they approach rosters and strategy and the consistent excellence they achieve. I give Peyton Manning credit for having grown up with a preordained spot as an NFL quarterback and still managing to be mildly interesting. All things considered, my stake in this is pretty small.
But like I said, I am a New Orleans fan. And as one, I’m asking you to try and step back, to listen again to what you’re tired of hearing about, and to consider two things.
First of all, Hurricane Katrina did not happen in another century or in a world so technologically different as to seem apart from us. The most powerful, technologically advanced nation on this planet saw a storm drown one of its oldest and most-famous cities and proved astonishingly impotent at providing its own people the basic means of survival in a timely, organized fashion. More than 1,800 people died, most of them in the houses and neighborhoods they held dear, killed by an impersonal enemy no ideology or army will ever be able to conquer. More than four years later, whole swaths of the city remain unrecognizable, with decades of families and stories literally washed away. Bourbon Street may stagger happily along, but New Orleans will never be the same. Neither, I would argue, will the United States of America. Regardless of whom you voted for or what political creed you profess or how you assign blame, Katrina matters. What happened in New Orleans in 2005 pierces the uncomfortable heart of whatever we think about race, about class, about the proper role of government, about the possibilities of technology, about the demands of personal responsibility, about fairness, about bias, about faith, about luck. Those who live far from New Orleans will find it bound up in their arguments about these things for decades. Those who live in New Orleans will never escape it.
Which brings us to the Saints.
I know, it’s a cliché to talk of cities rallying around a team. But in New Orleans, the Saints cast a spell that it’s hard for us to grasp in our pick-an-allegiance, this-one-or-that-one metropolis of many sports and choices. The Saints command the affection and allegiance of New Orleans’ gentry and its destitute alike, as they have in good years and bad. And in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it seemed all but certain that the team was gone for good. Katrina punched holes in the Superdome, where as many as 20,000 sought shelter from the storm in the heat and filth. While the tales of horror in the Superdome proved wildly exaggerated, six people did die there. Meanwhile, the Saints had decamped to San Antonio, where their owner had made his fortune selling cars. Negotiations were under way for the team to relocate permanently. What were the chances the team would return to a wrecked stadium in a ruined city whose population had largely dispersed? We’ve been through a lot as Mets fans, but for all our woes, we’ve never even endured or even imagined anything close to that.
But the Superdome was repaired, and the Saints returned. They have been led by players and a coach who have embraced the city and its people, and not just in the way a millionaire pitcher embraces, say, the idea of commuting from Greenwich and occasionally hitting a museum or an expensive restaurant. A few months after Katrina, former Chargers quarterback Drew Brees was picking a new professional home. His choices were New Orleans and the undestroyed precincts of Miami. Newly hired head coach Sean Payton drove him around the city, took a wrong turn and wound up giving a horrified Brees an extended tour of the ruins. Brees, amazingly, chose the ruins. He has given millions to the effort to get the city back on its feet, and he is far from alone. Many Saints players have done the same.
The Saints are close to religion in New Orleans. In that city’s darkest hour, it seemed certain that they too would be taken away. But they returned and endured, and now shine more brightly than they ever have. All the hoary old maxims about the love of a team making a city whole? They’re said in cities that don’t need to be rebuilt, and they’re no more true in New Orleans than they were in those places. If Brees and Payton lead the Saints to a Super Bowl victory, no houses will spring back to life in the Lower Ninth Ward and no levees will be made strong enough to resist the next storm. But the idea that the Saints have bound up the wounds of a city and its people and given them something to love and cheer for and believe in when there’s been very little else? That’s absolutely true, and it’s been desperately needed in ways most of us, thankfully, can only imagine.
The problem with a cliché isn’t that it’s inaccurate, or a poor turn of phrase, or fails to capture the reality of something. Rather, it’s that a cliché does those things too well, and therefore is employed so often that it becomes empty and shopworn. Every cliché hides in plain sight something that was new and valuable before we got used to it. So don’t get used to it. Don’t let media overkill make you numb to Katrina, or dismissive of the idea that the Saints really do mean something more to their fans than what we’re accustomed to.
New Orleans doesn’t need a miracle — the work to restore it is and will be much slower and harder than that. And win or lose, the Saints already are a miracle, in ways small and not so small. But within the narrow confines of sports stories, they and the city they play for deserve something that’s a lot smaller than that, but far from nothing. They deserve a happy ending.