American Sports Are Bittersweet From Afar

I have been a New Orleans Saints fan since they drafted Danny Wuerffel in 1997. If you’re not much of a college football fan, you probably don’t remember Wuerffel because he didn’t last long in the NFL, but at the University of Florida, he had an arm like no one I’ve seen before or since. It didn’t hurt that he played for Steve Spurrier. I’m pretty sure Spurrier was breeding All-American quarterbacks in his basement. Wuerffel was one of those quarterbacks. He won just about every award a quarterback can win, including being the only Heisman winner to also win the Draddy, a.k.a. the “Academic Heisman.” Try these records on for size, courtesy of Wikipedia:  

He finished his Gator career by completing 708 of 1,170 passes for 10,875 yards with 114 touchdown passes, the best in SEC history and second-most in major college history. His career pass efficiency rating of 163.56 was the best in major college history and his percentage of passes which went for a touchdown (9.74) ranked first in collegiate history. In 1995, his efficiency rating of 178.4 set a single-season collegiate record. During his Heisman-winning season of 1996, he completed 207 of 360 passes for 3,625 yards (an SEC record at the time) for 39 touchdowns (leading the nation) and his efficiency rating of 170.6 made him the first quarterback to ever post a rating of 170 or better in back-to-back years.

His timing was impeccable. I was a Dallas Cowboys fan, but the team was starting to slip after its three Super Bowls in four years. I wasn’t a bandwagon-hopper — as the next decade would prove — but future Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman was starting to show his age, and I knew it was time to start looking for a new hero. Meanwhile, the Saints were welcoming a new head coach, the former Hall of Fame tight-end Mike Ditka, who had coached one of the greatest teams in NFL history a decade earlier. Pugnacious (both in attitude and appearance), Ditka lived in a new development in South Florida where my parents had just bought a house. It was fate.

Fate’s a bitch. The first thing you need to understand about the New Orleans Saints is that they suck. Not now, but historically. They have one of the worst records in NFL history. No matter what good fortune comes their direction, they find a way to screw it up. Take Danny Wuerffel for instance. All the achievements in his high school and college careers couldn’t cover up the fact that he wasn’t cut out for the NFL. I don’t know why. I’m a La-Z-Boy-and-pizza fan, not a scout, but even I knew that somebody on the recruiting staff was getting fired halfway through Wuerffel’s first season.

Two years later, the Saints were back in the first round of the Draft betting on a sure-thing-can’t-lose Heisman winner, University of Texas running back Ricky Williams. This guy had mad skills. Wikipedia tells me that he “holds or shares 20 NCAA records,” not including the Division 1-A career rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and scoring records, each of which he held for a year. The Saints traded away all their other picks to get him. It was the first time a team has been that desperate. They lost 13 of 16 games that season.

That was 1999. The following year, they brought in a new coach, Jim Haslett, who led the team to the second round of the playoffs before losing to the Minnesota Vikings. That, by Saints standards, was unbelievable success. Anyone who knew anything about football pointed out that Haslett was using the offensive and defensive lines that Ditka built — that was where Ditka excelled as a coach: the bruising, punishing, in-the-trenches game — but we held out hope that Haslett wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

We were wrong. The Saints missed the playoffs in 2001, in 2002, in 2003, and in 2004. But we’re not talking about paper-bag-on-your-head losing, though the team was actually famous for its fans doing that in the 1980s. This was just-enough-false-hope-to-fool-you-every-time losing. Every year, it looked like they had a chance. Every year, they just barely missed the playoffs. Every year, we said, “They can’t possibly screw this up. It’s in the bag.” And every year, Saints fans everywhere threw anything within arm’s reach at the television screen.

They were Lucy. We were Charlie Brown. They never failed to make us fall flat on our back. Oh, good grief.

Then came Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly, football didn’t matter anymore, and then, just as suddenly, it mattered even more.

The immediate effect of the storm, of course, was devastation. If you want to think in pure business terms, the team’s fans had left and would only return slowly and miserably. Even more practically, their stadium, the Louisiana Superdome, was rendered unplayable, and the city unfit for visitors. They played home games at the Alamodome in San Antonio and LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, but it was near impossible to get them to put their hearts into it when their homes were gone, their fans preoccupied, and the city that inspired them, that came to life every night like no other, now a wasteland. It was, almost inevitably, a losing season.

The long-term effect, it seems, was to strengthen the team. Maybe the pain and loss hardened them. Maybe the city’s restoration, bit by bit, gave them something to fight for. Maybe it was the new coach, Sean Payton, or perhaps the sellout crowd that showed up to watch them in their first home game since the hurricane, or the record-breaking TV audience rooting from home. What were they rooting for? The Saints, sure, but really the city, and in that moment, it was clear that they were one in the same. They wanted to see the citizens of New Orleans claw out of the wreckage, but the only way they knew how was to tune in to see if the Saints could find their way out of their own wreckage. The city’s pain was deeper, but the Saints’ stretched back farther. The two are, of course, incomparable. No one can hold up a bunch of millionaire crash test dummies to the loss of life and property and dignity of Hurricane Katrina, but maybe, just maybe, the one could inspire the other. If only they could shed a lingering demon, the Saints may, in their own small way, herald the return of The Big Easy.

The reign of Sean Payton started off as a benevolent one. His first season, 2006, saw the team reach the NFC Championship Game for the first time ever. It almost made up for the first decade when the team had a losing record every single year. Almost.

Last year was less benevolent, with the loss of running back Deuce McAllister for the season with an ACL tear, but this year has quickly erased those memories. Seven weeks into the season, they are one of three remaining undefeated teams in the NFL. Some commentators have even taken to calling them the best team in the country, to the dismay of fans like myself. After many stressful years, we know that every time we think they’ve gotten the monkey off their back, we quickly find ourselves relearning the meaning of humility. Such praise is more a warning than a cause for celebration, but we’ll take all the good news we can get, close our eyes, and pray “this time is different.”

Just one little catch: I’m in London.

I don’t get ESPN, and I certainly can’t scare up a nosebleed ticket and drive to the playoff games I hope they’ll be playing. For one thing, I don’t have a car. And if I did, it wouldn’t float. So you know why, against all historical evidence, I am convinced that “this time is different”? Because this time is the one time when I can’t watch them go all the way or be there to turn a decade-plus of frustration into head-splitting euphoria, like I did when the Phillies won the World Series. Speaking of which, can Philadelphia do it again? They probably will, because just like the Saints finally on top while I am confined to YouTube and box scores, that’s my luck.

But I’m okay with that. If you’re a sports fan or you know a sports fan, you know that we bleed our team’s colors. If the guys on the field can give it everything they’ve got, why can’t we sacrifice a little in the name of superstition? I’ve made a deal with Lady Destiny. I’ll stay on this side of the Atlantic if she’ll guide my teams to victory. Hey, it’s sports: No one said it was supposed to be rational.