As a kid of the 1990s, I never understood how my father could root for a perennial loser like the New Orleans Saints. The Crescent City’s lone professional franchise’s futility was legendary, having never achieved a single playoff victory at that point. And yet, my father, along with legions of the Black and Gold faithful, continued to support the Saints.
My favorite professional sports teams in those days were Michael Jordan’s six NBA championship-winning Chicago Bulls, John Elway’s back-to-back Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, and the tried and true division-winning Atlanta Braves. I loved winners, and the Saints were the antithesis of winners.
The New Orleans Saints’ history began with a bang, a 94-yard opening kickoff return by John Gilliam against the Los Angeles Rams, but quickly shrank to a whimper. Though the Saints brought pride to their fans in the early years of the franchise, the franchise failed to accumulate many wins.
My father attended the very first Saints game in franchise history at Tulane Stadium in 1967, selling souvenir programs with his family, and rarely missed a home game until he left for college at LSU. The Saints were an integral part of my father’s childhood and teenage years, and because of his passion, those same feelings were always present somewhere deep inside of me.
My father loves the Saints with every fiber of his being, and it was always a Sunday tradition during the fall to come home after church and watch the Black and Gold battle on the gridiron. In the true New Orleans spirit, my father always muted the television and turned on the radio to listen to the Saints broadcast team of Jim Henderson and Hokie Gajan.
I watched my father beam with pride when the Saints won the first playoff game in franchise history against the St. Louis Rams in 2000, as Henderson screamed, “There is a God after all!” when Rams wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim muffed a punt near the end of the game, essentially sealing the victory for New Orleans.
The Saints would not return to the playoffs until the 2006 season, the first year of the current “Golden Era” marked by the arrivals of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.
I remember the nomadic season the Saints endured in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the franchise embodying the displaced nature of a city in crisis. Watching the Saints playing in Baton Rouge’s Tiger Stadium seemed unnatural, and fans wondered if their beloved franchise would ever return to the Superdome again.
But the Saints did return and in triumphant fashion, resurrecting a city from its darkest days.
Many in this city shed tears of joy when the Saints returned to the Superdome in 2006, and those tears turned to roars of euphoria when Steve Gleason blocked the Atlanta Falcons’ punt that evening on the fourth play of the Saints’ “Dome-coming”.
Subsequent tears of sorrow have been shed as our city has watched Gleason’s body deteriorate the past five years during his battle with the debilitating disease ALS.
The prayers of an entire fan base were finally answered in 2009 when the Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 to win Super Bowl XLIV. Jubilation rang throughout the city, as Saints fans danced through the streets in celebration. Skin color, religious affiliation, and social status flew out the window as people embraced strangers and rejoiced until the wee hours of the morning.
I am not a native son of New Orleans, but as the son of two parents who grew up on each of this illustrious city’s two shores, I know what the Saints mean to the people of New Orleans. The Saints represent resiliency, rising from perennial cellar-dweller status to reach the apex of professional sports.
For 50 years, the Saints have been New Orleans’ team and will continue to bring joy (and sometimes frustration) to the countless members of the Who Dat Nation.
May the next half-century be filled with many more triumphs and many less tragedies, both on and off the field.
We are New Orleans. We are the Saints. We are united.
The history of the New Orleans Saints is fraught with heartbreaking memories and breathtaking triumphs. From blocked punts to game-winning interceptions, here are the best 10 plays in franchise history:
1. The Pick-Six – Tracy Porter’s perfectly timed interception late in the fourth quarter sealed the Saints’ first Super Bowl victory. The amazing defensive play signaled much more than a monumental victory for a professional franchise, it marked the near restoration of a city still in rebuilding mode.
2. The Field Goal – Garrett Hartley etched his name in New Orleans Saints lore with his game-winning 40-yard field goal in overtime of the NFC Championship, sending the Black and Gold to their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
3. Gleason’s Blocked Punt – A broken city was reborn on Monday Night Football when special teams’ demon Steve Gleason burst through the Atlanta Falcons’ line and blocked Michael Koenen’s punt, elating the home crowd in New Orleans, and restoring some sense of normalcy to an ailing city for one night.
4. The Muffed Punt – It took over three decades, but when Brian Milne recovered Az-Zahir Hakim’s muffed punt in 2000, securing the Saints’ first playoff win in franchise history, the win over the St. Louis Rams felt symbolic for the brighter days that were to come.
5. The Kickoff Return – The franchise was born in 1967 with one of the most exciting plays in sports. John Gilliam’s 94-yard opening kickoff return in front of over 80,000 fans in Tulane Stadium galvanized a fan base … until the Saints lost the game to the Los Angeles Rams 13-27.
6. Ambush – Trailing at halftime of Super Bowl XLIV, New Orleans shifted the momentum in their favor by recovering a surprise onside kick to open the second half. Chris Reis’ recovery of Thomas Morstead’s perfectly aimed kick led to a Saints go-ahead touchdown a few plays later, further justifying New Orleans as a team of destiny in the 2009 season.
7. Deuce’s Dimes – On the cusp of the franchise’s first NFC Championship Game berth in 2006, Deuce McAllister carried the Saints to victory with two third-quarter touchdowns. McAllister bulldozed five yards through the heart of the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense for the first score, then caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brees later that quarter. The touchdowns propelled the Saints to their first ever NFC Championship Game appearance, in the inaugural year of the Payton-Brees era.
8. Meachem’s Strip – Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem prevented a possible Washington Redskins pick-six and helped preserve the Saints undefeated season in 2009 with his strip-and-score touchdown to spur a monumental comeback by the Black and Gold.
9. The River City Relay – The Saints pulled off one of the most entertaining (but ultimately insignificant) plays in 2003 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. New Orleans channeled its inner Cal Berkley, ripping off a three-lateral, 75-yard gonzo touchdown. John Carney missed the game-tying extra point attempt, but that did little to diminish the chaotic excitement of the previous play in the minds of many Saints’ fans.
10. Dempsey’s Kick – No toes? No problem. Tom Dempsey booted a then NFL-record 63-yard field goal to beat the Detroit Lions as time expired. Dempsey’s kick was one of a handful of positive achievements Saints’ fans could hang their hats on in the first couple decades of the franchise’s existence.
Photos from the New Orleans Saints Archive