Jan 29, 201012:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
For Who Dats Gone Too Soon
I know this is going to be shocking coming from someone with enough nerd cred to have gotten a semicolon tattoo (right hip, and if I haven’t shown you yet, it’s only a matter of time), but I really wasn’t much of a football fan as a kid. Despite both of my parents’ and both of my half-siblings’ fervent interest in the sport, I sort of thought I was above it all. I thought I was better than football, that football was a brutal, boring sport for jocks and rednecks.
My father and my late brother were particular fans, and like fathers and sons across America, they did more than just watch; they had their own curious bonding rituals over the game. My dad loved to hate the Saints, but my brother believed in the Saints the way Job believed in God: No matter how they punished him, he never wavered.
Every football-season Sunday in the mid-1980s, I’d sulk while they monopolized the TV, and I’d listen to the same old back-and-forth: my dad saying, “They’re going to screw this one up big-time,” and Scott saying, “No way! They’re going to the Super Bowl this year, Dad.” And my dad would laugh and laugh and say, “This team? Oh, my man, the Saints are never going to the Super Bowl!”
By halftime, the Saints would be up, sometimes way up, and Scott would be recklessly optimistic. “See, Dad? This is our year!”
And my dad, half-bored, half-amused and entirely patronizing, would eat a handful of Spanish peanuts and sip some Budweiser before saying, calmly, “Just wait, son. It’s early yet.”
We all know how that ended back in those years. The Saints would blow the game, and Scott would be crushed, not only by the team’s loss but also by the relentless and triumphant mocking from my dad.
But the next week, he’d believe again.
This played out in so many aspects of their relationship, not just Saints games. As a daughter and the mother of a daughter, I don’t pretend to have the first idea about father-son relationships, but I guess theirs wasn’t atypical. It was loving but contentious, with my brother constantly seeking and not often finding my father’s approval. My dad was the cynic; my brother was the dreamer. My dad was usually right, but if you ask me, it was my brother who was the brave one –– because he was willing to risk disappointment rather than give up on his ideals.
And eventually, it took its toll, and he took his life.
The days after my brother’s suicide are a huge blur to me –– both because of overwhelming grief and because I was 7. But one moment stands out crystal clear in my memory: At his funeral in North Carolina, after the words had been said and the songs had been sung, my father took the shovel away from the gravediggers and said, voice wavering, “I’ll do that. Thanks.” And he tossed shovel after shovel of red-orange North Carolina dirt on top of my brother’s casket. In the midst of that, someone, maybe a cousin, lifted up one of those candy-colored stereos from the late ‘80s and turned up Don McLean’s “Vincent.” I didn’t get it, not really, but I knew that I had never seen adults cry so hard. And easy enough even for a 7-year-old to understand was the line, “I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
Perhaps someone so tenderhearted and idealistic really didn’t belong in this world –– and over the course of his brief life, Scott was certainly disappointed time and again by people and things much more important than our local sports team.
That said, when I saw Hartley’s kick sail neatly between the uprights, my first thought was of my brother. And I wasn’t the only one. My dad called me after the game. “I wish he could’ve seen it,” he said, his voice thick with emotion and more than a few beers. “He never gave up on the Saints. It was a joke to me. It was never a joke to him. When Scott was happy, he was happier than anyone in the world, and he would be so happy right now.”
The next day, I got a cranky text message from my perennially cranky friend Jeremy, a French Quarter bartender who hates pretty much every single defining New Orleans event –– Carnival, Jazz Fest, Saints games –– because they make him busier at work. “FOOTBALL IS STUPID!” it said.
And I wrote him back, “SHUT YOUR FACE!”
Because I used to think that I was better than football, that football was a brutal, boring sport for jocks and rednecks –– but this is so much bigger than football. It’s about the fact that after the game ended, my neighbors came running out of their houses and embraced in the street, setting off fireworks and popping champagne and playing “Stand Up and Get Crunk” at top volume –– literally dancing in a street that was, four and half years ago, clogged with sodden stuffed animals, festering refrigerators, crumbled furniture, mildewed carpet and palpable misery. It’s about the fact that the last time I called (504) numbers and heard that tinny “Your call cannot be completed at this time” recording, it was because Katrina had destroyed the entire city. And on Sunday night, I called (504) numbers and heard that tinny “Your call cannot be completed at this time” recording because the Saints were going to the Super Bowl and the resulting euphoria had jammed the lines to capacity. It’s about the fact that the Saints and the city were given another chance, and we came through. It’s about the fact that, at least on this occasion, the cynics were wrong, and the dreamers were right.
If there’s a heaven, then I’m quite sure the Times-Picayune is right, and Buddy D is up there wearing a halo and a dress and a rueful smile. And standing around him, laughing, bathed in black-and-gold light, are the celestial chapter of the Who Dat Nation, including my brother and all of the other diehard faithful fans who were finally right.
The Saints are going to the Super Bowl, and even if hell is freezing over, I’m sure it’s just as jubilant in heaven as it is here.