Bountygate”… Head Coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma suspended for the entire 2012 season … Various players suspended for parts of the season … Allegations of sideline eavesdropping by General Manager Mickey Loomis … “Down with Goodell!” charges … Countercharges!
Throughout the summer, all of the above have sent legions of New Orleans Saints fans to make mega deals with St. Jude and hedging their prayers with “Free Sean Payton” T-shirts.
Mike and Kathy Hirsch are the owners and operators of “Hirsch Memorial Stadium,” a backyard mini-Superdome on South Bernadotte Street that shares a fence (and gate) with the St. Patrick Cemetery.
Since the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV three years ago, the Hirsches have transformed the backyard of their Mid-City home from a thrown-together gathering for a few Saints fan friends – a barbecue pit, a boxy 36-inch Trinatron TV, a few folding chairs and a couple of ice chests of beer – into a covered dome stadium replete with bleachers, an 8-by-10-foot screen and a world-class projector.
“It isn’t exactly like the Superdome,” Mike Hirsch says, “But it isn’t far from it. We’re getting there!”
The Hirsches’ arena – named in memory of Mike’s dad – is covered by waterproof photo backdrop material. Risers go up three levels and a “loge” area is set off for bring-your-own folding chairs. A port-o-let is nearby for nature’s calls and then there’s the food – it’s everywhere you look.
“We open the stadium for all Saints games,” Kathy says. “It’s all potluck. Bring what you want. Take what you want. No charge!”
A quick scan of the ground floor “concession area” at one 2011 Saints game showed a veritable cornucopia of grub: red beans and rice; sliced cold cuts; French bread; potato salad; jambalaya; bread pudding; fancy cakes and cookies; crawfish etouffée; gumbo – and that was all at the tables nearest the door. The tables that lined the walls were equally well-stocked.
“This all got started back around 1991,” Mike says. “A friend loaned us some bleachers, and I had some 2-by-4s laying around so I built three sections back there in the yard. Before that there was nothing else back there – just an empty backyard.” He continues, “But during the (Saints head coach) Jim Mora era, that’s when we really started. It was a little bitty thing at first: a big bulky television set we put up in the backyard. We had a few friends over. And actually, after Mora left, everything sort of lay dormant. The wood for the bleachers rotted out and it mostly died down.”
Then came the underdog Saints’ improbable victory over hometown hero Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
“That sparked it all to what’s out there today,” says Kathy. “We covered the entire yard with AstroTurf, put in the big screen and projector … It just kept growing from game to game over the next few years. A friend came and he brought a friend and they brought a couple of friends. Last season we had between 50 to 70 people at each game. It was at capacity. People we’d never seen. But they always knew somebody who knew somebody … you know how that goes. They’re all welcome. They all have a great time.”
“We even have cheerleaders (in costume, no less),” Mike says. “They keep the fans fired up. They’ve been part of this since back in the early days. When Craig “Ironhead” Heyward was playing, the cheerleaders came up with a cheer: ‘We want head! We want head!’ That one kinda died out after I put together some new cheers for them.”
Mike is a carpenter by trade and says that he and a few of his equally talented friends have done all of the work in expanding that erstwhile backyard barbecue-and-beer bash into today’s comfortable facility. Hirsch also admits the words “hook or crook” come to mind when he’s looking for materials for his dome.
“Hey, things fall offa trucks, ya know what I mean,” Mike says. “I got an Italian friend I call ‘Joe Soprano.’ You know how it is. I call him and say, ‘Joe, I’d sure like to get my hands on … whatever.’ He says, ‘No problem, Mike. I’ll take care of that for you!’ It’s like a miracle, you know. What we need just shows up. You need something, and somehow it all comes together. We find just what we need.”
Mike is walking around the backyard, through the dome portals. He takes a deep breath and waves to a neighbor next door.
“Damn shame what they’ve done to Payton,” the neighbor says.
“Yeah, but it’ll all work out,” Mike replies.
Mike walks over to the gate leading to the cemetery and says that because the houses on his block are too close to one another, the truck that cleans out the port-o-let every Monday morning has to come through the cemetery then through that gate.
“Like I said … it all works out!”
Mike leans down and runs his hand over the AstroTurf that covers the entirety of the yard and the floor of the dome seating area.
“Good example right here,” he says. “I needed more turf. So I call a friend who says he knows a guy who knows about a flooring and carpet dealer over around Slidell. Well, this friend comes to get me in his flatbed truck and we go over there. I don’t know what to expect … or even if this guy has got any carpet. It’s off Highway 190 out toward Lacombe. We find the guy and sure enough, he’s got 300 feet of AstroTurf. He tells me he’ll sell it to me for 150 bucks but I gotta take it all. So for 150 bucks I get 300 feet of AstroTurf that sells for $5 a square foot. There it is there. Right under your feet. Beautiful stuff, huh?”
Norton, a well-fed basset hound who’s the mascot and unofficial greeter at Hirsch Memorial Stadium and who makes the rounds all over the place during a game, rolls over on the turf as if to lend credence to Mike’s words.
“We never know where the people are going to come from,” Mike says. “Last year right before All Saints Day, there was a family of 10, maybe 12 people over in the cemetery cleaning up their grandparents’ tomb. One of the guys was wearing a Saints jersey. He comes over and looks over the fence and says, ‘What you got over here?’ I open the gate and invited him in. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He just kept shaking his head in disbelief.”
Mike won’t swear to it, but he’s sure he saw that same guy up in the bleachers at the following week’s game.
Mike sits on one level of the bleachers and looks around. The season isn’t far off. There is so little time and so much more he wants to do to improve his Mid-City stadium.
“I’m building permanent wooden bleachers. They’ll be really comfortable. I’m looking at putting in surround sound, also.”
Somebody points to an old storage shed off to the side and lets on as to how that would make a great lounge area – with TV monitors inside, maybe.
“You could make that your stadium club!” the guy says.
The suggested project and name stops Kathy Hirsch in her tracks. “Stadium club!” She repeats through the grin that crosses her face. “I like that! I like that!”
You can just about hear the wheels clanking and turning in Mike Hirsch’s head: “Hmmmmm, stadium club.” He is probably envisioning a bar, cushioned bar stools, air conditioning, walls covered with autographed photos of Saints players and memorabilia … nothing chintzy for this stadium.
“So little time to get that done,” says the guy who originated the idea.
“That’s OK,” Mike Hirsch says. “It’ll all work out! It always does!”