Today is Day One of the NFL playoffs, in case you live in the Antarctic and don’t know this. The anticipation, the hopes, the dreams, the thrills, the crushing disappointment all come together today to begin a journey that ends in the Super Bowl.
And for most of my life, this time of year has been irrelevant. As a Saints fan since I was in the third grade, the journey has been long. Just to give you an idea, I became a Saints fan the day Archie Manning was drafted. That’s right, Archie. It’s hard to overstate what an icon he was in the state of Mississippi, even to the haters in Starkville — who were, and remain, clearly brain damaged by the incessant ringing of cowbells.
Ah, the hopes and dreams for New Orleans when Archie arrived. Posters and bumper stickers suddenly appeared: “Archie is a Saint.” The day Cooper (the oldest, least famous, Manning boy) was born, the announcement made the front page of nearly every paper in the state. So did Peyton’s — partly because he tipped the scales at 12+ pounds.
Matter of fact, the picture at right came from inside the famed Rendezvous restaurant in Memphis — in 2010. To this day, Archie is still an icon. Look close — the picture in the upper right is Archie.
We thought his NFL career would be, well, like Peyton’s turned out to be. Forget that he was playing for the most woeful expansion team ever. Forget that New Orleans had never even had a winning season. But the crushing disappointment soon followed. Archie might have been a Saint, but he couldn’t raise a team from the dead. Years of sub-mediocrity — the team’s, not his — kept the Saints in the cellar year after miserable year. Even when Archie outperformed Roger Staubach and/or went to the Pro Bowl, the Saints were, in a word, pitiful.
Coaches and players came and went, and nothing changed. The Superdome was built to replace the Saints’ home field at Tulane Stadium, but many games produced a Stupor Dome. Then came the ‘Aints. The bags on the head. Then Bum Phillips arrived from Houston. Then Saints Nation, such as it was in those days, was aghast to learn that Archie, easing toward the end of his career, was traded to the Oilers.
I almost gave up on them then, but loyalty runs deep in my genes, and I couldn’t stop watching — every new coach, new quarterback, new season brought hope that maybe, just maybe, this was the turning point. But Bum Phillips couldn’t do it. Louisiana boy Bobby Hebert couldn’t. Not even the next Ole Miss quarterback to play for the Saints, John Fourcade (in a strike-shortened scab-player season), couldn’t.
Then came Jim Mora. And at long last, after 22 years, the Saints had a winning season. That was cause for celebration in those days. My only regret was that in all the years Archie played for them, he never accomplished that. But then came the next challenge — no, not the Super Bowl (Saints fan are incremental in their goals) — winning a playoff game. Four times under Mora, the Saints made the playoffs, and four times they went home after playing the first game.
Mike Ditka fared no better. And I still shake my head over the Ricky Williams draft pick — in which Ditka traded away all the Saints for the year, and more from the next year, to land Williams. I think he might have even traded away Baton Rouge in that deal. And the Saints fell back to losing.
I won’t even talk about Ditka’s successor, Jim Haslett, other than to say he did manage to secure the Saints’ first playoff win (against the Rams in Wild Card Weekend) and had the sense to draft Deuce McAllister.
And then came Sean Payton. And Hurricane Katrina. And not only the Saints’ first playoff win, but their first trip to the NFC Championship — in Payton’s first year.
The rest — Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, the emergence and dominance of the Saints, has, quite literally, been a dream come true for real Saints fans. The Super Bowl victory was one of the most magical football moments of my life — and I couldn’t help but notice that, at last, a quarterback named Manning threw a pass that helped the Saints win the Super Bowl.