Really, it’s about what it means to love New Orleans.
Yes, there is something happening in New Orleans, a strange and beautiful story not so much about a town that still needs distraction from a hurricane but about a professional sports team changing the nature of the relationship between franchise and fan. “It’s the entire city,” LeBlanc says as we drive. “Everybody feels it. It’s not because we’re selling it. Faith or fate, whatever you believe in, you cannot watch this football team and not have faith.”
The soul of the city is coming off the practice field and headed toward the showers. They are a motley group, undrafted guys and late-round fliers, players cast off from other teams. Brees landed in town after an injury convinced the Chargers that his best days were behind him. “When we came here,” he has said, “I was in the process of rebuilding, as well.”
Running back Mike Bell was out of football. So was cornerback Mike McKenzie, who watched the games from the stands with a mouthful of food before getting the call a few weeks ago. Darren Sharper arrived unwanted and has resurrected his career. Running back Pierre Thomas wasn’t drafted. Star wide receiver Marques Colston wasn’t drafted until the seventh round of the 2006 draft, and his college football program, Hofstra, just folded.
It goes on and on. This is a team of underdogs. “It’s a bunch of guys that feel like they have something to prove,” McKenzie says. “We have a lot of late draft picks and free agents that are now starting. It is a team full of guys who are probably viewed as overachievers.”
And this is too good:
When I drive into Dallas, I see a place sprawling and bland, loops and rings of interstate and, somewhere over the horizon, a stadium representing a just-gone era of bloat and decay … scoreboard so big it interferes with the game … $60 pizzas. It looks new but is dead inside. In contrast, there is the drive out of New Orleans, through a city still battered, past the exits for the Vieux Carre and Uptown, past the Huey Long, which runs narrow and high out to the leaning oyster and chicken shack. All told, this is a city with the opposite calculus of Dallas: It is decayed on the outside, but inside there is life. Here is a citizenry that believes in the power of the underdog. New Orleanians fell first and see something the rest of America is blind to right now: a way back into the light.
We’re running low on gas, and there’s not a station for miles, so I ease off the road at Manchac, the bayou town with the best catfish in the world, where my grandparents ate on their honeymoon. I drive toward the dive bars and seafood shacks, turn onto a private road and navigate the railroad tracks, pulling my truck up as close as it will get to the Fuel Dock. This is where the fishing boats gas up, but the owner will run the hose the length of the pier and fill a car up, too, if you’re truly in need.
We go inside to pay. A small crowd is gathered around the television. Boat captains and deck hands who tied up here to watch the fourth quarter. These aren’t the Uptown moneyed class or even the cool musicians. They work for a living, the oxygen in the culture of the city. The man closest to me can barely watch; the weekend before, he flipped his recliner over. Outside, the fog cuts visibility to nothing; he had to use radar and GPS to find the dock.
The game comes down to the last tense moments, again, and when it is over, and the Saints are 13-0, there is a moment of joy inside the Fuel Dock, and right there amid the beer coolers and tackle displays, tough men hug each other. We can’t see the skyline of New Orleans, the silhouette of the Superdome out of view, but even out here on Lake Maurepas, we can feel it.
The soul of the city is alive. And it is everywhere.