Thursday, February 4, 2010

So you’re driving through the middle of Washington on a Monday afternoon, and you suddenly find yourself getting emotional about two little-remembered guys named Derland Moore and Tommy Myers.

You’re a New Orleans Saints fan whose family has held season tickets since year one of the franchise, and the past two weeks have induced random bouts of nostalgia and wistfulness, joy and delirium, chain e-mails and flashbacks (usually of setbacks) and occasional fits of goofy giggling for no particular reason.

For the Saints to be in the Super Bowl inspires a sense of wonder; it’s like seeing Sasquatch ride a unicorn to feed mermaids in Atlantis.

And then you think of Derland Moore and Tommy Myers, and you think they darn well ought to be there, and you vow to lift a glass their way.

Everybody knows, justly so, about all those years when Archie Manning was getting brutalized while trying to carry awful teams on his back. But he wasn’t the only superb player stuck on various squads of Aints giving their all and performing well while the rest of the country hardly noticed them amidst the carnage. Real Saints fans know their names: Moore and Myers, Stan Brock and Jim Wilks, Henry Childs and Frank Warren, Dave Whitsell and Rich Mauti. They are players a special city believed in, and believed in, and believed in again, no matter how often that faith was crushed by others’ mistakes.

Consider who suited up next to Mr. Moore, Mr. Myers and Mr. Mauti.

This was a team whose toughest player at one point, pound for pound, may have been a flanker named Tinker. (Owens was his last name.) It was a team with players not named Butkus or Nitschke, nor Bronko Nagurski, but Wimpy Winther, Ink Aleaga, Jubilee Dunbar, and Happy Feller. Oh, and Jitter Fields, Hoyle Granger, Joe Don Looney, Florian Kempf, Cephus Weatherspoon and Flea Roberts. Oh, yes, and a guy named Guido (Merkens), who was a punter/defensive back/wide receiver/quarterback/kick-and-punt returner. Give Guido a day to learn and he probably would play the banjo and washboard as well - but that still wouldn’t strike fear into opponents who were hardly impressed by the Wimpy and Flea show.

Only a city as full of whimsy as New Orleans could embrace such a team. And only a citizenry as cheerfully fatalistic as New Orleanians could endure all the bizarre twists of fate that kept us out of the playoffs for our first 20 years. There was the 1978 last-second “Big Ben” play (to beat the big clock) - the first-ever multiman jump ball by design - by which the Falcons beat the Saints 20-17. It was followed two weeks later by another 20-17 Falcon win when a last-second end-zone interception by the Saints was nullified by “phantom” pass interference; even the receiver said no one touched him. The next year, the Saints had a lock on the playoffs until they blew a 35-14 second-half lead to the Raiders.

In the strike season of 1982, the Saints seemed for 10 minutes to be playoff-bound, until the Packers blew a lead to the Lions to let the Lions sneak past the Saints in the standings. (Lions eat Saints? That’s been happening for millennia.) The next year, the Saints had the playoffs in hand in the regular season’s closing minute when, clinging to a one-point lead against the Rams, Coach Bum Phillips refused to let all-world kicker Morten Andersen try a 49-yard field goal. The Saints lost 26-24 when the Rams took the Saints’ gift punt and drove for their own winning field goal with six seconds left.

That wasn’t the worst of it. To quote, “Ironically, it was L.A.’s only offensive points of the game. Rams scores came on a safety, a punt return TD and two interceptions returned for scores. Ram QB Vince Ferragamo didn’t even complete a pass until the last drive.”

As late as 2003, 16 years after making their first playoff game, the Saints were finding ways to implode. A 75-yard touchdown with four laterals, on what would have been the game’s last play against the Jaguars, when a win would have put the Saints into the playoffs, went for naught when all-pro kicker John Carney missed the extra point.

Saints fans for years traded stories, not of glorious victories, but of wacky wrecks. Early-year star acquisition Joe Don Looney carried the ball just three times and lost three yards. Four-year-old Peyton Manning sat two seats from me when he accidentally booed his own father. When Archie Manning wasn’t getting creamed in the pocket, he was sacked by mononucleosis. Quarterback Steve Walsh once was intercepted while trying to spike the ball at his own feet. Aging Hall of Famer Earl Campbell once led the nearest defender by 20 yards on a break-away run - but fell down with a pulled hamstring just short of the goal line.

Even our announcers fumbled. Beloved local sportscaster Buddy Diliberto, a king of the malaprop, once said about the team’s ball-control success, “The Saints led in time of obsession.”

No truer words were ever (mis)spoken. Saints fans have been wonderfully obsessed for 43 years and became only more so when the team provided one of the city’s only rallying points after Hurricane Katrina.

Who dat would want it any other way?

Quin Hillyer is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Times. He cheered at every home game, even during the Saints’ 1-15 “bag head” season, and he covered Peyton Manning’s first high school varsity touchdown pass for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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