Peter Finney has pretty much seen it all.
Finney, a sports columnist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, was there for all of the Super Bowls played in the city. He was there when Michael Jordan led North Carolina to the NCAA basketball championship in 1982 in the Superdome. He saw Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide win back-to-back national football championships with Sugar Bowl victories over Penn State on Jan. 1, 1979, and over Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1980.
He began writing sports in New Orleans — my favorite city outside Arkansas — in 1945 when the top two sports in the city were boxing and thoroughbred racing. Sixty-four years later, at age 81, he’s still at it.
And this is how he began his column after the New Orleans Saints went to 12-0 Sunday with an amazing overtime win over the Washington Redskins: “Maybe it’s because they’re called Saints. You break a commandment and you go on to win with one miracle after another. Seriously, this season is getting downright biblical. When a Saint named Robert Meachem broke a commandment on Sunday in broad daylight — the one that says ‘thou shalt not steal’ — you had a funny feeling. Meachem took the ball out of the hands of a surprised Redskin by the name of Kareem Moore and ran for a touchdown. Think about it. Moore, who was doing his best to run for a touchdown, had just intercepted a pass by Drew Brees, and Brees could look back and say: ‘Thank God, my only interception of the day helped turn the game around.’”
What an incredible season for long-suffering fans of the Saints. What a boost for a city that’s only a little more than four years removed from the horrors brought on by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina.
Those of you who believe that sports don’t matter in America — that it’s only a game — haven’t been in New Orleans lately.
No, Saints victories don’t feed the poor.
No, Saints victories don’t rebuild the Ninth Ward.
No, Saints victories won’t ensure competent governance at City Hall.
No, Saints victories won’t improve the public schools.
But the season thus far has brought joy for hundreds of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast from Lake Charles in the west to Pensacola in the east. In New Orleans itself, this football team has given people confidence and a reason to smile.
Considering the lack of leadership in the mayor’s office, it would be safe to say that Brees is the most important figure in New Orleans since what’s known there simply as “the storm.” In fact, Peter King of Sports Illustrated has rated Brees as the NFL hero of the decade.
King wrote: “In 2006, the city of New Orleans was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina (it will be recovering until 3006), and Brees was recovering from postseason shoulder surgery, major surgery, in San Diego. As a free agent, he seemed headed for Miami, but Dolphins coach Nick Saban had doubts about Brees’ readiness for the season, so Brees signed with the Saints instead. There, he raised more than $5 million for projects, like three new ballfields in the city at depressed schools, and became the symbol for the area’s recovery. It doesn’t hurt that the Saints are 12-0 for the first time in their history, and Brees is the primary reason why.”
When James Carville and Mary Matalin — who have moved from the Washington area to New Orleans — brought their road show to Little Rock on Monday night, Carville was talking about the Saints to a crowd of 1,500 people at the Statehouse Convention Center. He realizes what the team has done to uplift the spirits of an entire city. In fact, I had the strong impression that Carville had much rather talk about the Saints these days than about politics.
Though I grew up in Arkansas, I have been a Saints fan for as long as I can remember. In high school, I subscribed to a weekly newspaper covering the Saints. I’m also a Cowboys fan. When the Saints and Cowboys play later this month, I will be rooting for New Orleans.
I hope the Saints go 16-0. Much like Cubs fans, who are conditioned to expect disappointment, most Saints fans aren’t getting their hopes up just yet.
Regardless of where the season goes from here, I can think of no professional sports franchise that has ever meant quite as much to a city as have these Saints the past three months.
Bless you boys.