Pigs have flown

Jim Henderson has been the radio voice of the New Orleans Saints since 1986. In other words, he has seen a lot of bad football games.

Henderson, who moved to New Orleans in 1978, teamed with Archie Manning on the Saints broadcasts from 1986-97. Since then, he has worked with former Saints and LSU running back Hokie Gajan (one of the greatest south Louisiana names ever).

The nice thing about a Saints game after dark is that you can pick up WWL-AM, 870, from New Orleans at home in Little Rock. Last night, with my television sound turned down, I listened to Jim and Hokie for the entire broadcast. And as Garrett Hartley made the kick that is to this point the most famous play in Saints history, Jim Henderson had an emotion-filled description that will go down as one of the great radio calls in NFL history.

“It is good! It is good(voice cracking)! It is good! Pigs have flown! Hell has frozen over! The Saints are on their way to the Super Bowl.”

This morning, I exchanged e-mails with a dear friend who is a New Orleans area native. His thoughts were centered on how much he wished his late father were still here to have shared in the joy of last night.

I thought about his sentiments when I read this piece of heartfelt reporting by Jay Vise on the WWL radio website today: “Many fans spoke of dueling emotions: sheer joy at the first Super Bowl trip for the Saints, and sadness that relatives, who also loved the Black and Gold, were not alive to see it happen. ‘I lost my mom in ’96, and I wish my dad could have been here,’ one man said as he cried, after giving up trying to maintain control. ‘It’s the greatest.’

“Many saw the win as vindication. Others saw it as destiny. Another man in the Superdome watching the trophy ceremony saw it as a burden being lifted from thousands of lifelong fans: ’43 years of suffering. . . ended,’ he said, wiping his eyes. ‘We’re men. We can cry.’

“A human wall of sound enveloped the Dome when the Saints scored the final field goal. But around the stadium, the emotion played out on thousands of different individual pockets of fandom. While the Saints lined up for the overtime field goal attempt, two elderly men, one black, one white, both decked out in black and gold, stood in the alleyway leading to section 313, nervously awaiting the final play. As the football sailed through the uprights, the two strangers embraced, laughing, crying, jumping, shouting, lost in the unbelievable moment that had finally arrived.

“The Saints are in the Super Bowl. This year is ‘next year.’ Life is good.”

I realize that watching team sports isn’t for everyone. But at times like these I feel a bit sorry for those who cannot savor the moment. I think back to being in the stands at both of the Miracles on Markham in War Memorial Stadium as I celebrated with strangers sitting next to me. All that mattered is that they were fellow Arkansans on those Saturdays and also pulling for victories over LSU. Those are moments to remember and cherish.

There’s something poetic about the fact that last night’s celebration began in a building that was the home to so much suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Yes, there were a lot of grown men and women who cried. And rightfully so. This football team, you see, has served as a rallying point for a whole region as it still works to recover more than four years after what’s simply known in New Orleans as “the storm.”

The Prytania Theater, one of the region’s few remaining one-screen theaters, is in the city’s sometimes snooty Uptown neighborhood. It canceled a showing of George Clooney’s “Up in the Air” and instead showed the game on the big screen, free of charge to anyone who wished to attend.

“They’re going to tear my building down,” said owner Robert Brunet as the game ended.

He was smiling as he said it.

His 88-year-old father, Rene Brunet, said: “When the city was leaning toward despair, the Saints were the hope that pulled us out. A lot of people had given up. The Saints were the catalyst to move forward.”

This is a franchise, mind you, that took 21 years to post a winning season and 35 years to win a playoff game.  

Yes, hell has frozen over.

In those words, Jim Henderson conveyed the emotions of all of south Louisiana and much of the Gulf Coast. As I have written before, rarely if ever has a sports franchise meant as much to a city as the Saints mean to New Orleans in these years after Katrina. I have spent a lot of time in New Orleans since the storm. I can confirm what this means to the people who live there.

The 11 a.m. mass at St. Louis Cathedral yesterday was filled with Saints fans.

Bishop Shelton Fabre ended with this: “St. Paul reminded us in the second reading that we are part of the body of Christ. Today we are also reminded that we are all part of the Who Dat Nation. Let us pray that there is great rejoicing this afternoon.”

The crowd in the cathedral broke into cheers.

This is how Bill Barrow described the day on the front page of today’s Times-Picayune: “You might call this one a stranger-hugger — grabbing the person closest to you, then the next. No one paying attention to anyone’s words. No one ashamed of the tears. Of course, there really are no strangers to begin with in a city that has known so much pain — the kind that extends well beyond the football field, into the sad realm of hurricane winds, rising waters, lost lives and wrecked property. The kind of immeasurable pain that almost makes a mockery of the bags that once covered the heads of New Orleans Saints fans in what is now a bygone era.

“All of that history, from the 1-15 football seasons to the broken levees, made the hugs all the more real in the moments after Garrett Hartley’s 40-yard field goal split the Superdome uprights, sending the 43rd edition of the Saints to the Super Bowl and sending a grateful city into a surreal celebration never before seen through decades of parades, festivals and other good times that have always rolled through the Crescent City.”

Pour me a cup of cafe au lait. Pass the beignets. In the year of our Lord 2010, pigs have flown.

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