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.

12 Responses to “Pigs have flown”

  1. CoolBrees says:

    Sunday night’s game was one for the ages. There’s no way the Super Bowl can live up to the sheer drama and excitement that the NFC championship offered. Even Brett Favre admitted he was a Saints fan, how can anyone NOT be?

    I said a special prayer when the game started. I’m not sure if you could call the Saints America’s team, but I definitely saw a higher power giving them a little extra coaching last night.

    Thank you, Tom Fears, Hank Stram, Jim Mora, Bum Phillips, Mike Ditka and all the other former Saints coaches, our team finally showed the country what New Orleans football is all about.

  2. Famijoly says:

    Great reflection. I’m neither a Saints fan nor a Louisianan. I spent four years in college seminary north of the lake. Bishop Fabre was my classmate. Last night I stood in solidarity with the many fine people I met in the 1980s who have been loyal, long-suffering Saints fans.

    I was rooting for the Saints because I knew it meant so much to so many people I interacted with for four years; I was rooting for the 2009 Saints to do it for them!

    I was in the car en route to and from meeting some people at a restaurant for a couple of stretches of the game and tuned in 870. As Jim Henderson described the plays, very professionally as always, I could sense the whole history of the Saints being funneled into this NFC Championship Game. I have had a favorite team to experience NFL postseason heartbreak on many occasions and ultimate Super Bowl success as well. But last night, I was with the Saints fans as if the Saints were my favorite, not because I switched allegiances, but because the many Saints FANS I know deserve to taste the sweetness of a championship after enduring so many terrible seasons all the while being gracious hosts several times while other teams played the Super Bowl game in their Superdome and Tulane Stadium.

    At the beginning of the overtime period, I pecked out a text message on my cell phone and prepared it for the Saints fans in cell phone address book. I had the phone ready throughout the OT. When Hartley’s field goal split the uprights, I hit send. I now send that text message to all Saints fans everywhere:

    Congratulations! Who dat say gonna beat dem Saints?!

  3. Kay Brockwell says:

    I admit to a soft spot in my heart for Brett Favre; anyone who loves something so much he can’t give it up even though he knows its crippling him, I have to admire. But I can’t be sorry the Saints won. I truly wonder which way I’ll jump when they line up against the Colts, having been a horseshoe-lover since Johnny U QB’d them in Baltimore, and a huge fan of Peyton Manning to boot. I guess it’ll be like when Tennessee and Arkansas play; I’ll come down on one side or the other when the game starts. But I don’t see being unhappy no matter how it comes out.

  4. RWF says:

    I rarely watch the NFL despite being an avid football fan. The disillusionment comes from watching many of the spoiled athletes who really play the game for themselves instead of the team. However, I knew the importance of this game either being a lift for New Orleans, possibly Favre’s last game, or conversely a story of a guy taking another team to a Super Bowl after a tumultuous two years. It was apparent from the beginning that both teams were playing with emotion, commitment, and a REAL competitive desire to win. I am an admitted casual Saints fan only because of my love for the city and having the same dear friend as you Rex. I truly believe the comments from the players, coaches, fans, etc. that the game was for the city were sincere. IF for no other reason than that I will now always pull for the Saints.

  5. CoolBrees says:

    I know the recent season has had commercial benefits for the community, but I can’t help but wonder what effect it has had on the Archiocese of New Orleans? I’m betting there’s been a huge run on Sebastian medals, he is the patron saint of athletes, and rosary beads.

  6. jf says:

    Considering Fat Tuesday is only 9 days after the Super Bowl, when the Staints win, what a celebration that will be all the way up to Ash Wedensday. I think I hear a parade now.

  7. Dawn Cook says:

    How could anyone not be a Saint fan after reading this Rex?

  8. Joyce Hayden says:

    I agree with Dawn. I have not been a football fan. After this write up I am a Saint’s fan forever! What writing!! See you in the morning Melissa.

  9. Joe Quinn says:

    I grew up with the sound track of the summer being the radio broadcast of the Red Sox. My grandmother never missed watching or listening to a single game. My Dad held my 11 year old hand as we watched from the bleachers as the Red Sox clinched a league title in 1967…but there was no World Series win that year. In college I screamed with joy when we almost beat Cincinnati..but it was not to be…. in this internet age it is hard for a kid to understand now how intertwined a sports team could be with our childhood.

    The night many years later when the Red Sox finally won it all I watched on TV in Little Rock after my wife and kids had gone to bed. Standing alone in my living room I started crying as the final pitches were thrown. I was astounded at the depth of emotion I was feeling.

    This is the true magic of sports….God Bless the Saints for what they have done for that amazing city.

  10. rexnelson says:

    Joe: What wonderful memories.

    I have always loved sports on the radio. I still do.

    When I worked in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, the basement I lived in was on Capitol Hill. You could not pick up KMOX-AM out of St. Louis when you were down in that basement. But you could pick up that great 50,000-watt clear channel radio station while sitting in the car.

    So it was that on a chilly fall night in 1987, I sat in my car late at night on Tennessee Avenue NE (it was not the safest of neighborhoods in those days) just so I could hear Jack Buck say “that’s a winner!” when the Cards wrapped up the National League pennant.

    Unfortunately, Minnesota went on to win the World Series in seven games that season. One of my friends was from Minnesota, and I had to listen to her carry on during the entire offseason — Rex

  11. al-ozarka says:

    Saints today…Cubs tomorrow?

    Please and Maybe?

  12. CoolBrees says:

    The Who Dat Nation will reign this weekend!

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