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The parade goes by

Saints fans ride high and low notes as the team provides city an escape

January 22, 2007|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — A heavy rain pounded downtown New Orleans at noon Sunday, two hours before the kickoff of the NFC championship game in Chicago, pitting the Bears against the Saints. But it would take more than inclement weather to discourage the citizens of this city, a city that has weathered far worse.

Besides, the event they were eagerly awaiting was more than merely a game to them. And their Saints are more than just a football team.

And so they streamed out of their homes and apartments -- clad in their black-and-gold jerseys and caps, black-and-gold beads around their necks, armed with pins to stick in the paper "voodoo" bears they clutched in their hands -- and gathered together in the French Quarter, by the Mississippi River, wherever there were big screens to watch and beverages to consume.

Their Saints, 3-13 last year and homeless like so many of these fans after Hurricane Katrina had wrought destruction upon this city, were about to play in the biggest game of their 40-year-old history with a chance for an even bigger game in two weeks, the Super Bowl.

"The Saints are the soul of this city," said Alan Thriffiley, a 29-year-old health analyst who can certainly relate to his hometown football team.

Like the Saints, Thriffiley lost his home when Hurricane Katrina struck 17 months ago. Like the Saints, Thriffiley went through hard times, moving to Dallas for 13 months. The Saints, unable to use their damaged Superdome, moved their administrative offices to San Antonio for last season and their games to the Alamodome, Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and one game in Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands that was designated a home game for the Saints.

But for one afternoon, the residents of this city, their team back in the refurbished Superdome this year, wanted to forget all that. They came to the New Orleans airport about 2,000 strong this past Christmas Eve to welcome back the Saints, champions of the NFC South division, after they had beaten the Giants in New York to clinch a first-round bye in the postseason.

They gobbled up 200 two-person travel packages to Chicago at $650 a package with 300 additional customers turned away.

One hundred Saints supporters departed by train Friday for a 20-hour trip to Chicago.

"For the legion of fans aboard this Amtrak train, it felt like an escalator to heaven," wrote Brendan McCarthy in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

And on Saturday, a group of fans went to the New Orleans airport to bid their Saints farewell on their journey to Chicago.

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As Sunday's game gets underway, Thriffiley and a relative, 42-year-old Tim Thriffiley, seated in an outdoor area near a big screen close by the Riverwalk area, fantasize about a Saints victory.

"It would make the red beans creamier," said Alan. "It means God is smiling down on our city again."

"It would make Mardi Gras seem like a tea party," said Tim.

The rain has stopped now, the sun peeking out to shine down on the city.

Daniel McCarthy, with a leather helmet bearing the word "Saints," cheers along with the rest of the fans.

"This team has brought people back together," he says. "It is the best thing that could have happened."

New Orleans is a city in need of cohesion. Hurricane Katrina left 1,293 people dead and today about 309,000 adults remain displaced. There were about 455,000 people living in New Orleans before Katrina. That number is now estimated at 190,000 to 220,000, according to the Times-Picayune.

Lee Gandoxi, recalling those losing seasons when Saints fans wore paper bags over their heads and called themselves the Aints, wears a paper bag with the words, "I Ain't Ashamed."

In the sea of black and gold, Devin Simon from Chicago stands out. He is wearing the No. 8 jersey of Bears quarterback Rex Grossman.

Has he received the wrath of Saints fans?

"They've mostly been friendly," Simon says. "I was thinking about wearing this jersey to the French Quarter last night, but I feel for the city. I didn't want to put a thumb in the eyes of these fans."

What they are watching on the screen is enough to make Saints fans close their eyes. The Bears have gone up 16-0.

There is new life in the crowd when the Saints score just before halftime to make it 16-7.

At halftime, at the corner of Bienville and Decatur in the French Quarter, a fan with a stuffed teddy bear on a nylon rope swings it out into traffic. Every time a vehicle drives over the bear, Saints fans on all four corners scream with delight.

When Reggie Bush scores on an 88-year touchdown pass play from Drew Brees in the third quarter, the gathering near the river erupts with its biggest cheers of the day.

But as the Bears pull away and sure defeat looms, it is back to reality for the people of New Orleans.

"This is an escape, man," says Alan Thriffiley. "It will be interesting to see how this town handles this. Whether people realize it was great we got this far or whether they go back to Katrinaland."

Thriffiley is building a new house in New Orleans and he and his wife are expecting a baby on Aug. 29, the second anniversary of the day Katrina hit.

"People tell me, if it's a girl, I got to name her Katrina," he says.

As the game ends, one fan stands up and yells to the departing crowd, "Let's go out to the airport and support our team when they return."

Back in the French Quarter, the music is everywhere. At the entrance to the House of Blues, a line has formed that stretches around the block.

Life goes on. Mardi Gras will be coming up in a few weeks. The Saints, as someone remarks, will be back in training camp in seven months.

They survived Katrina. They will survive this.

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steve.springer@latimes.com

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