Saints fans celebrate the victory over the Falcons at the Georgia Dome this… (Curtis Compton / Atlanta…)
Reporting from New Orleans and Atlanta — After the clock ticked off the game's final seconds, a Saints fan named Charlie Brown used his flat palm to beat out a rhythm on a wall of the Georgia Dome. To fans of the Atlanta Falcons, it may have been mere noise.
But to the throngs of Saints fans here, it was recognizable as the Second Line -- the THUM pum, pa PUM pum that has driven every parade since John Philip Sousa was remixed by the West African genius of the New Orleans streets.
The beat was a territorial marking, and a call to party: The once-lowly New Orleans Saints were 13-0 after defeating the Falcons in a 26-23 squeaker, keeping alive the possibility of an undefeated regular season and a first-ever appearance in the Super Bowl.
Brown -- drawing on the deep associative voodoo that binds teams and their fans -- was quick to declare victory not only for his team, but for a city and a culture that has refused to be washed away.
"It means everything, man!" Brown shouted Sunday as he sashayed out of the stadium with a crowd of revelers clad in black and gold. "It means we comin' back!"
From somewhere a brass band appeared and the Saints fans took up the beat on Atlanta's streets, marching nowhere in particular, but just happy to be marching.
This miracle season -- which continues tonight in the Superdome against the Dallas Cowboys -- has sounded a sustained note of joy amid the ongoing dirge of post-Katrina news.
But the collective euphoria has roots deeper than Katrina. Like Chicago Cubs fans, Saints fans have been defined largely by their suffering, as their team wallowed, more often than not, in poor performances and the poverty of low expectations. Over 43 seasons, the Saints have lost 100 more games than they have won, and they are one of five teams never to have made a Super Bowl appearance.
The fans' coping mechanisms -- pitched somewhere between Gallic fatalism and a sunnier American disposition -- have become so ingrained in the New Orleans character that it's difficult to tell whether the condition predated the team.
"It's a heavy Catholic town, so there's this strong belief in a better life after this one," said Mike Detillier, an NFL analyst on radio station WWL-AM 870 in New Orleans. "So I think there's been a correlation of that with the Saints' fans feeling of 'Wait till next year.' "
But incredibly, as Detillier says, "Next year is today."
Led by head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints have given locals a taste of perfection when so many local institutions since the 2005 flood have been uninspired at best, corrupt at worst.
Veteran players, like safety Pierson Prioleau, say the fans' giddiness and wide-eyed adulation reminds them of their days playing college ball. "Not a moment of the day goes by that you don't feel the energy from what's going on around here," he said.
All across New Orleans, businesses, cars and people are adorned with the words "Who Dat?"-- the first words' of the Saints' grammatically skewed cheer: "Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints?"
Fan apparel is in such demand that the Black & Gold Sports Shop, in suburban Metairie, has stopped taking Internet orders. YouTube is awash with Saints tribute songs. The team leads the NFL in local television ratings, according to the Nielsen Co. During the recent Monday-night showdown against New England, 84% of all local TVs in use were tuned to the game.
Brees said fans have bombarded his car with pralines, CDs and novelty T-shirts. One popular model proclaims him "Breesus."
Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao launched a contest asking constituents to write speeches he will read into the congressional record. The theme: how the Saints "have positively impacted our economy, helped our troops or any other way in which the Saints have brought a positive result to the city of New Orleans."
Thanks to the 2005 hurricane, the joy has spread far beyond New Orleans. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, at least 180,000 New Orleanians have left the area and not returned.
Bonnie Payton -- a flooded-out resident who resettled in North Carolina -- used the Atlanta game as an excuse for a reunion with sisters and others scattered by the storm. "We've lost our connection to home," Payton said, "so this keeps us all united."
Back home, that's what the Saints have always done, even when losing: They unite a city long divided by race and class, divisions that, in many cases, have deepened since Katrina.
Yet, "you go in that Dome and see people -- the black and the white, the poor and the rich -- just hugging and high-fiving," said Al "Doc" d'Aquin Jr., a longtime fan. "That's the one thing that's brought this city together over the years."
Civil rights historians might dismiss it as boosterism, but Detillier believes that the arrival of the Saints in 1967 helped keep the peace during the civil rights era.