Growing up in Buffalo, I always dreamed of what it would be like to attend a Saints game in the Superdome. Every year I watched the Sugar Bowl, some years I watched March Madness, and one time I watched wrestling live from the Superdome. The dome has been host to the Pope, the 1988 Republican National Convention, and was where Roberto Duran said, "no mas." Even with all of that unique history, it was all of those regular, every-Sunday, year after year Saints games that drew me to the Superdome. It was the way the turf looked on television, the way "Saints" was painted in the endzone, and all of the black and gold hats and jerseys in the stands. I dreamed of sitting next to the "whistle guy," dancing with the Saintsations, screaming WHO DAT with the Who Dat Nation. Sometimes it felt like I would never make it, like the distance was too much to overcome, or that the fear of going and losing would keep me away. Despite any obstacle, my day came, and... Come with me after the jump and read with me as I recap that first time I walked through the door and was finally dome sweet dome.
Even though the day was ten years ago, the memory is still as clear and refreshing as an ice cold glass of Crystal Pepsi. It was my twenty-first birthday and my Uncle Paul, who has a history of giving incredible gifts, came over with a card that seemed awfully thick. I was thinking it could be stuffed with cash, lottery tickets, or movie tickets. Instead of a typical gift, the card was stuffed with a plane ticket to New Orleans, 2 tickets to the Saints home opener against the 49ers, and a picture of a classy hotel.
The NFL also was bearing gifts that spring treating me to a Saints game in Buffalo for the first time since 1989. As a little icing on my cake the game was on opening day. So after only being lucky enough to attend one Saints game in my first thirteen years as a fan, I would start my fourteenth season as a fan attending the Saints opening game and their home opener. I was especially excited for the home opener because it would be the day the Saints would drop their second division title banner from the rafters.
The season started slow and the Saints found themselves down 6-0 at halftime on opening day in Buffalo. Always being optimistic, I pointed out to the Bills fans surrounding me that the Saints escaped that half having held the Bills to a field goal in two separate 1st and goal situations. The Saints started the second half with an Albert Connell touchdown and we cruised to a 24-6 victory. Aaron Brooks was all smiles after three touchdown passes and Sammy Knight picked off the aloof Rob Johnson three times.
I went to school on Monday, bragged to my friends about the victory, and then went shopping with mom for my trip, now only a few days away. I did some homework, watched Monday Night Football and went to sleep dreaming of beignets and the French Quarter. I woke up to a nightmare. It was 9-11-2001 and easily the scariest day of my life. I didn't know if our Country was at war, I didn't know if my relatives in NYC were safe (they were), and I selfishly was devastated by the obvious reality that I wouldn't be going to New Orleans in two days.
As a Nation we picked up the pieces left by tragedy, and I contacted the Saints about my cancelled tickets. The game was postponed until January 6, 2002. That was in a different year, there wouldn't be a banner dropped, and if things went as planned in my mind all of our starters would be resting for the playoffs instead of risking their health for the sake of an undefeated season. I explained my dilemma to an angel in the Saints ticket office who offered to exchange my tickets for a pair of comparable tickets to the new home opener against Minnesota.
As the taxi got closer to the enormous structure, the white blob ahead began to look more like an actual building. Saints fans had traffic stalled so slow that it seemed like 60,000 senior citizens were headed to the Superdome for the world's largest bingo. I spend the time sticking my head out of the window and being rowdy with a truck full of Saints fans. My taxi driver was worried and confused and insisted that my head remain in the car as long as it was in motion. As the clock got closer to 11:00 and the dome became more visible, my blood pressure and heart rate began to race faster than a horse on the last leg of the Kentucky Derby. Finally, we pulled over to the curb, I got out of the cab, and three guys walked buy me playing the trumpet. I was in New Orleans.
It was hard to take everything in fast enough. My eyes were moving back and forth. I wasn't sure what to look at or who to talk to first. I couldn't believe how big the dome was. The 273-foot hight structure seemed to touch the sky. The 20,000 tons of steel seemed heavier than a jockey trying to ride a poodle. There were Saints jerseys everywhere and everyone was dressed in black and gold. It was almost as if I had died and ascended to a place reserved for us. Being stuck in Buffalo my whole life, and tormented daily by obnoxious Bills fans, this was my chance to stand alongside my "friends" and relish in the pride of being a Saints fan.
I didn't want to give my ticket to the waiting usher because they still tore them then. I walked into the building and took three steps to my right into the official team store. I usually spend all my birthday money the day after my birthday, but I managed to save it all for my trip. I bought a white Sammy Knight jersey, a black Joe Horn jersey, a jacket, shoelaces, the game program, and three hats. I think I spent enough money to cover the shop's payroll for the day. After the store, I prepared myself to walk through the concourse and into the stadium area. I closed my eyes and for the last time I pictured in my head what it might look like when I opened them.
The 81,120 square feet of artificial turf seemed to stretch further than the Sahara desert. The field was more beautiful than Miss America, and I couldn't take my eyes off of the end zone. "SAINTS" was painted so marvelously that it looked more carefully painted than a Picasso. The players roamed the field stretching and getting loose. The Superdome smelled not like a thing but like a feeling. It smelled like scoring a goal in a hockey game. It smelled like the moment you see the puck crossing the goal line and the rink gets quiet for one moment as everyone prepares to cheer or boo. It was time, I was ready to go sit down in MY seat in the Superdome.
I was so high up that I felt like I would be watching the game from an airplane. The people on the field looked so small that I mistook the Jr. Saints cheerleaders for the adult squad. My section was filled with working-class season ticket holders. The dome is loud. Fans were pounding on the enormous steel panels that cover the walls across the entire upper deck and it sounded like crashing thunder. Some fans brought saxophones and trumpets and played music together. Thousands sang, "WHO DAT, WHO DAT, WHO DAT SAY THEY'RE GONNA BEAT THEM SAINTS." I shouted, sang along, and relished the atmosphere that had filled my dreams for over fourteen years. On the first play from scrimmage, Joe Johnson rushed and sacked the Vikings quarterback. The Superdome erupted. I jumped from my seat and gave high fives to all of the people around me. The moment was so sweet I had to fight off some tears.
One thing I noticed right away, is that the fans, having been burned by years of disaster, were very pessimistic. Late in the game, up 28-15, people were going over various scenarios that could result in us blowing the lead. Most of the scenarios were as likely as John Lennon performing a post game concert, but they were spoken with passion and conviction. Most people wouldn't have understood their fear, but I did. I was just as scared as they were.
As the clock ran out, I realized something ironic. The Saints were about to defeat the Minnesota Vikings. The same Viking team that crushed my dreams of a Super Bowl appearance just a handful of month back. The same Vikings team that way back in 1988 defeated the Saints 44-10 forcing me to aline myself with the team forever. It felt appropriate that a twist of fate brought the Vikings to my special day in the Superdome. It felt so good to beat the damn Vikings.
When I got home from New Orleans, I hugged my mom, dropped my bags, and raced to the internet. I wanted to read all of the columns about the game and put off the feeling that it was all over. Then I read a quote from Saints coach Jim Haslett (who in my mind was the first to walk on water since JC) about the fans. "I've really got to say our fans were great today-- that's why (the Vikings) had some of the motion penalties they did." I ran downstairs with a printout in hand, "Hey Mom, look at what Coach Haslett said about me.
That is the story of the first time I ever had the pleasure to watch a Saints game in the Superdome. Do you have a story about your first trip to the dome? As we twiddle our thumbs waiting for labor peace and the draft, it might be fun to take that trip down memory lane and the stories of our first trip to the dome. I hope my story helped you learn a bit more about me as a fan, and I am excited to read your experiences.
Until next time...