Thearon W. Henderson
Despite a soul-wrenching defeat, a sense of community and pride was discovered in an unlikely place.
Seahawks fans, we've seen that one before.
Broncos fans, we know that feeling all too well.
It was a year ago yesterday, to be exact. The Divisional round was won, the defense just needed to hold. Just one more drive; hold them back one more time and a conference title game appearance was ours.
Well, we all know how that turned out in our cases. Too much time left on the clock, bad defensive scheming, or players making bad decisions. In some cases all three. These are the things that sealed our fate.
This date one year ago started the longest, strangest, and most dramatic year in New Orleans Saints history. Now that a year has passed, Who Dat Nation may finally shed the negativity and misfortune that's shrouded the Saints these past twelve months. It all symbolically started with the loss in San Francisco. On that day the Saints may have lost, but I personally found a little slice of home in my own backyard.
I was born in New Orleans but raised here in Southern California from a young age. All my life the only Saints fans I've ever known lived in my own home. Minnesota, Chicago, Atlanta, Philly. Being a kid I watched all of these bitter playoff loses from home. I was at my friends house when Hakim dropped the ball and still remember leaping over the couch when it happened. That was the first time that a sporting event brought tears to my eyes. The subsequent loss to Minnesota and all other Saints playoff games that have followed over the years (except Super Bowl XLIV) I've watched from the comfort and solitude of my own home.
Needless to say I was a bit nervous leading up to the San Francisco game last January 14th. Knowing they possessed the best defense the Saints had seen all season and, more importantly, knowing the mental hurdles that have come with the Saints playing in a hostile environment on the road in the playoffs. The year before, I watched the Saints get embarrassed in Seattle from my own couch with only me to console myself. Of course my wife and kid were there to say, "Hey you wanna go catch a movie?" Good idea. It was time to try a new routine for this tough road playoff test.
From time to time I'll go check out a regular season game at a sports bar with friends, but the experience is always the same. I'm the one guy in Saints gear trying to find the screen with the Saints game on. The Saints score and there I am cheering it on, just me. Might as well have stayed home, the food and drinks would've been cheaper and there would've been just as many Who Dats around.
I knew I couldn't just go to the usual places for the San Fran game. I was told about a little spot in Hollywood called Five 0 Four. It sounded like a cool place that might offer some of the comforts of New Orleans and, with a little luck, a few Saints fans to enjoy the game with.
You don't see many folks in Saints gear in Los Angeles. The Bush jerseys were around during Reggie's days with the team but that was it. I honestly wasn't expecting much when I arrived at the unassuming bar in the heart of Hollywood Blvd. I arrived early and snagged a table while waiting for my friend to arrive. The decor and vibe of the place seemed pretty legit and some other fans began to appear. Turns out I was one of the extremely lucky few that got a table without making a reservation. Encouraging, lots of people expected. Our people began to show up as pre-game was approaching. As a Creole, I know one when I hear one. New Orleanians just speak louder than most people. Not harsher, just louder. And the voices and faces became more and more. It was about to get good.
As kickoff approached, the place was literally busting at the seams. The bar directly across the walkway was giving their tables to our bar to keep the crowds happy. I'm so glad the fire marshall didn't show up that day. To this day I've never seen so many Who Dats in one place at one time in SoCal. It was awesome. They came from all over to root on the Saints that day. It was like a holy place for the Who Dat Nation. I finally, after all these years, realized what it must feel like to see the Saints play at home. I soaked it all in. This sure as hell beat sweating out a Saints playoff game on the couch.
It was kickoff, and the place was at a fever pitch. The indoor portion was packed to the brim and the outdoor portion was spilling out into the walkway on Hollywood. There were a handful of Niner fans watching from the outside as well (not surprising since LA is brimming with them). The game started and we all know what happened early on, but the energy in the place was still great. There was honest faith and belief in the Saints no matter how bad things looked. I knew by the third turnover that the Saints were going to lose. I've seen enough football over the years to know that you can't give up that many turnovers and win a playoff game. At home I would've cheered the ensuing comeback by the Saints but with trepidation, not wanting to give in to the heartbreak that may result from falling short.
As the Saints came roaring back this crowd never wavered. Whenever the Saints found the end zone, the Fox broadcast volume was cut and "Stand Up and Get Crunk" would come blaring through the bar's sound system. The hugs, high fives, waving towels, and the roar of this crowd. Like I said, it was awesome.
It was so tense in the fourth quarter, the crowd hanging on every play, that I didn't even notice the number of people outside had grown even more since halftime. Surrounded by my fellow Saints fans was just where I wanted to be during a game like this. Not alone, but with people who were feeling exactly like I was.
When the late Sproles touchdown happened, the place went absolutely nuts. It was crazy. We were all cheering like we had our own section in the stadium. Alex Smith's subsequent TD run had the place really tense but we all believed, there was no shortage of faith.
What happened on the next possession, I swear I'll never forget as long as I live. Jimmy Graham. When he caught that pass and took off for the touchdown. The place absolutely lost it. After all the nerves and the hands folded in prayer. I'll never forget the sound. It was damn near a religious experience. I hugged and high-fived people I've never met in my life as if they were family members long lost. A fellow Who Dat hugged me so hard I damn near lost feeling in my arms. For a moment I looked at another fan who spent the game next to my chair with his wife. In that moment we didn't say a word. Just stoic silence in a moment of euphoria. It was awesome.
The slamming of the tables, the roar through the bar, the smiles and tears on peoples faces. Unbelievable. "Stand Up and Get Crunk" blaring though the bar but still being drowned out by the cheers. One woman turned to me with tears rolling down her face saying, "I knew they'd do it, I never lost hope, I never lost faith!"
I turned to my friend and started to laugh. This was amazing. This was what I'd been missing all my life as a Saints fan. Unfortunately I also knew, as a Saints fan, that the game was far from over. Immediately after the kickoff I started chanting "DEFENSE, DEFENSE!!!" while standing on my chair. My living room this was not. Everyone in the place was loud and focused. We wanted the folks up in Frisco to hear us from LA. Well, we all know what happened next, don't we?
The crowd was disappointed but still full of energy. We parted with hugs and handshakes. One Who Dat in particular was sporting a black & gold flag and a Colston jersey. I turned to him and said, "This hurts, but we are still in the midst of the Saints golden age."
Despite the disappointment, we'd all been through worse as Saints fans. The Seattle loss a year earlier was embarrassing and disappointing but this one was frustrating and infuriating. The team that lost in Seattle was not going to win a Super Bowl, the team that lost in San Francisco could have. If we only knew what was coming just a short while later from the NFL offices.
I didn't quite know what to expect when I was looking for a place to watch the Saints play. I was just looking for a place with a few fellow Saints fans to share a few high fives and laughs with. I ended up finding more than I could've imagined. It really was a little slice of home, a slice that until that day i'd never had the opportunity to experience for myself. And for that I'm extremely grateful.