Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Seven years ago today, happiness happened

Usually, I don't go for "where were you when..." stories about major events. They exist mostly for people to forge a bond to the events, but mostly they sound like this:

"I was going about my normal life, when I heard that major event happened. I and other people spent hours glued to TV coverage, our innocence shattered, knowing that things would never be the same again."

But I'll make an exception here and tell a short story. Maybe it's because this was a happy event that I feel differently, or maybe it was the timing. In any event, I feel compelled to share where I was and what I was doing seven years ago today.

On Sept. 25, 2006, the New Orleans Saints returned to the Louisiana Superdome for the first time since Hurricane Katrina. They were slated to play the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football, and the show made the most of the event. MNF kicked off its own (calculated) move to ESPN and the return of the Saints with an extended pre-game spectacle featuring U2 and Green Day and other entertainment.

In pure football terms, both teams were 2-0 and division rivals. So it would been a hell of a game regardless.

I remembered the last game played in the Superdome, a 21-6 preseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens just three days before Katrina hit. I didn't even bother to watch, though I caught glimpses of it whenever I passed by my dad's den. It was one of those years, I admit, that I didn't see much to cheer for. Also, I was wrapped up in my own personal struggles that piled up right around the time that Katrina and Rita were causing much-worse problems for people not far from my orbit.

I watched only a couple of Saints games in 2005; once I realized that it wasn't going to a year of defiant redemption and in fact what most expected, I decided it was too unhealthy to continue. Between the effects of Katrina and Rita; getting violently sick from helping with evacuation efforts; getting dumped by my girlfriend; losing my truck, remaining part-time job and a cross-country trip; and not being able to land another job, I couldn't wait for 2005 to end fast enough.

But 2006, early on, wasn't much better. I endured numerous job interviews with some potentially great employers that ultimately led to nothing. A month in Utah also led to nothing, though the change of pace did perk up my spirits.

Through most of this time, I thought little about the Saints. I heard that they picked up Reggie Bush instead of Matt Leinart and that Drew Brees, an injured San Diego Charger, was going to be their new quarterback. Their new head coach was Sean Payton or somethingorother. I knew I'd watch, but not to get my hopes up after a 6-year drought. I was just happy New Orleans still had a team. And a city.

Then they beat the Cleveland Browns. And the Green Bay Packers. Both on the road. And I thought, maybe there's something to this team. Instead of just being a symbolic gesture, the home opener might actually count for something.

During the week before that game, I decided to swallow my humbled (yet still excessive) pride and apply for a warehouse job at a big-box store. That Friday, Sept. 22, they called me in and welcomed me aboard. I spent the day processing forms and meeting people and was asked to return the following Friday for my first day of paid training. That night, I went to a party, had a lot of fun and stopped by an all-night diner on the way home, where I met other friends and informed them I had a job. For the first time in 12 months, I didn't feel worthless. I was far from where I wanted to be in life, but at least my biggest insecurity was over for the time being.

Three days later, I hunkered down at home (I was living with my parents then) to watch the game. My sister, then 16 and not yet a Saints die-hard, was in her room with her boyfriend. Dad was watching the game in his den, as he preferred to do. Mom was still at work. A typical Monday night.

I thought about grabbing a snack from the kitchen.

Then, this happened.

Instinctually, I bolted across the house to my dad's room, yelling, "WHOOOA! DAD, DID YOU SEE THAT?!!" 

Our cheers must have rattled the house, because Keely ran out and asked, "Is the game on already? What happened?" She saw the replay and freaked out. I think it was the first blocked punt she'd ever seen. She and her then-boyfriend Bobby proceeded to watch the rest of the game with me, with Mom coming in not long after Steve Gleason's incredible block.

I must have watched the highlights a million times in that following week. I still watch the block all the time. It represents so much for the people of New Orleans, and for me.

All the 2006 Saints ever had to do was show up and we'd love them as we always had. But then they turned out to be good. Stunningly good, to the tune of 10-6 and their first-ever appearance in the NFC Championship Game. And I followed it all while undergoing a rebirth of my own.

I worked at Target from September 2006 to January 2007 — the period between this game and the playoff loss to the Bears. Almost exactly. It's crazy how that worked out. Having a job made me feel valued and accomplished. Being able to share this stellar season with my equally Saints-crazed co-workers made me look forward to Sunday afternoon shifts. I was as happy, energetic and fit as I'd been in years (even in better years). That year was a narrative, one that a lot of us (even those like me, who weren't directly affected by Katrina) were living parallel to the Saints' renaissance. Things were never going to be the same again, but neither would they be as bleak as we knew they could be.

Some might find it silly to tie that to a football game. They need only to listen to Jim Henderson's enthusiasm to realize what a pressure release one play could be to a region.

The effect hasn't worn off yet.

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