Two school buses buried in mud, their emergency doors flung open haphazardly. Abandoned medical monitors, gurneys, and equipment in a hallway filled with stagnant standing water. A man and his dog sitting on their roof, just a few inches from the water that has devoured every other inch of their home. A truck, upside down, with a house on top of it. A man, tears in his eyes, carrying a bucket full of cracked, soggy family photos. Two men, shirtless, using two by fours to swim across the interstate in an ancient fishing boat. A body, face down and floating across what was once someone's lawn. These are the images that will forever be burned in our minds thanks to Hurricane Katrina's mammoth impact on the city of New Orleans.
I visited the city before The Storm, when jazz music played with wanton abandon on every corner and the smell of beignets and Po Boys mingled with salty ocean to fill the air with a carnival-like aroma. Downtown New Orleans stood like a monolith, all glass and metal and business. Its French Quarter sat in direct rebellion to the pedestrian, almost alien, economic center of the city. Low flung buildings with multiple purposes. One of the most famous restaurants held court in little more than an awning. I waited ages for a seat at Cafe du Monde and the "someone burnt the roast!" coffee made the wait very worth it.
I remember staring at the levees, watching a shipping barge glide by almost a story above me like some sort of mythic behemoth of Greek or Roman invention. I remember staring at man thumping a bible in sing song verses while a cohort played in time with a muted trumpet. People dropped money but didn't linger. New Orleans didn't feel like a city for lingering, but a city for doing. Lots to see, lots to do, lots to eat, lots to buy.
I never did get an authentic New Orleans Po Boy and it is something I regret to this day. Atlanta provides opportunities to taste such a delicacy but something tells me that true Louisiana remoulade sauce is worth the effort to obtain.
The people that worked, suffered, and triumphed against all odds in this city, I cannot hate. I have no malice towards any of them or their city. They are a friendly, down to earth people who know their way around seafood, music, and breakfast. I do not hate the people of New Orleans.
I do, however, hate their football team and its fans. It's a very fine line. Trust me.
Boy, do I hate the Saints. The mere thought of that gold Fleur De Lis kindles in me a rage so vitriolic I can taste the setting bile as it washes against the back of my gritted teeth. Every time I see one of those putrid things I spit, curse, and turn around in place three times, just in case. Every person that cuts me off when I'm commuting into the city is a Saint fan. Every hammer that smashes my finger was made by a Saint fan. Every annoying stop sign and traffic light that's holding me up an extra few seconds was designed, built, and installed by a Saint fan. Those guys and gals sure get around...
To understand my sentiments, you must be a member of one of the groups of fans. Compare it to the Packers/Bears or Ravens/Steelers but add in a dash of irresponsibility and a heaping helping of hate. In many ways, the Falcons/Saints tilt is similar to a college rivalry. You have two closely-situated football teams who share a distinct birthing decade, similar histories of poor performance, and player swapping. These two teams entered the NFL one season apart from each other (let it be known, the Falcons were first) and both basically bumbled their way to horrendous records season after season. It took the Saints twenty years to post a winning record and the Falcons took eight years (once again, the Falcons were first). They've shared players such as Morten Anderson (who is actually both teams' franchise leading scorer), Joe Horn, Bobby Herbert, and coaches named Mora (Jim and his son Jim) and Phillips (Wade).
All of these similarities is bound to breed hatred...but is it enough? No. We face these guys two times every year and have done so since 1967. Again, the Falcons are first in the head-to-head numbers: 47 wins to 41 losses. Still, New Orleans owns five of the last six W's. The Saints have a big presence in Atlanta (trust me, I've seen the car stickers on my way into work to prove that) and Falcons fans never really need an excuse to go act up in New Orleans. Why such a huge level of hate, though? I had to dig deeper. I arrived in Alabama.
I hear the groans. "Here goes Adam, talking about Alabama again." Well get used to it. It's where I'm from, where I was shaped, where my love for the game of football was nurtured and expanded. Football in Alabama is a religion, though without a pro team, fans pick one of two sides in a yearly college rivalry that is likely the most well known and written about in the entire nation: Alabama versus Auburn. The rivalry has produced some great games that had major implications. The fans tolerate but utterly despise each other. Murders and assaults have been perpetrated simply because of the games played on the field. In Alabama, regardless of where you come from, you pick a side and vehemently support it.
The nature of the Alabama/Auburn rivalry comes from the idea that Auburn has always been in the shadow of the "older brother" Alabama. Alabama started its reign of footballdom when it won the 1927 Rose Bowl for the entire South. Football in the south was a "joke" on a national scale back in. Alabama went to Los Angeles, tore up a good Washington team, and came back the heroes of Southern Pigskin. From that moment on, the South has become a hotbed of football glory. Auburn started out as an agricultural college that fielded a team that was remarkable only in its immense difference in talent level from the Alabama squads they faced off against. Auburn fought the Tide with a scruffy, "little brother" like mentality that started to work after the rivalry was renewed in the last third of the twentieth century. This back and forth, on and off fight started to garner a certain attitude. If the Tigers were good and the Tide were good, the Iron Bowl was going to be great. Every year, either Alabama or Auburn played their toughest, hardest, smartest, most brutal football in that game. This tenacity bled into the fans and traveled with them when they left the stands. It created a culture of hate that lasts 365 days a year in the state of Alabama.
Much like the Alabama and Auburn relationship, the Falcons and Saints rivalry could be considered a Big/Little Brother type of fight. The Falcons, while almost as inept as the Saints were for many years, still lorded over the fledgling black and gold team. The first few games, the Falcons wiped the floor with the Saints. By 1975, the Falcons had won 10 games to New Orleans' 3. By the year of the Saints' first winning season, the Falcons had won 24 games to New Orleans' 13. When the divisions realigned in 2002, another type of fight began: the fight to own the NFC. Because the Falcons were now part of just a four team division with the Saints, the stakes of each division game were raised. The teams would face each other on a consistent, twice a year basis, and their games would help determine who got into the post season and who didn't. Those games then started to become knock-out, drag-down fights. That type of charged, angry play, just as it did for the Alabama/Auburn fans, permeated the fans watching the game to where, every day of every year, hate is present and strong. That hate only grew from 09 to 12, as the Falcons and Saints have traded NFC South titles, which just fanned the fire that is the "Southern Showdown."
I've experienced the rivalry first hand. Granted, it was during a season and time we'd all like to forget, the lowest record we've had since Mike Smith and company took over our beloved birds. I was at the Falcons/Saints tilt in 2009. The energy and atmosphere was like nothing I've ever experienced. Cat calls, arguments, shouting, name calling, hand shaking, "don't mean it" good lucks, "meant it" good lucks, discussions on food, football, LSU, Georgia, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, etc. It was pure carnival and it was excellent.
As the milieu of fans entered the Dome, a "Here We Go Falcons" chant started. It morphed into a "Who Dat?" call and response. Finally, the Falcons fans twisted that favorite New Orleans fan song into "We Dat! We Dat!" I was in heaven, hell, and all points in between. The Dome moved and rocked with every minute movement of the football and its caretakers.
The game itself was maddeningly close. It ended on a failed Jason Snelling pitch out on fourth and one. The wind was knocked from our chests as the Saints fans in attendance went nuts. "Who Dat?" chants filled the air and stayed ringing in my ears as I slumped into my car. On the trip back to my house, car still bedecked in Falcons flags, a car pulled next to me and matched my speed. It honked. A Saints fan looked at me, pointed at the flag, and then gave me a thumbs down. I smiled at him, as if to say "Next time, buddy. Next time." He laughed and sped off. Louisiana plates. He had made the seven hour drive just to watch the game. I envied his dedication to his team. I also greatly respected it. We love our team and hate those that hate our team. That is the essence of a rivalry. It also means that we can respect the fans of the team we hate. I respect New Orleans fans. I truly do. They are a dedicated and passionate bunch and that speaks well on them and their team.
But I hate them. I hate them with every fiber of my being.
September 8th, punks. Rise Up.