Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Saints Win And My Father Smiles

The New Orleans Saints have won the Super Bowl and I feel my father's tender presence full inside my heart.

I was 8 years old when the Saints played their first season in 1966. My father was 43, almost a decade younger than I am now. I remember how excited he was, for this put an NFL team just 100 miles down the road from Hattiesburg, in the city where he completed his medical school residency, the city where his first child, my sister Carol, was born.

The first play of that first season made all things good seem possible: a 94 yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff. I imagine it was a brief but glorious light for him during a time when his country was shifting in a way he must have struggled to understand. I remember attending a Saints game with him around 1970 and being scared when everybody would begin to stomp their feet on the metal frame of Tulane Stadium. It was there in 1971 that Tom Dempsey, born without toes on his right foot, kicked a 63 yard field goal, a record unsurpassed to this day.

In 1966, Mississippi felt the world closing in around it, and football steadied its besieged heart. I remember taking trips to Jackson or Oxford on fall weekends to watch the Ole Miss Rebels play. We would tie a rebel flag to the car antenna and wave to the other similarly adorned fans on the highway. It was exciting, yet I remember how that flag would be ragged by the time our trip ended, as its threads were slowly whisked away in the wind. The metaphor seems quite poignant to me right now.

Archie Manning was the Rebel quarterback, and he "sure was something". Folks thought he deserved to win the Heisman trophy but suspected that he wasn't getting sufficient recognition because of the nation's view of Mississippi at the time. I remember repeatedly playing the 45 RPM record of The Battle Of Archie Who" which claimed that "Archie 'Super' Manning could run for President".

When Archie was drafted by the 1971 Saints in the first round, my father had great hopes for his team which hadn't yet compiled a winning season. Unfortunately, this was just one of the many dreams that slipped away from him during his life, for the Saints never won more games than they lost until 1987, 16 years later. I bet my father watched hundreds of those games. I remember endless Sunday afternoons when he would be sitting in his "easy chair" watching his beloved, beleaguered team. I'm sure he dearly wanted me to watch with him, and I tried a few times but quickly grew tired of the endless back-and-forth that never ended well. I could get that at the kitchen table every night.

I attended Tulane from 1976 to 1980. Tulane "Sugar Bowl" Stadium, where the Saints had played all their home games, stood empty during most of those years, since the team vacated when the Super Dome opened in 1975. I went downtown to a few of those games, but the Saints were dull and I was wild, so the team my father loved held no sway for me. In 1980, the year I graduated, the old stadium was demolished.

My father died of a heart attack in 1997, sitting in the same easy chair that held him through all those games. He only had the briefest opportunity to know my son Lincoln. Last year Lincoln was selected as his middle school's All-County football player, and I longed for my father's witness to this remarkable achievement. When Lincoln followed this pinnacle by saying he didn't really like the game and preferred to play in the band, I was unexpectedly both surprised and relieved. I wanted him to be more than a football hero.

Tonight I watched, standing with trepidation,, as Peyton Manning, Archie's son, donned a Colts uniform and tried with everything he had to defeat the team that denied his father greatness a generation ago. Just a few minutes ago the Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts to become Super Bowl champions. And this time I am the one who wanted his son to sit and watch and cheer with his father, just as I am the one who sighed in loving acceptance that he was not about to do this: "tell me in the morning who won, Dad."

So sitting by myself with my loving dog by my side, I cried for my father as the final seconds of this most beautiful and gloriously exciting game ticked away. I felt him so fully present in my heart that it was as if he had mustered his spirit to share that space with me for a few precious, affirming moments of almost indescribable joy. Finally, we watched a game together.