There are Saints billboards around town that asks “How deep does your fan go?”
Well how does one answer that question?
By being a season ticket holder and staying till the end of games no matter how painful Sean Payton makes them with his Wyle E. Coyote-like play calls?
By having a “Saints Go Marching In” ringtone on your cell?
By having a closet full of clothes from the Black and Gold store?
I’m going to answer how deep my fan goes with the numbers 3 and 15.
Three is the number of trips to Soldier Field I will have made to see the Saints play and fifteen is what the temperature is going to feel like up in the nose-freeze section.
In today’s Times Picayune Sports section, Chicago is called a cruel place for the New Orleans franchise as the team lost two playoff games in the unfriendly confines of Soldier Field.
Chicago is even a worse place for Saints fans.
I remember hearing stories locals that went up for the 1991 NFC Wild Card game being pelted with snowballs loaded with batteries and having urine thrown on them. When I ventured up there for the NFC Championship in 2007, I was greeted by a Chicagoon sporting an elaborate sandwich board sign that read “Bears Finishing What Katrina Started”. Why anyone would callously mock a disaster that wrecked tens of thousands of people’s lives and led to hundreds of drowning and dehydration deaths is beyond comprehension.
I’m as passionate as one gets about the Saints and I engage in my fair share of smack talk (though half the time it’s directed toward my home team’s coach) but I wouldn’t wish on anyone what I personally experienced let alone others who lost far more than irreplaceable family memorabilia and consumer goods.
The NFC Championship game also marked the only time I have ever left a Saints game early, and it wasn’t just because of the one-sided 4th quarter score.
People in my section were getting rowdy beyond hurling catcalls; one young drunk in front of me, in between screaming within mere inches of my face that it was too bad I didn’t drown in Katrina, was trying to summon up the will to graduate from delivering verbal blows to physical ones.
At that point I knew how the Saints’ season was going to end and had a good idea how my trip to the Windy City was going to conclude. The game wasn’t worth the beat down. And it certainly wouldn’t have been worth the arrest after two-dozen spectators in blue and orange attire claim I threw the first punch because I couldn’t handle what was nothing more than good-natured ribbing. Right?
As I began my trudge from Soldier Field I was interviewed by a New Orleans television reporter about how I was treated in the stadium. My story wasn’t unique as other Saints fans that had gathered around had the same thing to say. As if taking our word for it wasn’t enough, an inebriated Bears fan stumbled towards the reporter, hurled a beer and a certain word that set the black reporter chasing after the drunk.
At that point I told myself I would never set foot in Chicago. I later reconsidered that decision. I wasn’t letting Chicagoons keep me supporting my team. And Chicago is one of America’s great cities and one of my favorite places to eat.
So I went back for the 2007 finale, a game that had no real meaning except for the loser receiving a better draft pick, which the Bears handed the Saints despite the outstanding game undrafted running back Pierre Thomas had, becoming the team’s first player to rack up over 100 yards running and receiving.
The Chicagoons were still hell, though not as bad as they were earlier that year, though drowning cracks were still en vogue. Maybe things were mellower because neither team was in the playoff hunt at that point. Or perhaps the locals had two less hours of pre-game drinking (the NFC Championship game was played at 2 PM, the regular season rematch was at noon).
The Thursday night game will feature two teams fighting to stay alive in the playoff hunt. The loser will be eliminated from post-season play.
A Saints win would even out the overall regular season record with the Bears, which currently stands at 11-12, one of club’s better records against a franchise. To put it in perspective, the Saints would have to sweep Atlanta in the next four seasons to even the team’s overall record with the Dirty Birds.
For me, the game is personal. It’s not just about avenging the game that would have sent the Black and Gold to the Super Bowl, but the way legions of Saints fans were assaulted verbally and otherwise at the NFC Championship. In the minds of not just a few members of the Who Dat nation, the Bears game is the most important of the season.