A few days ago, a friend asked me what I was doing for “the game on Friday.”
“What game?” I asked.
My friend chuckled, as though I was kidding.
Seriously, what game?
(Please hold all angry and disillusioned e-mails until you’ve finished the article).
After some Googling, I realized Friday is the Saints‘ first preseason game.
Wait, what’s the preseason?
I’ve never been a football fan. I’m not sure where this comes from; I’d swear to you my family thinks they’re on the 49ers team. Growing up, whatever my parents and sister had going on — work wise, socially, academically — they almost always made a point of watching the Niners play. And me, well I competed with their cheers echoing from beneath my bedroom with lots of awful nineties pop.
I’ll admit, the efforts I’ve made to cultivate a taste for football have been feeble. All the statistics, and rules, and Fantasy Football leagues — it’s just always seemed like an excessive quantity of mental work to invest in, what I’d consider to be one of the slowest migrations across a hundred yard stretch that I’ve ever witnessed. I mean, we might as well broadcast an army of babies crawling across a giant sandbox, right?
As the first preseason game approaches (I still don’t understand what the ‘preseason’ is, by the way, so if someone would like to e-mail me with an explanation or definition, you’d significantly broaden the latitude of my game day conversation), I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how my thoughts on Saints games have adjusted through my six year period of living in New Orleans.
Make no mistake, as far as the game itself goes, I remain utterly confused about its conceptual premises. Regardless, I’ve come to appreciate Saints game days for their mutual communal function. Partially because, when you live in the Who Dat Nation, your social options on game days include: a) watching the game at the Dome, b) watching the game at a bar, c) watching the game at a house, or d) rocking back and forth in the dark solace of your own company. And partially because over the past few years, I’ve witnessed the ignition and growth of the NOLA’s burning Saint-centric energy.
The first year I lived here, I went to my first NFL game.
It was the first game of the season. I would compare my vigor at the event to that of the general population a week before tax day. My company didn’t help; I attended with a friend whose knowledge about football made me look like John Madden. I’d gotten the tickets from my step-dad, who was still trying to convert me into a football fan.
I felt like a fraud at the game. Like a foreign spy, whose alienness, which poses a napkined-threat to the beer- and queso-stained football constitution, might soon be revealed. My guise — a Brees Jersey (another thing my step-father had sent me to pass me off as a real fan), a hot dog, and Budweiser — was transparent; the natives would detect that I had no idea who the hell Brees was and that I really would have preferred to be enjoying a cheese plate and bottle of Pinot grigio.
My behavior was, accordingly, out of place. My friend and I golf-clapped, while, on one side of us, a shirtless man with body paint and terrible body odor head-butted his buddy and, on the other side, another dude barked whenever the Saints made a good play.
By halftime, my friend had fallen asleep in her seat, drool rhythmically dribbling from her mouth like a leaky faucet, as I checked my watch every five minutes or so, trying to estimate when and if the game would ever end.
“Do you know where I can get the show program?” I finally asked the barking fellow.
He continued to bark.
Three and a half hours, three beers, a hot dog and a half eaten pretzel later, the game was finally over. The Saints had lost miserably, and I felt even more disinclined to step within a two-block radius of anything football-related again.
I didn’t watch another game until the Superbowl in 2010, the Superbowl we won.
The Saints had had a near-flawless season, and, quite possibly, everyone in New Orleans was excited about the big game except me. In all honesty, the only reason I watched is because I knew I would be chastised forever and quite possibly banished beyond the city limits.
I watched the game outside downtown, with some college friends and my pug, who was dressed in a Saints jersey that my mother had Fed-Exed me.
I don’t remember many details about the game itself. What I do remember, however, is the anxious hush that blanketed the streets of wall to wall bodies during the last quarter, at each down. I remember the explosion of cheers and hugs and sprays of champagne fluttering through the sky like glittered confetti when Reggie Bush made that final touch down that sealed the game. I remember the face of the greying man next to me, who picked up my dog and waved him in the air, shouting “Who dat?! Who dat?!,” as both he and Pugsley beamed at one another with reciprocal pride. I remember it took me over an hour to walk just a few blocks to my apartment, as strangers high fived each other, and immobile cars honked their horns, as the Ting Yang twins’ “Halftime” simultaneously thumped from thousands of stereos.
It was the first time I’d ever really felt myself to be a part of the city.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have no idea what’s happening statistically in the NFL. I don’t understand the terminology. I know the names of maybe three teams. And, as demonstrated earlier, I’m oblivious about the scheduling situation. But ever since the 2010 Superbowl, the phrase ‘Who dat?!’ has always meant something to me. It’s means hello and goodbye. It’s a secret handshake, a wave, a smile, a friendly pat on the back. It’s an equalizer, a piece of the cityscape we exchange. It’s a testament of our very New Orleanianness.
And so, as we approach the next season, I’m reminded that Saints games draw me closer to the prodigious spirit that swells within the city. I urge you to allow the games to do the same for you.
Chelsea Lee is assistant editor of NolaVie. Email comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.