By Sophie Unterman
Editor’s Note: The following series “Who Dat? Saints and Sports in NOLA” is a week-long series curated by Emily O’Connell as a part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Insitute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.
From the dismal seasons of the New Orleans “‘Aints” to rallying a hurricane-stricken community to a 2009 Super Bowl, the Saints have inspired a shared passion amongst New Orleanians that is unique to the city. Now that we’re in the doldrums of the NFL offseason, let’s reflect on how the Saints have influenced New Orleans culture, and as NOLA’s enthusiasm for sports continues to grow, we can look forward to a new era as the Pelicans look to make their own unique mark on the city. No matter what team you cheer for, New Orleans’ unique engagement with sports perfectly captures the fun-loving passionate spirit of the Big Easy. Below, read about Sophie Unterman’s journey from sports philistine to connoisseur and how the Saints strengthened her relationship to the New Orleans community, both as a New Orlenian and after moving across the country.
This article was originally published November 19, 2013
I am not your typical Saints fan. I no longer live in New Orleans; thus, I sometimes have trouble finding a place to watch the games when they are not nationally broadcast. I cannot name a fourth of the Saints roster, a fact which I am not proud of but is true, nonetheless. And I lack the attention span to sit through an entire four quarters. If, at this point, you are thinking that I am not a true fan, let me explain.
First of all, I was raised in an utterly sports-less household. I was the only kid in my class at Prairie Elementary, in suburban Kansas City, without a red and yellow polyester Kansas City Chiefs pullover. While all the other kids ran around at recess resembling child-sized Heinz bottles, I stood out in my black jacket, begging the teacher not to make me play “organized soccer.” My only memories of professional sports were a few Royals games, where my mom brought a book and my sister, Phoebe, and I tracked the cotton candy man around the stadium. I, myself, was hopelessly un-athletic, and my parents didn’t care when I dropped every sport I started after a single season.
But all of this changed when I came down to New Orleans for college — or, to be more precise, when I started my sophomore year. Freshman year, I still lived in a sports-less bubble. A music nut released into paradise, I divided my weekend free time between catching shows on Frenchmen and rehearsing with the Tulane Symphony, caught up in the city’s music and festivals instead of the Saints and the (then) Hornets.
The following October, I surprised myself by falling for a sports fan. Nick Toricelli was not my type — he was goofy and didn’t know who Galactic was, didn’t own a single flannel shirt and thought Bob Dylan had a whiney voice. He was gangly, almost a foot and a half taller than me, with robin’s egg eyes and a deep baritone perfect for booing opposing teams at Tulane basketball games.
Our first date was a Hornets game. We held hands on the streetcar, one of his many turquoise and gold jerseys dangling to my knees. He was my first boyfriend, the first guy I loved. Even though, in many ways, we were polar opposites, we just clicked — became each other’s best friend.
I loved making him laugh, a full-body affair that moved from his eyes and dimpled mouth to his shaking sides. Walking down the St. Charles streetcar tracks at night, we talked for hours, once wandering all the way to Napoleon and not realizing it until I looked up to see the dome of Touro Synagogue lit up against the pinkish New Orleans night sky.
Before I knew it, something clicked between the Saints and myself, too; despite my own disbelief, I’d caught Nick’s Saints bug.
That season, the Saints were catapulted to star status. With every win, the city celebrated harder. Nick showed me how to follow the scores while I studied in the library. Then, for some anomalous reason, one weekend he convinced me to join him at Rotolo’s for a game. He pulled a Saints jersey over my sweater and taught me all of the rules, quizzing me on how many points someone had just scored or which player had just caught the ball.
From then on, I watched the games — all four quarters. I screamed as loudly as the others when we won the NFC Championship, danced through campus when we won the Superbowl. The day of the victory parade, we trekked with a gaggle of friends to the corner of Bourbon and Canal. I saw Garrett Hartley wobble on the float, screamed at Reggie Bush while he blew kisses at the crowd. I stood in awe when Drew Brees smiled his Adonis grin from the head of the parade, the only one who wasn’t glassy-eyed. Being a Saints fan wasn’t just being a sports fan — it was engaging with the city, like joining a second line or becoming a regular at Tipitina’s. Because of this element, I was a willing fan, excitedly memorizing the roster and planning weekends around games.
Over the next two years, I immersed myself in New Orleans sports. I numbered among the few fans cheering on Tulane in the cavernous, near-empty Superdome. Saturday afternoons were for Tulane games or watching college football in the lobby of the dorm where Nick lived. Sundays were for Saints games — two of which we got to see in person. And Hornets games sporadically freckled my weeks.
When I came home for breaks, I shocked my parents by asking to stream a Saints game during dinner, requesting the sports page at breakfast. On visits, I took Nick to my first KU basketball game, and he took me to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder play on New Year’s Eve. The Flaming Lips played a concert next door, and when I wandered out of the arena, I could hear the muffled music, but I was glad to be at the game instead.
Spring of our senior year, my newfound sports obsession began to wane. I had a tougher workload than Nick. Many a weeknight, I stayed up late working on my honors thesis while Nick texted me from Robert’s Bar, where he watched college games with his friends. At night, in his room, I sat for hours watching a seemingly endless procession of games I didn’t care about, teams I had no connection to. He showed no interest in coming with me and my friends to concerts, or Jazz Fest, where he refused to try to wade through he crowd to get a glimpse of the Bruce Springsteen, and then wanted to leave early.
I told myself we just had different tastes; that was all it was. But as the Saints’ winning streak fell into a lull, so did ours — mine and Nick’s.
The breakup was messy, coming in the form of a phone conversation that July. He argued it was a long time coming. Although I didn’t then, I agree now that he was right.
I dealt with the breakup by going cold turkey from sports. Last fall, I purposely avoided Saints and Tulane games. My only cheering was done, I must admit, in a bitter tone — vehemently against his favorite teams. When the guy I started seeing last winter invited me to watch a late season Saints game, I politely declined, venturing instead to my favorite coffee shop to write. Sometimes he sent me score updates, but I never checked them myself. My new apartment wasn’t set up to watch games — I had a 1988 Sony TV salvaged from my parents’ attic that I sometimes scooted within view of my couch so that I could watch Downton Abbey on Sunday nights.
Now that the Saints have a great record and Tulane is bowl-eligible, I am starting to get a bit of the sports bug back. I find myself checking scores in between study sessions and chatting about the Saints with friends back in New Orleans. There are several Saints bars in New York, so when I feel like watching a game, I pull on my Brees jersey and take the 1 downtown. Last weekend, on a visit to New Orleans, I watched the game with friends (well, I watched most of it — I squeezed in a run during the second half, because it won’t be 65 and sunny in New York for a while).
But sports, in general, still occasionally remind me of Nick. We don’t talk, and we’ve both long since moved on. I don’t miss the evenings wasted in front of Sportscenter, or feeling second to at least a dozen athletic teams, but I can’t help thinking of him when I see a tourist in his team’s windbreaker waddle down 7th Avenue, or when I hear a particularly booming Who Dat cheer at the Lower East Side bar. I look forward to the day when this will not be the case, when these instances will never remind me of him.
But I’ve missed being a part of a community I discovered through Nick. Even more so, since I’ve moved to New York. Now I follow the Saints to root myself back in New Orleans, now that I no longer live there. It’s nostalgic, a way to feel at home when I’m far from it. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to my Superbowl fandom days — that’s not quite me, but I still consider myself a fan. Even if I’m following the game in between chapters of a Roth novel, I’m still following it.
And I’m still chanting the Who Dat cheer when we win — that will never change.
This article was written by Sophie Unterman, an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.