My Dad loved the underdog. Dad watched a lot of sports and he always rooted for the smaller or shorter team. He loved reading about cops that performed heroic deeds, pilots that happened to be amputees and flew with a prosthetic leg or small town attorneys that won big cases. My Dad’s love of the underdog was never more realized than when we went to the Saints’ games. New Orleans Saints, as in professional football, not that Tommy & I would have known if the Saints were semi-professional or slightly professional. We went for the noise, the crowds, the dog cheerleader, the halftime band, the hotdogs, lemonade, ice cream and popcorn. My favorite was the ice cream sandwiches and Tommy was partial to hot dogs. The hot dogs were sold right out of a steaming metal box that some lucky guy carried all over Tulane stadium. If you were sitting in the middle of a long row of people and you wanted to buy a hotdog, you passed your money down the row and it made it all the way to the hot dog guy. Then he would pass your hot dog down and the same people that had just passed your money would now pass your hot dog to you. How cool was that!
We had season’s tickets from day one. The Saints played their first 9 years at Tulane Stadium. A real stadium that was open to the weather, where everyone sat on wooden boards and the teams played on real grass. The way it should be. Tommy & I went to lots of games with my Dad. The week leading up to a game we would plot and scheme ways to eat one of everything sold at the stadium. You certainly could not expect Dad to buy us cokes, popcorn, hotdogs and ice cream in the first few minutes of a game so you needed a plan. Of course you could start with a coke or lemonade and maybe a bag of peanuts and then midway through the second quarter maybe steer Dad to a hotdog. Half time was easy money. That meant a trip to the bathroom and of course the popcorn machine was near the men’s room. Back into the seats for the third quarter and if the Saints were ahead and everyone was smiling then perhaps we could ask for more lemonade. On those rare occasions that the Saints would win well of course we can have cotton candy for the walk back to the car. In those early years though, the Saints won on average 4 games a season drastically limiting our cotton candy consumption. The day after a game we would rattle off the statistics to our friends at Saint Joan of Arc Elementary School: 2 cokes, lemonade, peanuts, medium popcorn and 1 hotdog. A football game? Yes the players were there and Billy Kilmer, Steve Stonebreaker, Archie Manning and Danny Abramowicz provided some diversion but the outcome was as expected. The Saints lost, we left early, and there was no cotton candy.
Going to a game also introduced to many new words; adult words born out of frustration. Since we had season’s tickets we always saw the same people. The mechanic, the dry cleaner, the attorney and the restaurateur that on any other day were as congenial as could be would become rabid, loud-mouthed, cussing fanatics. One of our down the street neighbor was the worst. He was always smoking a fat cigar and cussing like nobody’s business. He used words that had we used them we would have been grounded for a year. Dad always reminded us that we may hear some new words today and not all of them are good words and we were not to repeat them even if these words came out of his mouth. The better the team, the stronger the language because that meant the Saints would probably take a severe beating. Once we saw the Saints play the Bears and holy cow did we ever hear some words.
Then one day in November the Saints played the Detroit Lions. The Saints were down by 1 point with only a few seconds left in the game and they were at the impossible distance of 58 yards from the goal. The Saints send in the field goal kicker, Tom Dempsey. If there was ever an underdog, it was Tom Dempsey. He was born without toes on one foot and without fingers on one arm and since he kicked with his deformed foot, his shoe was squared off. He had an average record as a kicker, I remember him missing a kick from 10 yards out. “Hell Dempsey, my kid coulda made that one” was often hollered from the stands, often from my Dad. So with a few seconds left in the game the quarterback, Billy Kilmer comes out and in goes the kicking team to attempt a field goal. A 63-yard field goal. The fans around us wave their arms in disgust. “What the…! How on earth is he going to make this one?!” Not my Dad though. Dad stood up and saw what was happening then quickly grabbed us. “Boys! Boys! Put down that popcorn and stand up. Tom Dempsey is going to kick this field goal and if he makes it no one will ever kick a longer field goal. This will be something you will never see again!” Dad grabs us and we stand up on the bench, one of us on either side of him. The crowd has settled down as the Saints line up. Tom Dempsey carefully walks to the spot where the ball will be then backs up a few feet. A few of the Lions shake their head as if to say “No way” and then take their place at the line of scrimmage. Tulane Stadium grows quiet. There’s the snap. Joe Scarpati catches the ball and places it upright in front of the now charging Tom Dempsey and boom, away goes the ball over the head of the Lions and it’s high and tumbling and for the longest time the ball travels down the field and now Joe Scarpati realizes it is going to make it and he grabs hold of Tom Dempsey and Tommy & I are being squeezed tighter by my Dad and the cigar drops out of our neighbor’s mouth as the ball slides over the goal post and Tulane Stadium explodes into pandemonium. The Saints mob Tom Dempsey and everyone is screaming and cheering wildly. My Dad is smiling and hugging us and we are all bouncing up and down and I can’t remember seeing him happier. The Saints win 19 to 17. We got cotton candy on the way to the car.
Tom Dempsey, the underdog, saved the day.
Looking back on that moment I can understand what my Dad loved about football and especially the Saints. The perennial underdogs occasionally can bring home a big win. My Dad wanted my brother and I to understand that we all have decisions to make in our lives and those decisions have consequences. When the clock runs out there is no going back. Some of life’s hardest lessons learned were due to my brother and I making poor decisions and Dad always reminded us that we have no one to blame but ourselves. Fathers can coach up to a certain point and after that it was up to us to make good decisions.
Recently I was in New Orleans. The Saints were playing the Falcons on Monday Night Football and Drew Brees was poised to snatch Dan Marino’s 27-year old single-season passing record. The streets were practically deserted, the Super Dome was packed and the Saints may very well play in their second Super Bowl in three years. Many years ago I asked my Dad if the Saints would ever play in the Super Bowl. “Not in my lifetime” was his response and sadly he was correct.
So as the Saints close out another great season let’s raise a toast to all those faithful both on the field and in the stands that were there for the underdogs for so many years. Who’s buying the cotton candy?