NEW ORLEANS -- If you weren’t in the Superdome on Sunday night, and a lot of New Orleans Saints fans are going to claim that honor for years, let’s make you feel as if you were.
Let’s turn it over to Jerry Romig, the official public address announcer in the Louisiana Superdome. If you’ve been to a Saints game, you’ve heard the voice because Romig has been here for a long time. Here’s the microphone, Jerry:
“Ain’t this beautiful?” Romig said over the speakers a couple of minutes after the Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 in overtime in the NFC Championship Game. “The Saints are going to the Super Bowl.’’
There, you heard the official word -- and isn’t it kind of ironic that Romig used the word "ain’t"? Yes, the team that once was called the Aints and had fans wearing bags over their heads, is going to the Super Bowl. They’ll play the Indianapolis Colts -- and New Orleans native Peyton Manning -- in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami on Feb. 7.
It’s over now, but what a strange path the Saints took to get there -- both Sunday night and throughout their history.
“Anybody want a rejuvenated ulcer?’’ an elevator operator in the Superdome press box asked a few minutes after the game.
“I’m just trying to congest all this,’’ a fan said as she walked down a Superdome tunnel.
Congest it, ingest it, digest it or whatever, but enjoy it. This was about more than one of the best postseason games in NFL history. This was about the city of New Orleans, really the whole Gulf region. From Bogalusa to Lake Charles, La., from Biloxi, Miss., to Mobile, Ala., and even into parts of extreme northwest Florida, they’re celebrating more than the first Super Bowl trip in franchise history.
They’re celebrating a way of life -- a way of life that’s helped this region come back from one of the worst natural disasters in history.
“Brett Favre is a great story,’’ New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita said. “But the New Orleans Saints are a better story.’’
Fujita’s right. What happened Sunday night was about history and legacies, but not about Favre. Sure, the stage was set for another legendary Favre moment. You know, something like the old gunslinger comes home (he grew up just up the road in Kiln, Miss.), takes an incredible beating, spends most of the game limping around and, in the end, makes a play to take his team to the Super Bowl.
Another chapter in the storybook. And all of it except the very last part came true. On a night when Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin were bouncing balls off the Superdome floor, Favre almost overcame them.
But you want to talk about overcoming things? Let’s go back to the Saints and the community around them.
“This is for everybody in this city," coach Sean Payton said as he raised the George S. Halas Trophy over his head. “This stadium used to have holes in it and be wet. It’s not wet anymore."
No, it’s not. Looking out at the Superdome floor afterward, all you could see was confetti. Lots and lots of it. You also could see Payton dressed in a suit, throwing passes to his son and a few of his friends.
It’s playtime for the Paytons and party time for Saints fans everywhere. The days of rooting for lovable losers are over. The misery is over. At least for one night, what happened a little over four years ago is a distant memory, kind of like Archie Manning and Tom Dempsey.
What happened was the world changed for New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina hit. The city and the region were devastated.
“The city is on its way to recovery and in a lot of ways it’s come back better than ever," New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said.
The Saints have come back better than ever, after temporarily seeking shelter in San Antonio, and that has done a lot to boost morale. But this moment is, without a doubt, the highest point yet.
“We said we were going to keep fighting until they kick us off the field and go home,’’ New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma said.
That’s exactly what the Saints did Sunday night and, really, what their fans have been doing since the hurricane. The Saints beat the heck out of Favre, repeatedly stripped the ball from the hands of Peterson and Harvin and won the turnover battle five to one.
Still, in the end, they needed Favre to try to throw a cross-field pass that turned into an interception near the end of regulation, and a 40-yard field goal by 23-year-old kicker Garrett Hartley to win it nearly five minutes into overtime.
Hartley’s kick replaces Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal as the most famous kick, and probably the most famous play, in New Orleans history.
But you want one play to define this moment and the history of the Saints and New Orleans? Turn back to just before the end of the first half, with the score tied 14-14 and Reggie Bush standing near his own end zone waiting to field a punt.
Bush failed to catch the ball and the Vikings recovered at the New Orleans 10-yard line with 1:13 left in the first half.
"That’s a gut-wrenching feeling," Bush said.
Bush could have been the goat to top all goats in Saints’ history had the Vikings punched in a quick touchdown and gone on to win. Thing is, this time, it didn’t happen.
Two plays later, Favre and Peterson messed up an exchange on a handoff and Fujita recovered. Payton made it a point to have Brees hand the ball to Bush on the next two plays as the Saints ran out the clock.
That was about keeping confidence and a shot at redemption. We’re not just talking about Bush’s confidence or about Bush’s redemption, although he did score the final New Orleans touchdown. We’re talking about redemption for a franchise, a city and an entire region. Bush just happened to sum it all up perfectly in what he did on the field and what he said after the game.
“For anybody who thinks we didn’t deserve to win, they weren’t watching the same game we were," Bush said.