Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tough times behind, Saints fans bask in Super Bowl glory

Die-hard Saints loyalists know where to go to watch their team

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Feb. 6, 2010 | 2 a.m.

It wasn’t about football.

It wasn’t about a pigskin, 1,744 miles away, splitting a pair of uprights in New Orleans and sending the Saints to their first Super Bowl.

It wasn’t about the hugs and the kisses, the Whos and the Dats, and it certainly wasn’t about a guy named Brett or a team named the Vikings.

No, as a jam-packed clan of Saints fans celebrated with every possible emotion two Sundays ago at 7-11 Bar and Grill, it was about being at home and most importantly, with family.

“This means so much to us,” native Louisianian Monetta Henson said after the game, fighting back tears.

“Just being here, with the spirit of New Orleans, this is our home,” she said. “It’s something I can’t even describe.”

They screamed, they danced, they sang and they cried. They chanted “Who dat!” and asked “Who dat say gon’ beat ’dem Saints?” and even grubbed on some authentic Louisiana gumbo.

They made it, at long last. The Super Bowl, football’s holy grail.

“If you think this is crazy,” Henson said, “you wouldn’t believe what the Dome is like.”

But now, the once-starved Saints fans want more. That boisterous gathering two weeks ago proved just a warm-up, a dress rehearsal, for what’s in store Sunday.

It’s been, by some measure, a tortuous wait.

Brad Huffman, a New Orleans native and owner of 7-11 Bar and Grill, has watched his Saints, week after week and season after season, through the losing, more losing and Hurricane Katrina.

Born in the same year as the franchise, he’s watched fans pour into his family’s bar this season and pour their hearts and souls into the team.

“Saints fans like being around Saints fans,” Huffman said. “They like being at home, standing in a packed bar celebrating with their family. It goes back to that Southern hospitality, down-home atmosphere.”

Huffman brought the down-home atmosphere to the 7-11 Bar and Grill two seasons ago, following a tradition that began at his family’s first establishment, the now-closed Sand Dollar.

Each year, he’s noticed a steady growth that he attributes to a post-Hurricane Katrina contingent in the Las Vegas area, finding a lot of new regulars from the South, especially Louisiana.

“It’s like going to the bar down the street back home,” he said. “Everyone enjoys each other’s company and we live and die together with the Saints.”

This weekend they are living, and living large, and for good reason.

Five years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, most of them didn’t know what they would be doing. Their homes were flooded, their loved ones were hurting and the concept of watching their Saints in the Super Bowl didn’t rank too high on the list of priorities.

“I definitely didn’t think I’d be here, watching this tonight,” Chris Colletti of River Ridge, La., said two weeks ago, watching the TV at the boisterous 7-11 as the Saints won the NFC championship game that delivered them to the Super Bowl. “And I definitely didn’t think I’d end up in Vegas.”

Colletti remembers his father, who works in the Army Corps of Engineers, telling him to get out of the area because the storm was going to be big.

“The night it hit, it was rough,” he said.

Without power for five days, Colletti’s trek to Las Vegas began when a friend joked that it was time to go on vacation. He went, and didn’t see the aftermath until six months later.

“Seeing my mom look at the house she grew up in flooded with water, that was tough,” he said. “Just seeing everyone in pain was awful.”

Colletti was here, at 7-11, during the Saints’ first game back in the Louisiana Superdome after Katrina. He was here for the New England and Dallas games this season and he’ll be here Sunday afternoon.

“I remember tearing up while chills ran down my spine that first game back,” he said. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

“This is my family. It’s the closest thing to home.”

And so on Sunday, Colletti and Saints fans throughout the valley will cram into their shared home at Arville Street and Sahara Avenue, to be with their family.

Win or lose, they will chant, they will scream and they will cry. And win or lose, they will be there for the one thing that has kept them going since Hurricane Katrina — each other.

“Just a Super Bowl berth isn’t good enough for me,” Colletti said. “This family, this city deserves everything that’s coming for them.”

Now it’s about football.

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