Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New Orleans: August 29/05 Destruction, February 7/10 Resurrection

Can something as simple as a football game save the psyche of a city? After Hurricane Katrina came and laid New Orleans low there was talk, a lot of talk, of not rebuilding her again, of just letting her go. Was it worth it, the talk went, to spend millions, nay billions to rebuild a city that was likely to be flattened again at some point in the future? But there is something about the resilience of people, even after the worst catastrophe. They bury their dead, treat their wounded, clean up and start again (just ask Haiti, right now).

Spike Lee's brilliant four-part documentary, When the Levees Broke, about the aftermath of Katrina, outlined this harrowing story with an eye so clear that you can forgive its occasional lapses into proselytizing. In the film, we are introduced to a group of people from all walks of life who tell their story as honestly as they can. At the end, even as the city still lies in ruins, you get a hint of hope; a hope that by the end of 2005 seemed terribly misplaced. But it was there nonetheless.

Louisiana Superdome, home of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, featured prominently in Lee's documentary. It was probably the perfect symbol of the horribly incompetent governmental response to Katrina. The "safe haven" soon became a dangerous cesspool with a ripped-open roof, overflowing toilets, no food and little water. How then did this place's home team end up being the vessel for the resurrection? Quite simply, when you have nothing to lose, and everybody is convinced you are not going to succeed, and your back is pressed firmly against the wall, you can either fold up and quit, or quietly say 'fuck you, just watch me', and get the job done.

In the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLIV, that is the position the Saints found themselves in. All the pundits said it was impossible. Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts were just too great, just too strong, just too overwhelming for the little-bitty Saints to withstand. In other words, without anybody saying it, they were Katrina come back for seconds. The Super Bowl is generally one of the dullest championship games in major league sports. Favourite or underdog, no team ever takes a chance, ever takes any sort of risk. All the sport casting pundits bleat on and on about going for the easy, not trying the hard. It's just not worth it. The most exciting thing (at least in the US telecast) are the new TV commercials. But on this day in Miami (where the big game was to be played), they were dealing with a team from New Orleans, man. They, or at least the citizens of that great city, had been through hell and back, and nobody, I'm mean nobody was going to deny them.

Led by a rule-breaking coach, Sean Payton, and a quarterback, Drew Brees, who bought in, this game was exactly what the city needed. Not once, not twice, but three times they chose to ignore the easy and decided to try the hard. They did things you are not supposed to do in the big game. First. On Fourth and a yard to goal, never go for the touchdown, always go for the 'sure thing' field goal. With time running out in the second half, the Saints were Fourth and a yard for a touchdown. The score was 10-3 in favour of the Colts. They decided to go for it. It didn't worked, but it didn't break their spirit. At least they tried. With even less time left, they got the ball back, made the plays and got their field goal anyway for a Colts 10, Saints 6 score.

Second. At the start of the second half, NEVER do an onside kick. That is to be saved for desperation near the end of a game. Miraculously, the onside kick worked, the Saints recovered the ball, and promptly marched down field for a touchdown: 13-10 Saints.

The Colts recovered their composure and got the 7 back: 17-13 Colts.

Three. Never go for the two-point conversion late in a game, always choose the single point. The Saints had gone ahead again 22-17 after a field goal and touchdown. They knew the Colts could easily come back with a touchdown, so they elected to go for the two points, giving them a 7 point lead. At first, the football pundits seemed to be right. The refs said the receiver, Lance Moore, didn't cross the line, but the Saints were not to be denied. Payton challenged the ruling and video replay confirmed that Moore did make it. Well, there's a fourth, but that wasn't the Saints this time. The great QB shall never make a major blunder late in the big game. Manning expertly marched his team down field. A tie game seemed inevitable, then the Saints defensive centre back, Tracy Porter, stepped in front of Manning's pass intended for Reggie Wayne and raced 74 yards down field for a touchdown. Saints 31, Colts 17.

The Colts tried, but this was All Saints ‘Day and Bourbon Street erupted in unrestrained joy. Sure, it's only a football game, but it was something magical, something so desperately needed by this ravaged city. It was the realization of the hope hinted at the end of Lee's remarkable documentary. It was a hope that came walking through the door of New Orleans looking for some fun. And if there's nothing else, New Orleans has always known how to show a guest a real good time.

--David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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