Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A game for the ages

I've talked a lot about my rekindled fandom with American football lately, which has been a slow and drawn out process. I think I got a bit burned out of the game after years of watching every game I possibly could each weekend, turning Sundays from a mildly productive day in preparation for work into a day filled with football as long as my senses could handle it. Now, I really only watch games that have some significance for me, such as when the Flaming Horseheads take the field or it's a compelling match-up. Well, and then there's the Super Bowl, which has become the grandiose spectacle of gridball.
Everything at the Super Bowl takes on bigger significance from how the coin flip works to endless hours of talking and back stories before the game even happens. The kick happens, and the game takes almost a back seat to everything else during the day - the spectacle of the commericials, the halftime show, and hopefully an amazing finish. This past Sunday though, the game was as compelling a match-up as I'd seen in a while. You had the Indianapolis Colts with their honored leader, Peyton Manning. It was expected the Colts would be here, as they had dispatched most of their opponents all year rather easily except for a two game period where the Colts rested their regular players. Their opponents were the New Orleans Saints, a team with a 42 year legacy of spectacular ineptitude. In their history, the Saints were so bad many seasons, the fans resorted to wearing paper bags over their heads when they watched the games. The fact that many fans did this in their homes was even more remarkable. The city also remains a shell of itself after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina so many years ago that there are still parts of the town that remain in shambles.
It was a classic matchup between the expected and unexpected, the anointed winner before the game was even played versus the team that nobody was that sure should be there. Despite the Saints being the number one seed in the NFC, they weren't expected to beat an Arizona team that had been scoring points like a basketball game, but they did. They weren't supposed to beat a Minnesota team that had a future Hall of Famer as their quarterback, but they did when the quarterback named Farve made a rookie mistake in throwing a pass that put the game in overtime and the Saints won the game on a field goal by a relatively inexperienced kicker during a season that kickers were having all sorts of issues. I wasn't sure if I was watching the game on Sunday because I'd grown tired of the hype, but on Sunday afternoon, I ended up watching the game. Ok, my wife said she was watching it and basically chided me into admitting I was a gridball fan. Yes, I run a pretend football league and I like the game, but I also hang with some soccer fans who love nothing more that trashing other sports because of the lack of respect those fans give to soccer. I should just be honest with myself and them and admit I love both games quite a bit, but for very different reasons.
I love soccer because of the relative beauty of a very simple game played extremely complexly, where the crowd goes nuts at those moments when a goal happens because it might only happen once or twice. The game seems very simple on the surface, but there are incredible nuances that can't be appreciated unless you really pay attention. The constant motion and running of the clock also lends to an ultimate sporting experience that is done usually within 2 hours. American football on the other hand is more of a chess match punctuated by moments of violent collisions. It's not a sport for the faint of heart, but when it is played well, it can be pagentry watching a quarterback dissect a defense with precision passing or watching a running back make players miss tackles with a simple change of direction or a well timed hit. And when you have a game like what happened on Sunday, even the non-football fan was treated to a classic game.
The commercials were better than average, and the halftime show was CBS subtly advertising their CSI franchise with the band that does all the theme songs, but the game itself was one of the best I'd seen ever. I didn't have a horse in the race, I just wanted to see a good game and that happens. The Colts jumped out to an early lead with Manning hitting passes all over the field and causing some confusion for the Saints offense. The Saints adjusted in the second quarter by putting together two very long scoring drives while keeping Manning on the bench, and the game was close at the half.
In a move that will go down in history as one of the biggest gambles in football, the Saints tried an onside kick to start the third quarter, and caught everyone in the stadium by surprise. In the crazy scramble for the ball, the Saints recovered and took the ball in for a touchdown, and the Colts and Saints traded scores in a back and forth quarter until the Saints kicked their third field goal and the game was within one point. The Saints started the fourth quarter on a drive, and then scored their second touchdown to take a 5 point lead. They went for a two point conversion, and got the points after a successful challenge (the receiver caught the ball but was pushed from the endzone and fumbled the ball so the play was originally ruled as an incomplete pass). They then put the target on their defense to stop Manning and the Colts.
And so the Colts marched up the field with precision passing and some well timed runs, but the drive was taking more time that usual as the Saints kept the Colts to short yardage gains. When the Colts had gotten to within the shadows of their endzone, Manning threw a short in pass when the receiver went slightly out, and Saints cornerback Tracy Porter ended up making a great interception that he ran all the way back for a Saints touchdown. Nobody saw Manning making a mistake like this at a critical part of the game, but he did and the Saints took advantage of it, much like they'd done all season. The Colts made one last run for the endzone, but fell just short as their last gasp pass fell incomplete on fourth down and the Saints ended up victorious 31 to 17.
At that moment, the history of the Saints didn't matter as the city partied like they did after beating Minnesota and Bourbon Street became an impromptu celebration of the Saints victory as the winning field goal flew through the uprights. The victory was more than a celebration of a city that has dealt with adversity in so many ways, but for players like Saints quarterback Drew Brees who chose New Orleans because they wanted to be part of the rebirth of this ravaged area. Brees had a nice career with the San Diego Chargers until he injured his shoulder and the Chargers chose to go in a different direction. Brees visited New Orleans and wanted to make a difference in an area that needed people to step up, and even moved his family within the city limits. And here he was, leading this team with the history of losing that was now crowned the champion of football.
It was a truly moving and trandescent moment, and one that all sports fans could relate to. Fans live for the moments where their team makes the right play, the ball finds the right spot, everything comes together, and there's a time to celebrate the accomplishments of a championship. The journey is often filled with distractions, injuries, bad luck, and whatever other hurdles can be thrown in there, which makes victory all that more sweet. And for a city and a team that needed a huge boost, it got one because of a special group of players that not only had good football talent, but understood their role in helping a city heal. It's one of the most memorable games I've witnessed in a very long time, and I couldn't be more pleased for the Saints.
It's easy to parallel the Saints and their situation with that of our hometown basketball team, who have been putting their medical staff on overdrive this season with an incredible assortment of injuries. And yet here they sit at 30 and 23, 7 games over .500 and within the playoff race despite having more games lost to injury than any other NBA team. Despite the adversity, despite the player losses, this team continues to scrap and claw to win games that they honestly shouldn't have with the talent on the court. Yet, here they are, and it's a testiment to the hard work of the players that are playing and the coaching staff that we're at this point.
Many sports fans jump from bandwagon to bandwagon, wanting to be part of the winning programs yet a lot of them don't put in the heavy lifting that being a true fan takes. Being a true fans means loving your team whether they win or lose, whether the wheels fall off the wagon or the team overachieves dramatically. The Saints fans put up with 42 years of absolute chaos and distractions, and suddenly, things fell into place and they are the Super Bowl champions. I admire those that took on the ride for all those years for those moments of true celebration, true exhaulation, and true fandom. It's why we keep coming back to sports time after time, despite everything, and why we should love our team no matter the challenges.

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