Living Among Tigers and Saints
"I've been a Saints fan since they played in Tulane Stadium". "I've been a Tigers fan all my life." These statements are identity markers, intended to convey to the listener the seriousness that the speaker assigns to his relationship with the team. It isn't enough for someone to tell you "I am a huge Tigers fan"; instead, the speaker will let you know "I love my Tigers and I have loved them my entire life." Saints fans speak about players like Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Rickey Jackson and Morten Anderson. with a reverence perhaps more properly reserved for popes and Saint Jude. They cite statistics, scores and records with the same degree of certainty and passion as a televangelist cites New Testament scripture.
I thought I knew football and fandom before I moved to Louisiana years ago. Nittany Lions, Ohio State Buckeyes, Philadelphia Eagles, Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Monday Night Football. Labor Day was always circled on my calendar, because football is a sport like no other, a unique blend of speed, strength, physicality, teamwork and raw emotion--so many appealing aspects to the game. But it turns out the game that I enjoyed was merely lower case "football", a form of sport. Its Southern version is so much much more-- a wondrous brew of tribalism, deification, identity politics and fanaticism. If you really want to understand the South--and who doesn't--there are worse places to start than with appreciating the grip that football has on Southerners. It is a culture. No, let me amend that statement. It is the culture. Brave is the woman who schedules a wedding for a Saturday night in the fall. Do you want to enjoy a quiet couple of hours in a small group? Go to a movie on a Saturday night or a Sunday afternoon in the autumn--you might not even have a date.
But it goes beyond that- There is an insularity about Southern college football that is almost prideful. If you want to engender passion at a lunchroom table discussion (while perhaps putting your life at risk), there is no reason to discuss the current President; start a conversation instead with an SEC school alum about which football conference is the best. For the record, I believe that the SEC is year-to-year, the best conference in college football. But to openly question the SEC's place at the head of the table will not only lead to ridicule, it will be viewed as just another example of a War of Northern Aggression against idyllic Southern life. Ask a typical Southerner to name the governor of each state where the SEC has a school, and he or she might get a couple of them right. On the other hand, ask that same person to name the head coach of every SEC school, the size of his contract, how long he has been coaching at his current school, where they coached before, how many wives or girlfriends they have had, or what their favorite color is, and you will find quickly that you have tapped into a walking Wikipedia of knowledge. Football is not just a game, it is a bloodsport with pom-poms, cold beer and middle-aged guys in a bit too snug purple LSU game jerseys. Think of this; during the offseason (and there really isn't an offseason) tens of thousands of fans devote a day each year to watch high school seniors sign letters of intent to their favorite school, as if they were witnessing the birth of a COVID-19 vaccine.
My first introduction to this passion was while I was listening to an Atlanta radio station while driving on I-85 on a warm mid-September day. I tuned into a local sports call-in show and the topic was University of Georgia football. Well, that particular season, the Bulldogs had started 1-2, and a local fan who had called into the radio host was not angry, he was grief-stricken. "What am I going to do?" he wailed. "I love my Bulldogs (there goes that possessory term again), my daddy loves the Bulldogs, and my grand-daddy(God Bless His Soul) loved the Bulldogs. The season is OVER!!! THERE IS NOTHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO!!! That's right--nothing to look forward to. Not reading a book, not going for a walk, not going out to dinner, not enjoying your children or your spouse. All. Was. Lost. And I can tell you for sure that he was not the only, nor even the saddest, caller who expressed those thoughts. This wasn't sports talk, this was group therapy.
But no one--and I mean no one--exemplifies this passion and religiosity more so than the devotees of ELLE-ESS-UUU. If you do not have a visit to Death Valley on an autumn Saturday night on your bucket list, well, you need to revise your bucket list. And the only way to properly participate in the religious ceremony is to get there early, wander amongst the thousands and thousands of tail-gators, and smell the boudin, the gumbo, and bar-b-que. Hear the crowd gather and roar as the Golden Band from Tigerland marches down Victory Hill and into the stadium blasting out "Hold that Tiger". And even then you will only bear witness to the spectacle; true died-in-the-fur Tiger fans will be the participants. What you will see is that Tiger fans are not there just to watch a game, they are there to participate in a weekly football revival tent meeting, replete with modified Gregorian chants like "L-S-U, L-S-U, L-S-U", or "Tiger Bait, Tiger Bait" or "GEAUX TIGERS!!". This is not a game, nor a sporting event...it is a weekly gathering of 100,000 of the faithful, a community of believers. By the time the kick-off arrives, this well-lubricated, great ball of fire of humanity is literally ready to roar.
And then there are the Saints. Saints fans are a slightly different breed. They are not united by a school, they are united by a city and its symbol. The most unique city in America has the most unique relationship with its team in the NFL. If you are a Saints fan, you literally bleed black and gold. Black and gold is your favorite color combination. And the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis reigns supreme--on ties, socks, shirts, scarves, running shorts, hats, tattoos, dog collars, menus, key chains and buildings. For the first 25 years of their existence, the Saints were a comedic pantheon of lovable losers who literally turned the word ain't into a noun. That's right, the AINTS. Maybe the best meme ever, in a pre-meme era. And yet, the fans loved those early Saints teams like they were prodigal sons. More recently, the team has enjoyed a lot of success, although they still are masters of the year-end heartbreak. But the fandom lives on. Certain things are guaranteed if you go to a home Saints game--you will see something you have never seen before, you will see people you have never seen before, you will see things and people that you did not even know existed. And, yet somehow, it will seem normal.
So what does all of this teach us about Southerners (or maybe just Louisianians), other than that they love football. Well, they are territorial and familial. They are not just cheering for young men in uniforms--they are cheering for their adopted family members defending their home soil. They are loyal, sometimes to the point of irrationality and blindness. They are believers--they don't just cheer for their team, they believe in their teams. But most importantly, they are a community. To root for Southern-style football is to re-affirm your own sense of belonging to that community.
I was not born in the South, and since human beings do not live 200 years, I will never qualify as a Southerner. But other regions should be so lucky as to have such a community of passionate believers.