On New Year's Day, I attended the New Orleans Saints/Panthers game. I'm willing to bet there are few football experiences similar to what goes on in New Orleans.
Even though the Saints won 45-17, it was an awesome experience on several levels. The large party outside the stadium began early in the morning. A sea of fans dressed in black and gold strolled into the stadium.
As soon as the Saints' team members were elaborately announced, the fans began their deafening screams. Next thing you hear is their famous chant, "Who dat ... who dat ... who dat say they gonna beat them saints?"
The fans set the tone. Their message was real clear.
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They showed fierce support for their beloved Saints. It could almost be described as a reverence.
I saw a few Catholic priests waiting for an elevator. I wondered if they came to pray with (or for) the team.
You see support for the New Orleans Saints as soon as you get off of the airplane. Everywhere you look, there are reminders that you have entered the home of the New Orleans Saints.
The fleur di lis is the unofficial symbol for New Orleans. It's French.
It became a badge for the city after Hurricane Katrina. You see it everywhere.
The day before the game, my husband and I had lunch with Charles Brown, New Orleans Public Library director. Brown formerly held that position here in Charlotte.
As we enjoyed an amazing meal, Brown asked in a hushed tone, "Do you plan to wear any Panthers gear to the game?"
He said, "This city takes its football so seriously, some people even get buried in their Saints jerseys."
We did wear our Panthers gear (proudly). Some people looked at us like aliens. A few offered a polite, "Happy New Year."
You can't compare the support of the Saints and the support of the Panthers.
The cities are totally different.
I moved here from Buffalo, N.Y., and I've enjoyed my 32 years in Charlotte. Being from Buffalo, I've seen team loyalty. I remember fans wearing plastic garbage bags over their heads at games to fight off some of the freezing temperatures.
But, in New Orleans, the fans wear their support with "swag" (a unique demeanor with a mixture of style that exudes confidence and "coolness"). The fans wore lots of black and gold. Some wore feathers, masks and umbrellas. Some waved white hankies. One lady wore a gold and black tutu.
The crowd jumped up to dance with every musical note played over the speakers.
The happy party spirit was infectious.
What New Orleans went through with Katrina brought people together in a way we'll never understand. Winning the Super Bowl in 2009 also unified residents and fans.
The Saints were awarded their franchise in 1966 and began playing in 1967. The Panthers were awarded their franchise in 1993 and began playing in 1993.
It may take us a quarter of a century to build that kind of fan support. Who knows?
Before the game ended the audience did one more round of the "Who Dat" chant to send us home.