At 8 years old, my eldest daughter, Sophie, is more fluent in French than football. Setting out for her first Saints game in years, she inquires, “So we’re going to the one with the roof?”
Yes, sweetie, we’re going to the stadium with the roof. The one with the Mercedes-Benz logo you once mistook for a peace sign. The Superdome.
It is the Saints’ final home game of 2015, against the hapless Jacksonville Jaguars. When a score is so lopsided that the outcome is decided, the remaining minutes are referred to as “garbage time” — meaningless. Mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, the remainder of the Saints season is garbage time. The Jaguars game and Sunday’s grudge match in Atlanta against the Falcons are meaningless. They are like pre-season games, minus the hope.
As a boy in the 1970s, I attended many such games with my dad. Demand for his office’s tickets was low — this was the heyday of the Aints and their brown bag-wearing fans. Paper airplanes landing on the field elicited more cheers than plays on the field.
The 2015 Saints have not sunk to that level. But tellingly, former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert spends much of his radio show before the Jaguars game calculating other teams’ playoff possibilities. The Saints are not part of the discussion.
At least not part of the discussion I actually hear. For the entire drive downtown, Sophie drowns out Hebert — no easy feat — with selections from her new book of knock-knock jokes and other zingers.
“Where do rabbits go after their wedding? They go on a bunny-moon.”
“Why did Cinderella get kicked out of the soccer game? She ran away from the ball.”
As we park, she asks, “Should I bring my joke book?”
No, no, no. That won’t be necessary. Leave it in the car. Please.
“What will we do before the game starts?”
Something other than knock-knock jokes.
Spotting the distant Superdome, she protests the length of the impending hike. “You are a young, healthy girl,” I scold.
“And you are an old, healthy man,” she responds.
We walk together, but not too close: At 8, she’s already self-conscious about holding hands with a parent in public.
Despite the Saints’ losing record, it still feels like Mardi Gras: Cookouts and crowds in the street. Beer vendors and a buzz in the air. Sophie senses it. She pulls me away from a brass band on Poydras Street — she wants to get to the Dome.
“I hope the Saints win,” she says. “It hasn’t been a good year.”
Maybe she has been paying attention.
She looks forward to solving a mystery: “I’ll finally get to see what they do during the commercials!”
At the security checkpoint, she thrusts her arms skyward as if in celebration. No one is more enthusiastic about being swept by a hand-held metal detector than she. Before entering a Superdome restroom, she turns to her healthy old man: “Don’t go anywhere — wait for me outside.” Her independence still has its limits.
The Dome lights dim as the Saints’ starting defense is introduced. There is smoke and fireworks and loud music. Sophie is riveted. She cheers for everyone, even much-maligned cornerback Brandon Browner, whom more jaded fans boo.
Thankfully, she’ll get to watch future Hall of Famer Drew Brees in action, despite his bum foot. I explain punts and penalties; she listens and learns: “This is more interesting than I thought.”
The game gets underway. The crowd roars to disrupt a Jaguars third down play. She joins in, not knowing why: “I just cheered when everybody else did.”
Brees connects with receiver Brandin Cooks for a 71-yard touchdown. The Dome explodes. My sweet little girl trash-talks Jacksonville. She’s out of her seat, dancing in celebration to Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).”
“It’s good so far,” she decides.
At halftime, she studies the pint-size Junior Saintsations, some of whom are her age. Maybe, she suggests, she could tell jokes at halftime, over the P.A. system, to the entire Dome.
She fully invests in the cartoon boat race that plays out on video screens during a commercial break. She’s amped. Soon enough, the Jaguars are driving. “Aren’t we supposed to be getting LOUD?!?!?” she yells.
Settle down, kid. It’s only second down.
Her frustration boils over following a Jacksonville score in the third quarter: “I have a hatred coming over me for the Jaguars!”
Whoa, girl. Dial it down a bit.
As the quarter ends, The Wave ripples around the stadium. Sophie is ecstatic, even more so when momentum is sustained for a third cycle: “It’s going around again!”
The Storyville Jazz Band has roamed the Dome during games for nearly 30 years. They swing by our seats; Bruce Hirstius, Storyville’s 87-year-old leader, takes Sophie by the hand for a dance. She beams.
The Saints stay in control. Victory is assured. With two minutes left, Sophie is ready to go. Weaving through happy post-game crowds, she holds my hand, however briefly.
Her favorite part of the game? The Wave.
My favorite? Bonding with my daughter, making memories that are ours alone.
To Drew Brees, Brandin Cooks and the rest of the Saints, thanks for playing this “meaningless” game like it mattered.
Because to some of us, it did.
Staff writer Keith Spera chronicles the life and times of his family in this occasional column.