When the Saints play the Vikings on Sunday afternoon, Jacob Guth will be changing, constantly.
He doesn’t just wear one Saints jersey on game day. He has to switch between a pair of them. He sports his vintage Rickey Jackson jersey when the Saints defense is on the field and his Mark Ingram jersey when the offense has the ball.
Some people think it’s weird, but he doesn’t care. It’s not just a tradition; at this point he feels a sense of responsibility.
“If I didn’t do it once and we lost, I’d feel terrible,” said Guth, a Spanish translator for a local charter school network. “I’d know somehow it was my fault.”
Football is a game of inches. But many hometown Who Dats are hoping they can make a difference from 1,000 miles away as the underdog Saints roll into Minneapolis with Super Bowl dreams on the line.
These fans have been making decisions about what to wear, what to cook, where to watch the game — and even whether they should watch the game — based not on whim or ease but on the faith that these choices can influence the outcome of this win-or-go-home playoff challenge.
Besides the conventional game-winning factors of strategy and execution, football always has an element of luck. Which way did the ball bounce? What foul did a referee see or miss? To somehow have a hand in that luck could be the ultimate fan impact play.
That’s why on game day Greg Hymel knows he will be wearing his lucky Blue Dog pin — the one with the fleur-de-lis on it that the late artist George Rodrigue personally handed to him before the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2010. And that’s also why this Sunday you won’t find a drop of gumbo at his game day party. When the Saints last faced the Vikings in September, gumbo was on his table. The Saints lost. Thus gumbo is banished for the rematch.
“As a fan, you try to track the little things,” Hymel said. “It’s your memory of the good things you associate with the wins, and you want to keep them good. And what if you didn’t do it?”
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A similar devotion is guiding T.J. Pitre’s search for a game-watching perch this weekend. He’s a regular at Pal’s Lounge, a bar near his Faubourg St. John home, but that is out of the question. It smells like a trap to him.
“It just can’t be that easy. You can’t be where they know you, where they know your drink, the place you’re always going,” said Pitre. “For me, it has to be a place where there’s no precedent, where there’s nothing I can go back to and find bad Saints memories. It has to be this clean slate with nothing on my mind.”
'YES, we can'
Some of the pros have their own tricks. Sean Payton famously chomps Juicy Fruit gum during games. A new one arrived this season via rookie running back sensation Alvin Kamara, who credits Airheads candy as one of his “keys to victory.”
Superstitions are as much a part of sports culture as the stadium wave. In one Associated Press poll, one in five sports fans fessed up to keeping some personal ritual to help their teams.
A common explanation for the widespread phenomenon is that it brings some level of comfort or even an illusion of control over a game. But some who have immersed themselves in the particular way Saints fans pursue their passion come away with different answers.
One is Dr. Casey Schreiber, an associate professor of urban studies at Dillard University and author of “Saints in the Broken City,” a book about football fandom and urban renewal. At bars, tailgates and house parties, she’s watched fans deploy everything from reverently customized Saints prayer candles to satirical effigies of their opponents.
“There’s this narrative that the Saints bring people together, but it’s not just symbolic; you see it in practice,” Schreiber said. “It’s in the performance of these rituals, the interaction with each other, the connection with people you don’t know.”
She believes these personal touches on game day keep local fans a step apart from “this idea of a homogenous corporate football experience.”
“Being part of the Who Dat Nation doesn’t stifle their individuality,” Schreiber said. “Instead, it creates this place where everyone has access as Saints fans.”
That fits the mode Tamara Grayson has adopted on game days. The local photographer’s tradition isn’t one ritual but an evolving quest to tap into the connective energy uniting Saints fans, a sense of chi expressed in black and gold.
Last week, it took the form of a unique headpiece Grayson crafted from cardboard, showing the team’s dangerous backfield duo — Mark Ingram and Kamara — on a gridiron platform.
Making these creations, showing them off on social media, interacting with the other fans who admire them is one way she expresses a personal mantra she sums up as “YES, we can.”
“That kind of energy is infectious, and all those things we do to spark that, I believe it multiplies, grows and somehow makes a difference, just like when it's third down and everyone is screaming at the tops of our everything,” Grayson said.
“That's something I try to plug into as I figure out what to wear, as I make the cardboard folk art, as I bike to the bar, as I focus attention on the game,” she said. “It’s the belief of ‘YES, we can.’ ”
Mojo on defense
Many rituals start with clothing, gear and Saints colors but are transformed through a complicated calculus of communal devotion and personal history.
For Guth, now 29, the origins of his two-jersey, defense/offense routine go back to a promise he made to a heartbroken Who Dat when he was just a seventh-grader.
“My parents ran the Banks Street Bar for a while in the 1990s, and back then, even as kids, we’d go right from Sunday school to the bar to hang out with the regulars on game days,” Guth recalled. “One day a guy came in really depressed; he got reassigned and had to leave New Orleans. He was wearing an old Rickey Jackson jersey. He looked at me and said, ‘I want you to have this, but promise me that every game you’re going to wear it.’ ”
Guth felt compelled to buy other jerseys as the Saints made key draft picks through the years — the latest was Ingram — but he has found a way to keep that promise he made when he was just a kid.
“I’m still always wearing Rickey Jackson,” Guth said. “But now for the offense I pop Ingram on over it.”
But just because you don’t see some fans decked out in Saints symbols, don’t necessarily assume they aren’t pulling their mystic weight.
For instance, Rick Hurd’s Saints gear ritual belongs to the curb-your-enthusiasm school of game day prep.
“I can’t have any visible Saints logo, nothing showing,” said the local builder. “But I always have some colors from the opposing team.”
He has purple and white striped socks lined up for Sunday’s game. And if he’s wearing a Saints shirt underneath his top layer, only he will know.
Connecting rituals with wins is one thing. But for Tina Dixon Williams, it was a pattern of Saints losses that showed her exactly what she needed to do as a fan.
“When I watched the games this season, the Saints lost. I just felt terrible,” said Williams. “So now my mojo is I don’t watch the game. I put on my Saints gear, and then I put on a movie.”
For anyone who doubts her correlation she has some hair-raising proof: During last week’s wild card game, Williams caught a glimpse of the TV at her Gentilly home when, just like that, the Panthers scored a late touchdown to cut the Saints' lead to five points. She quickly retreated to the kitchen.
She’s better prepared for Sunday’s high-stakes Vikings game. She has hashed out an understanding with her family: Her field of vision must never include a Saints play. Yes, she can get game updates via text message. But if anyone needs to see her, she will be in the kitchen. Call it a defensive play.
“My plan is to actively not watch the game. That’s my way of being a good Saints fan,” she said. “This is my contribution to the win.”
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