Lewis: Saints’ super return to the Dome still resonates for ‘Monday Night Football’ play-by-play man Mike Tirico _lowres

Mike Tirico

In his near-quarter-century broadcasting career, virtually all of it spent at ESPN, Mike Tirico has just about done it all: the NBA Finals, the U.S. and British Opens, the World Cup, the BCS Championship Game and any number of studio assignments.

But one event still tops them all: It was Sept. 25, 2006, the night the New Orleans Saints returned to the Superdome a year after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the building.

“It was just our third game of doing ‘Monday Night Football,’ ” said Tirico, now in his ninth season in the play-by-play spot. “And to know what the Superdome stood for and how 56 weeks before what had happened to it was very emotional for us all. It sent a message to the world that New Orleans was back and cemented for me the fact that sports can be bigger than the game. It’s the highlight of my career, for sure.”

Tirico, broadcast partner Jon Gruden and the rest of the “Monday Night Football” crew return to New Orleans on Monday when the Saints host the Baltimore Ravens. It’s the 28th time for “MNF” to come to New Orleans and the 11th since the switch from ABC to ESPN nine years ago.

And while the Saints haven’t always been at their best on Mondays — they’re 17-18 following last season’s 34-7 debacle at Seattle — at home during the ESPN/Tirico era, they’re 8-2 with a seven-game winning streak.

“It seems like every time we come to New Orleans, the Saints are at their best,” Tirico said. “The vibe you get from the crowd is one of the best. It never gets old.”

And, neither, seemingly does “Monday Night Football.”

Now in its 45th year, “MNF” regularly wins Monday night in all of the key adult and male demographic categories for both broadcast and cable shows. Among all cable shows, it’s exceeded in viewers only by “The Walking Dead,” which apparently means zombies are the only things more powerful than football.

And in a prime-time world where the NFL has now moved into Thursdays for the entire season and has concluded Sundays with a prime-time game since 1988, “MNF” still enjoys a special status.

“It’s twofold,” Tirico said. “First, Monday’s usually the worst day of the week for more folks, so knowing there’s a game on that night makes it a little less miserable. And then it’s the one night when all of the other players are able to watch. I think that gives the teams in the game a little extra juice.”

That’s been the case since “MNF” debuted in 1970 when Joe Namath and the Super Bowl champion New York Jets visited Cleveland. In those early years, “MNF” was a cultural phenomenon, fueled by the celebrity status of Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford.

The Saints were never much in those early years, but the Superdome was a regular venue for late-season games because of an aversion to playing them at cold-weather sites.

It took seven tries for the Saints to win on Monday night. And between 1993 and 2005, they lost seven in a row.

There were two losses in 2005: a 36-17 loss at Atlanta in December and a 27-10 loss to the New York Giants in a game that was moved from New Orleans because of Katrina.

That, Tirico said, made the return for the Dome’s reopening a year later special enough. And then Steve Gleason blocked a Falcons punt, and the noise threatened to tear the roof off the building again.

“Seattle and a lot of other places are loud, but nothing like it was at that moment,” Tirico said. “It’s bittersweet to me to know what Steve is having to deal with now, but then I think about his courage in meeting that challenge. For all of us who were there, it was a very poignant night.”

Not all Monday night games are so memorable. And because there’s no flexibility in “MNF” scheduling, sometimes late-season games have few playoff implications.

That’s not the case this time, Tirico points out. While the only realistic opportunity for the Saints (4-6) is to win the NFC South, the Ravens (6-4) are in the thick of both the AFC North and wildcard races.

“There’s a lot of pressure on these teams to win this game,” Tirico said. “If they want to make the playoffs, they can’t afford too many more mistakes along the way.”

Regardless of what happens on any Monday night, Tirico is mindful of the seat he occupies. Remarkably, he’s only the fourth play-by-play voice in series history, following Keith Jackson (1970), Gifford (1971-87) and Al Michaels (1987-2005).

“It’s one of the greatest TV jobs there is, and it’s an honor to be considered the keeper of the flame, so to speak,” Tirico said. “I love this job and want to keep it for as long as they’ll have me.

“My mom used to tell people her son worked for ESPN. Now she just tells them I’m the announcer for ‘Monday Night Football.’ ”