Aside from Baltimore, there are few regions of the country less friendly to the Indianapolis Colts than right here in New England. Over the course of the last 10 years, the Colts and Patriots have built up a fierce rivalry and contests between the two teams are nearly always epic showdowns.
This season was no different, and it's painful for more than a few Patriots fans to see Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl again. As a result, most New Englanders are rooting for the Saints, despite the Week 12 beatdown they doled out to the Patriots.
That said, there are plenty of reasons to root for the Saints and not just against the Colts in Sunday's Super Bowl. I spoke with a couple of Saints fans — one a New Orleans native living in Boston and one from New Hampshire currently residing in New Orleans — about how they view their roots, their team, their city and the upcoming Super Bowl.
Ryan, a 22-year-old premed student studying at Boston College, is a born and raised New Orleanian who moved to Boston in 2006. Ryan grew up watching the Saints with his father in their New Orleans living room, but his New England roots are deeper as Ryan's dad and his dad's family originally hail from Massachusetts.
As such, Ryan has always had one foot in both camps when it comes to rooting interests. Though he respectfully claims he didn't adopt the Patriots when he moved to Boston, Ryan explains his sports fandom thusly: "pull for New Orleans in the sports we got (Saints, Hornets) and go Boston for the rest (particularly the Red Sox and the Bruins)."
Ryan believes that there's something to be said for rooting for your home team, "especially in a city like New Orleans, which we often feel gets forgotten, neglected, or used." However, Ryan does see some similarities between rooting for New Orleans and New England.
"If your team loses then you lose" he says. "Both places take it personally."
Both places, Ryan says, also know what it's like to root for a team through decades of heartbreak.
Beth, a 34-year-old assistant professor of history at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and native New Hampshirite would agree.
"I was always a Patriots fan," she says. "It's hard to live in New England and have a lifetime Patriots season-ticket holder for an uncle and not be a fan."
But upon moving to New Orleans in 2000 to earn her master’s and Ph.D. from Tulane University, Beth was bitten hard by the Saints’ bug. She also sees similarities between New England and New Orleans fans.
"I think the pride and allegiance are the same," she said. "I think both teams have generally working-class roots."
However, Beth sees a difference in terms of each fan base and their response to winning.
"The difference is the level of gratitude and faith," she explained. "When you are talking about a team that has had such a difficult track record, you have to be patient, you have to have faith, and when things work out like they have this year, the payoff is that much sweeter."
Despite the fact that patience is not a virtue common to New Englanders, any dyed-in-the-wool Red Sox fan who experienced 2004 certainly understands the notion of faith.
However, current-day New Orleans differs from New England in a critical way. It is very much a city still struggling to regain its footing and rebuild itself after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. Both Ryan and Beth see daily the affect that the Saints' success has had on the morale of the proud city.
Beth describes the feeling around the city these days: "I'm not sure I can even quantify how much this season and the team have meant to the city and its morale. After several of the biggest games, people seemed more upbeat, friendly, excited. The team has been important to the city, particularly since Katrina, and this year has been even more so. I think it’s certainly been challenging for many here in this city, overcoming a lot of hardship, and this has been something that everyone can share in, and everyone can feel proud of, no matter what is going on in your life."
In a way, the Saints have served as an outlet, a release, for many people still living a very difficult existence in a city that still faces a tough road ahead.
Ryan, however, feels the Saints are bigger than football.
"I think that the Saints reflect the recovery that has been happening in New Orleans," he said. "We are fighting not to get back to where we are, but to what we can and should be."
With the understanding that a football team cannot save a city by itself, the fortunes of the team mirror those of New Orleans' citizens, and their fight to rebuild and stand proud.
"I think the inspiration, the entertainment, and the all-around joy the Saints provide does speak volumes about the strength and determination of New Orleans," Ryan added. "The city right now has the potential to be a theater for great, positive social change. The Saints, within the confines of the NFL, mirror that."
With the knowledge that most football fans outside of Indianapolis are pulling for Drew Brees and company on Sunday, I asked both Ryan and Beth if they thought the Saints had supplanted the Cowboys as the new "America's Team." Beth said "absolutely" but Ryan had a different response.
"I don't think we've really asked that of ourselves," he said. "This one, like the Sox win in '04, is for us. The Saints and New Orleans share a sometimes inglorious past. We realize the efforts in the past few years of the rest of the country in our recovery and rebuilding, but at the end of the day, it's our struggle. Likewise, the Saints are ours. No one else wanted them when they stank, and they can't have 'em now."
Which is not to say, Ryan assures me, that Saints fans don't appreciate the support.
"There's plenty of room for anyone and everyone at the parade we're having for them on Tuesday the 9th, win or lose."
That's something, I believe, New England fans can truly understand. We know what it's like to root for the same teams as your parents and grandparents with little to show for it in the way of success. We understand faith and claim stubbornness and pride as birthrights. And we certainly understand the ways in which a sports team's victory can bring home so much more than a championship trophy.
We may never understand exactly the trials and heartbreak New Orleans and its citizens have faced these past five years, but we can certainly empathize with their desire for a great release. Here's hoping Sunday provides that for them.