For a Minnesota Vikings fan visiting New Orleans, seeing the relationship the city has with its football team can make you think you married wrong.
The Minnesota Vikings have been playing coy with the state and its fans for the last few months, probably because it’s good business to do so. They want a new publicly-financed stadium and it’s no secret they’re leaving the option open to leave Minnesota if they don’t get it.
They play the New Orleans Saints Sunday night for the NFC Championship and the right to do go to the Super Bowl in Miami. They’ll play in a city that is scarred still — badly so — by Hurricane Katrina. There was no reason for the Saints to stay in New Orleans after Katrina wiped out the city. A third of the city’s population has left.
I was fully prepared to declare the substory behind this game “hype,” because in any other city, that’s just what it would be. But I spent today with Frank Vardeman of St. Paul, the Gulf Coast hurricane response manager for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, (I’ll be writing specifically about his work later today) , trying to explore whether this “Who Dat Nation” is beauty that’s only skin deep, and only among rabid football fans. It’s not.
Nor is this a story of a good team in a big game diverting the city’s attention from its problems. And, trust me, it’s got problems.
A block from the Superdome, the former Charity Hospital is empty and abandoned. It was American’s oldest trauma hospital, until it became the poster child for the horror of Katrina.
Across the street, another high-rise building is abandoned.
And across from it, another still…
The French Quarter is rebuilt so you wouldn’t know a hurricane had ever visited. The city had no choice; that’s where the money comes from in a tourist economy. The farther you go away from the Quarter, the harder it is to ignore reality.
Maybe sections of New Orleans don’t look like much to the visiting horde from Minnesota. It’s much like Elizabeth’s in the city’s Bywater neighborhood. Not so swell on the outside, perhaps, but a teeming pot of city love (and four-star food) inside. “It’s not hype,” owner Jim Harp, said when I asked him the same question I asked people all over the city. “The team is huge for us. Tomorrow morning, you won’t be able to get anywhere near here.”
Harp, by the way, was a claims adjuster before getting into the restaurant business. Katrina was his last storm.
Frank Vardeman will watch the game tomorrow with a co-worker who, he suspects, is worried he’ll root for the Vikings. “It’s infectious,” he said of the relationship between the team and the city. He’d told me earlier about the work Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and other players, had done to help the city rebuild.
Brees was a football free agent when he toured New Orleans right after Katrina. “Like a nuclear bomb went off,” Brees told the New York Times of his first view of the city. “I looked at that as an opportunity. How many people get that opportunity in their life to be a part of something like that?”
A nice story. But the Vikings have done community work too, and it doesn’t fully explain the depth of passion that exists here.
As we drove by the buildings you see above, Vardeman answered my question — why is there this connection between the city and the team? — with the three words that could easily be the Minnesota translation of “Who Dat?”
“Because they stayed,” he said.
And that is why Minnesota will never have the love affair with its NFL football team that New Orleans has with the Saints. The team’s love for the city that loves it right back is unconditional.
“If we weren’t from Minnesota, we’d probably be rooting for the Saints,” a woman from Minneapolis, wearing a Vikings jersey, said to me shortly after arriving in the city this afternoon.
If she spends one more day here, there’s a pretty good chance she will anyway.