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Zach Strief: Mardi Gras is just around the corner, but for the Saints, it’s already begun

Zach Strief
January 13, 2019 - 1:41 pm

I was born a Yankee… it is what it is.  Yet, 13 years after arriving, I consider myself a New Orleanian.  There are a couple things that are synonymous with being a local in New Orleans.  You love Mardi Gras, and you love the Saints.  Sure, there are people who would claim not to love one or both.  These are people we call “buzz kills.” For the rest of us, St. Charles Avenue and the Superdome are our churches, where we gather together, in a moment of unity, to celebrate life and love.  

In a world that seems constantly divided, New Orleans gets to come together every weekend in the fall, with one united mission… to win together and walk together forever.  That is an expression that former Saints coach Joe Vitt shared constantly with us throughout the magical 2009 run to a world championship.  Joe was right.  As we will see today in the Superdome, players from that team will come back together, still champions. It’s no different for the fans.  Where were you when Tracy Porter picked off Peyton Manning? You could tell me where, why and with whom.  You will carry that moment with you forever. Today is the first step in getting to experience that all again. 
To me, an NFL season is a lot like a Mardi Gras parade.  I was fortunate to get a call from a good friend six years ago, with an opportunity of a lifetime.  He asked if I wanted to ride with him in Bacchus. I had snuck him into the Super Bowl parade after-party, and he wanted to return the favor.  I jumped on it.  I’ll be riding with that same group for the sixth year at the end of February.

Here’s what I’ve learned about being in a Mardi Gras krewe.  First of all, there is a lot of work that goes into a successful ride.  I volunteered for everything I could help with that first year to try and make myself a valuable commodity to the float, hoping to get a permanent invitation back.  Float decorating starts months before Mardi Gras.  Thousands of workers all over the city spend months turning trailers into the world greatest parade floats.  Well, for a Saints player, the season is just the parade.  It lasts just a few hours.  The preparation takes months, hundreds of hours, thousands of snaps.  The real work has already taken place when the season begins.  The same happens during Mardi Gras.  

So once the float is built, it’s loaded, the riders are selected, and they’ve paid the price, the ride begins.  The regular season starts with so much excitement.  Everyone believes that it will be the perfect season, the one to take you back to the promise land.  Just as you stand on the route knowing… this is the year you’ll catch that Muses shoe, that Zulu coconut.  There always seems to be a threat of rain, but you never think it’s actually going to.  Players always find ways to look past any deficiencies of their teams, trusting in their off-season preparation, knowing that this year will be different.  Yet, there always is a bump along the way.

Half way into a season, everyone seems to think they know what the ride is going to be like.  “The rain held off.” “The crowd is big this year.” However, you never really know what it is like, until it’s over.  The season can almost feel monotonous.  St. Charles Ave. starts looking the same after 20 blocks.  Riders take a seat, have a break, maybe eat a little, missing some of the scene passing them by.  Not unlike the difficulties of being at the top of your game, every game, for 17 weeks.  There are down weeks (Dallas), weeks when you don’t have your best, but still find a way (2nd Tampa), and weeks where you rise to the occasion (Pittsburgh).  Anyone who ever rode in a parade knows how these ebs and flows work.  

If you’ve ever been in a Mardi Gras crowd, you know the float that goes past seemingly half empty and out of beads.  But every ride reaches moments when the energies rise.  Anyone who has ever turned down Canal Blvd. on a beautiful night, in the thick of Mardi Gras has felt it.  These are the big games down the stretch.  The undefeated Rams coming to town, the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles or the Pittsburgh Steelers with a chance to win the division.  Suddenly, you are not tired, you are throwing your heart out. You’re dancing, you’re feeding off the energy of that crowd.  If you’re in that crowd, you have to yell louder, you have to wave your arms, you have to affect the riders, get them to see you in a sea of people and throw you their best.  It’s two sides feeding off each other.  You’re in it together.  Without one or the other… it doesn’t work.  

Suddenly, you’re off Canal.  You take a deep breath.  There are people still on the route, but there are no crowds.  It’s a moment to regroup, to process the scene you just experienced.  This is a bye week in the playoffs.  Players have just played through the most exhilarating moments of the season to date.  The energy, the stress, the emotions, all amplified.  I always spent this time regrouping.  Gathering up my throws, taking inventory of what I have left.  Organizing it to make sure I can get to it efficiently.  Have I saved enough valuable throws?  Do I have all the things people are looking for?  Can I top my drink off?  You know… for hydration.  It’s an appreciated lull, because you’re riding to the explosive crescendo.  You see, the ride is amazing.  The people, the energy, the noise, the colors the excitement is there the entire ride.  Yet, the intensity of it all is about to rise.  

In front of you is the Mardi Gras ball.  The densest collection of parade goers, dressed to the nines, anxiously awaiting your arrival.  They have been inside waiting for you the whole parade.  They spent a lot of money to be there.  They want to see your best, they want to see it up close.  If they couldn’t be there, they are at home watching on TV.  Every rider has all their throws lined up.  The best of the best.  All those breaks you took, all of the energy you had in reserve is now overflowing.  

For Bacchus, we pull around the Convention Center, making a left turn.  One last stretch of pavement.  You can see the large garage door, open, awaiting your arrival.  Lights and music pounding out the door into the evening air.  You make your final turn, the room is electric.   You get one final look at what awaits you.  A sea of people.  This is it… you’ve made it.  Welcome to the NFL Playoffs.  

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