Saints and their fans prepare for one final Superdome Showdown

Zach Strief
January 19, 2019 - 8:51 pm

For some players in professional sports, an entire career can come and go without ever sniffing a chance to win a championship.  The stories of pros experiencing long, productive careers without even reaching playoff game, are numerous.  On Sunday in the Superdome a host of players will have an opportunity that children all across America are imagining, and dreaming of today, playing in a Super Bowl.  

Quite simply, the Super Bowl is the single largest sporting spectacle in the world. It’s bigger than any game seven, bigger than any tournament, bigger than any moment in sports. To get there, you must win your conference… that opportunity sits in front of the New Orleans Saints.

Players will experience just a small taste of what an international spotlight feels like this week in New Orleans.  For the first time in many young Saints players careers, they are going to see what it looks like when the NFL’s P.R. engine gets behind a game.  This week, production and media relations will all funnel through the NFL, rather than the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints do a great job during the season restricting requests for players, so they can focus on what is ultimately most important, the game.  Yet, when the conference championships roll around, suddenly it all changes.

The daily press conference that occurs with the local 8 beat writers and reporters, suddenly turns into 30 to 40 from all over the country. The spotlight is simply brighter. Coach Payton’s goal will be to minimize the noise from outside the facility, to funnel the distractions away from his players. Problem is, this is the information age.  We walk around with super computers in our pockets, never out of touch with the stories of the day.  The conference championship games are VERY big news.  That national attention elevates everything attached to the game itself.  Players are creatures of habit, most comfortable in their routines.  Suddenly, those routines are impacted.  For me at least, it made the NFC Championship the biggest game I had ever played in.  
In 2009 when we had an opportunity to go to the Super Bowl, I felt like the game to get there was even more stressful than the destination behind it.  Going to a world championship is a spectacle.  Not only was I contacted by people from all corners of my life, my parents were as well.  As athletes, it’s easy for us to lose track of all the people we encounter on our journeys.  It’s easy to assume that a friendship from the past has been following along with you in your success.  The two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl could only be compared to Christmas Eve as a ten-year-old.  You are so beyond excited to see what will come next.  Every day you wake up, jump out of bed, eagerly awaiting what comes next on this amazing journey.

Putting on your jersey before that game is surreal.  That patch on your chest commemorating the momentous opportunity that sits before you, you wear like a badge of honor.  The grandeur, the pageantry of that championship game is unlike anything you will ever experience in your life.  Once you are there, that experience is yours forever.  No one can ever take the experience away from you.  

Maybe, these are simply the thoughts of a player who has never lost a Super Bowl.  Rob Ninkovich, the former Saints and Patriot defensive end, told Deuce McAllister and I that nothing was ever worse than losing a Super Bowl.  That he would have preferred to not ever get there, than to lose.  The unique thing about Rob Ninkovich is he was blessed to appear in a Super Bowl three times.  He played in seven AFC championship games with the Patriots.  This is not the career of your average football player.  For most, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity may be just that… once-in-a-lifetime.  

I was fortunate to play in two, but I wouldn’t have traded the one Super Bowl experience for anything.  The pressure to get to experience that, I think, is even greater than the pressure of the actual game.  Does that actual experience live up to my thoughts? At least one former teammate thinks so.
I talked to a former teammate, Jon Stinchcomb, about his experience in the Minnesota Vikings game in the 2009 season.  He made a point I hadn’t thought about.  “The pressure of the NFC Championship was pretty comparable, if not more than the Super Bowl, because it was played in front of a rabid fanbase desperate for a taste of playoff success.”  Makes a lot of sense.

The Saints are favored in this game and for good reason.  How hard is it to come into the Superdome and beat Drew Brees and Sean Payton in a home playoff game? Well, it’s never been done.  With that expectation comes pressure from a stadium full of the the most loyal & fierce fans in football, the Who Dat Nation.  There is also the reality that you may be playing the second-best team in football.  The Saints certainly did in 2009.  The Minnesota Vikings quite honestly dominated the stat sheet vs. the Saints.  They outgained us by over 200 yards.  They won in every category except for the ones that mattered, points and turnovers.  

Former Saint great Jonathon Vilma told Deuce and I that the NFC Championship game was “easily the hardest game I ever played in.” All of this is to really say one thing.  This Saints-Rams
game will be one of the most memorable of many of these players entire careers.  They will remember it forever.  They will talk about it forever.  It will live on with them, forever. All of this is to let you know that the players are going through some of the same emotions that you all are as fans.  The stress is felt; the anxiety must be dealt with.  The biggest difference between being a player and being a fan is that as a player you feel like you get to have a direct impact on whether or not the Saints succeed.  After all, you are on the field, making or breaking the plays that will dictate the outcome of the game.  

Once I finished playing, I quickly realized how nerve-racking it is to feel like you can’t affect the outcome on the field.  After all, I can’t create the noise, I can only narrate it.  So, even though I can no longer affect the outcome on the field, the fans can do just that. Saints fans have been incredibly loyal to their team.  There have been ample opportunities for fans to jump off the fandom train in New Orleans.  Yet, they never have.  

A quarterback like Drew Brees is a once in a generation superstar for nearly all fanbases.  The window in which we have him will not be open forever.  The time is now for the New Orleans Saints to win their second world championship.  To do that, they must win one final contest in the friendly confines of their Superdome.  It’s one final opportunity for the Who Dat Nation to carry its team to a victory. All week I have heard, watched and read stories about how the advantage created by the rabid Saints fanbase could be the difference in what should be a very close NFC Championship.  Well Saints fans…it’s time to Prove Them Right!

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