The little teams that could (and might)

2011 January 2

Once upon a time, there were two below average, er below average, um mediocre (yeah, that’s it) football teams. They played not too far from each other in neighboring southern states.

The Saints of New Orleans, playing in the National Football League, were born on All Saints Day, but the only saints around the first 40 years or so were the fans. They sometimes wore bags, and sometimes didn’t buy tickets, but were always the subject of watercooler chat on Mondays during the season. A guy ran back the first kickoff in team history for a touchdown, another guy with half a foot won a football game with a really long kick, there were teammates named Guido Merkens and Russell Erxleben. They even managed a few seasons getting to the playoffs, promptly bombing out in the first round time after time after time after time. Then, a guy named Hakim dropped a ball:

Great things didn’t happen for the Saints in the aftermath, until a great (as in massive, historic) thing happened to them. Katrina paid the Gulf Coast a visit and crushed a huge chunk of the fanbase, killing many they loved and destroying much of what they owned. The team lived a nomadic existence for a year, a terrible year, with an owner who wanted the hell outta dodge. (He was a car salesman, by the way.)

The Saints fired their coach, hired a new one, got a new quarterback and the bombed-out stadium got a facelift. Then, a guy blocked a punt:

The Saints would go on to win the team’s second playoff game, but fell a game short of the Super Bowl. There were two more seasons of mediocrity filled with lots of shoulda, coulda, woulda (appropriate since the team invented the phrase, literally). Then, there was a 13-0 start, followed by a three-game losing streak.

What could have been another setting for disappointment and letdown wound up with beating up one quarterback, and then another before an interception set up a guy kicking a field goal:

Two weeks later, there was another interception:

And the Saints of New Orleans were champions.

About 250 miles north-northeast, the Bulldogs of Mississippi State University, playing in the Southeastern Conference, confounded fans for decade upon decade. There were brief flashes of great things, like the 1941 SEC championship (the only SEC championship), and beating No. 1 Alabama in 1983:

But more often, there were things like the Immaculate Deflection and Tech-and-10.

The latest, newest great “era” of Bulldogs football is under way, and hope blooms again in Starkville. The team decleated Michigan in the Gator Bowl, and the coach is signed up to a shiny new (and huge) contract. There were nine wins in this season, and if the Saints of New Orleans have taught the Bulldogs of Mississippi State University anything, it’s that there’s always hope.

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