NEW ORLEANS -- Where were you when the Saints won it all? It's one of those questions -- like, Where were you during the Apollo 11 moon landing? -- that will be asked a lot in the decades to come by generations of sports fans trying to put their lives in the context of something far bigger.
Where was I? Inside Al and Patricia Jones's house in the Ninth Ward. I met them for the first time when I showed up on the doorstep early in the fourth quarter, just as the Colts missed what would've been a lead-extending field goal and the Saints were rearing to take everyone in this town on the ride of their lives.
New Orleans already had a singular reputation for hospitality, but during the Super Bowl the city eclipsed its own lofty standard. Even the most seasoned party crasher would've struggled to keep up with the Joneses, who didn't go 10 minutes without offering me something to eat (I'm good), five minutes without checking on my drink situation (I'm good), or two minutes without apologizing for the rowdy family members that congested their living room. (Goodness, were they hilarious.)
I counted about 40 relatives in all -- 41 if you count Patricia's sister Naomi, who Skyped into the festivities from Spain, where she is playing pro volleyball. The laptop receiving her image sat on a TV table facing the Jones' big flat screen and, miraculously, was not obliterated on the next drive, when Jeremy Shockey snatched a pass near the goal line and plowed into the end zone, sending Naomi's kinfolk ping-ponging all over the house.
When the Saints defense faced third-and-five with 3:24 left and Phil Simms was imploring the team not to blitz against the all-knowing Peyton Manning, Patricia's brother, Timothy Washington, turned his back to the TV a split second and bellowed: "This what he don't know -- turnovers!" As in, here comes one. Right on cue, Tracy Porter stepped in front of a slant meant for Reggie Wayne and took it 74 yards to house, and the Jones home rocked to the foundation. In the wake of that epic moment followed a torrent of two-stepping, Jesus-praising and text messaging that didn't subside until early the next morning.
For those who couldn't be part of the Who Dat Diaspora in South Florida, there was no better place to be during the big game than right here, no happier place on earth than New Orleans. No more peaceful a place, either. Cities can turn into dangerous places in the wake of a championship, where burning trash cans and overturning cars has become de rigueur. But on Sunday night here, the safest places may well have been the streets.
People filled them in droves in anticipation of a boa-feathered, parasol-punctuated party 43 years in the making, and for a catharsis that seemed implausible 4½ years ago when another, far darker question served as this town's unofficial icebreaker: Where were you when the levees broke?
There was no way Geoffrey Provan, a 34-year-old restaurant owner from Orange County, N.Y., was missing out on this. At 7 a.m. on Sunday, he and his girlfriend, Amanda, sat clear-eyed at New York's JFK Airport on a flight bound for the Big Easy that was so packed with Saints fans that even the pilot kicked off his pre-flight announcement with a hearty "Who Dat!" Provan visited New Orleans for the first time last Halloween weekend, fell hard for the place and was overcome by the level of Saints' fealty among the locals. It really hit home for him the morning after the team beat the Falcons on Monday Night Football, when he and Amanda were hunting around for a breakfast place. Through one restaurant window, they spied a waitress calmly serving customers in a Saints baseball cap, jersey and a cardboard sandwich board bearing copies of front page of that day's newspaper, blaring the headline 7-0 PERFECT SAINTS.
He knew the buzz in the city would be a million times that if the team reached the Super Bowl, and Amanda knew it too. When the Saints were battling the Vikings in the NFC Championship, she was online researching hotels and airfare prices. As soon as Garrett Hartley's 40-yard field goal in overtime sailed through the uprights to seal a trip to South Florida, she hit the send button for New Orleans. "The game might be in Miami," Provan said on the flight over, "but the party's gonna be on Bourbon St."
Charles Emery, 43, wasn't going to miss out either. As a sous-chef at the Bourbon St. stalwart Tony Moran's, he'd be right in the middle of the madness, albeit tucked away in the kitchen. Still, he had no complaints about working the city's high holy holiday. After losing his house in the storm and spending the next few years hop scotching from here to San Jose, Calif. to Baton Rouge and back, he was not only glad to be home "but grateful to be contributing," he said, tugging at his NFC Champions hat.
He was just as grateful that the kitchen's order window had a clear sightline to one of the flat screens in the restaurant's dining room. When the final seconds ticked away on the Saints' historic victory, he raised a glass of champagne with his fellow co-workers, then met up with his family in the lobby of a nearby hotel to bask with them in the bedlam.
Douglas Haywood, the 67-year-old reverend of the New Israel Baptist Church in the Ninth Ward, prophesied a big day in his 8 a.m. Sunday service. Cloaked in a white Marques Colston jersey, he began the day's sermon -- "Who Dat?" -- matter-of-factly: "I know you all are ready to get out of here, so I'm gonna stand up, speak up, shut up and sit down." Fifteen minutes later he segued into the benediction and then sent the congregation streaming out of the aisles to "Stand Up and Get Krunk," one of the Saints many hype songs.
Still, that festive atmosphere barely approached the one that greeted him outside his New Orleans East home in the closing moments of Super Bowl XLIV. Neighbors burst out of their houses to whoop it up, shoot firecrackers into the crisp night air and honk their horns loud and long enough to set off the alarms in other cars on the block. As Haywood was taking this in another vision filled his head. "We're gonna repeat," said Haywood, explaining that the team was built for a five-year run. "I'm not saying we're gonna win the Super Bowl in all of those years, but we might do two or three."
Back in the Ninth, Timothy Washington wasn't looking to match Haywood prediction for prediction after the game as much as he was looking to slip outside for a celebratory smoke. For this 24-year-old hotel security guard, the real victory was being able to share this moment with family members he had completely lost touch with after the hurricane hit, in a rebuilt house that was once submerged in floodwater.
And yet he knows better than anyone that for as purgative a moment this Super Bowl win was in civic history, it won't wash away the city's lingering blights. Too many of them are clustered in the Ninth, where roads are unsmooth and unlit, houses stay unoccupied and in disrepair and some residents still haggle with insurance companies and the government for money.
No, the Saints' win doesn't fix any of those problems. But what it does do is give one stranger a reason to embrace another, young impetus to join in song with an old and the whole city an occasion to show just what a staggeringly beautiful place this can be when everyone comes together for a common cause.
Of course there invariably will be some who will have seen similarly ideal snapshots of New Orleans on TV and will forget them just as quickly as they flashed on the screen. For the rest of us who were here, the images won't just last a lifetime, they may well define it.