|A super finish to the Mississippi|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
NEW ORLEANS -- This is how bad the New Orleans Saints' history is. Their media guide doesn't even acknowledge their first 18 seasons. The guide's year-by-year season summaries begin in 1985, which is when the current owner, Tom Benson, bought the team. It's as if those initial 18 losing seasons never existed.
That's like printing a history of '80s music and leaving out all references to Duran Duran. It may make you feel better, but it doesn't remove the fact that "Hungry Like the Wolf" once was the most popular song in the country.
The Saints no longer are the confederacy of dunces they once were -- they even won a playoff game in 2000 -- and the fans don't wear sacks over their heads anymore. But the team's sorry history still is such that after the Saints lost their season-opener, the New Orleans Times-Picayune felt the need to reassure readers with a headline that read: "Despite loss, season isn't over yet."
Well, that must be a relief to the season-ticket holders.
The last stop on my 10-day sports tour along the Mississippi River is the destination that college teams have spent the entire year trying to reach. The Superdome hosted the Final Four last March and hosts the Sugar Bowl that will decide the national title in college football this January. Even as you read this, exhausted football players somewhere are running an extra set of stadium stairs and straining to lift just one more rep of weights to help their team finish the season right here -- in a stadium so large that it has a 700 level.
If you're an athlete, it takes a lot of work, sweat, skill, sacrifice, coaching and luck to get here. As a fan, it takes even more than that to stay here, when your team has won only one playoff game in 36 seasons and didn't have a winning season at all for two decades.
Even the Cubs have been to the World Series at some point. At least the Clippers moved away once, so their fans didn't have to endure more suffering. The Saints have stayed right where they are, never playing a game past the first weekend of January.
And don't even bring up that ESPN the Magazine cover of Ricky Williams in a wedding dress.
"It's tough, but you've got to get through it," said Angel Santee, who's been cheering for the Saints since the first year in 1967. "That's just part of (being a fan). They're still here -- I have to root for them.
"We'll get back to the playoffs this year. I don't know how far we'll go in the playoffs, but we'll get back to them."
After losing their season opener, the Saints trailed the Texans 10-7 at halftime last Sunday, and you could almost hear the fans rustling their paper sacks. Instead, New Orleans rallied for 24 unanswered points in the second half, completely dominating the game, and won easily, 31-10, to send the fans home with smiles so broad they would have shown through paper sacks. "Good seats still available for next week," the public-address announcer reminded them as they left their seats.
The reminder wasn't necessary. After 36 years, Saints fans aren't about to give up on their team now. Not when they have a non-losing record and semi-credible hopes of reaching the playoffs.
"You can't give up on the home team if you live in town," Saints kick returner and New Orleans native Michael Lewis said. "The Saints have had people fighting for their team for more than 30 years. And they're still waiting for that day when we go to the Super Bowl."
Lewis is an amazing story. He is 5-foot-8, and that rarest of NFL players -- he never went to college. (That's as opposed to the many who simply never went to college classes.)
Which is not to say he didn't receive an extensive education on his path to the NFL. He grew up in a section of New Orleans so bad it is called the Dump. He played semi-pro football for no pay. He played indoor football for $200 a game. He played Arena Football for $900 a game -- and doubled as a linebacker. He played in NFL Europe for the Rhein Fire. He was cut twice in the NFL. At one point, he was driving a beer truck 10 to 14 hours a day all across Louisiana, punching in at six in the morning, working all day, and then practicing in the evenings with something called the Louisiana Bayou Beast of the Indoor Professional Football League.
He's moved more times and had more employers than he can count. Just waiting for W-2 forms so he could file his income tax was an ordeal. "Sometimes it was hard. You would wait and wait and wait."
But he never gave up on his dream. Heck, he used to travel to Atlanta to see his beloved Saints play the Falcons.
And finally, after 11 years of perseverance, he played in his first NFL game at age 29 two years ago with the Saints. So here he is, playing for the team he's rooted for since he was a child, returning kicks so well that he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl last year. What an extraordinary, inspiring accomplishment: from delivering beer in a truck in the abusive Louisiana heat to returning kicks in the tropical breezes of Hawaii.
And I thought I took a lot of turns on my trip.
"I just tell people to never give up on their dreams," Lewis said. "When doors are closed, another one opens up somewhere."
* * * * *
It's been quite a drive.
I waded in the Mississippi's cool waters at the river's headwaters, and I gambled on them in a casino riverboat. I discussed strategy with St. John's football coach John Gagliardi, who will soon win a record 409th game; and I watched St. Louis manager Tony La Russa win his 2,000th major-league game. I stood in a cage with a 400-pound Bengal Tiger at LSU, and in a locker room with 330-pound linemen at the Superdome.
I explored Mark Twain's Cave in Hannibal and Elvis's Jungle Room in Memphis.
I met 30-year-old minor-league catcher Chris Briones at Field of Dreams, when he drove an hour and a half out of his way just so he could play catch with his father before starting an unpaid college coaching job in Nevada. I watched high school football at a simple field in the Mississippi Delta, where Tim and Fred Barnett rose from the surrounding poverty to the NFL.
I saw Hooters waitresses wearing Minnesota Vikings jerseys, and Minnesota Twins wearing Hooters' costumes.
And now, after some 2,000 miles, I am at the end of my journey at the Mississippi's mouth, below the city of New Orleans.
Or, at least, as close to the mouth as a road will take me. About 10 miles from here in Venice, La., the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico through a series of river passes.
The Mississippi used to flow so slowly and deposit so much silt here that the river channel was only eight feet deep, hindering large merchant ships from entering or leaving the river. The Army Corps of Engineers proposed solving the problem by building a seven-mile long ship canal.
An engineer named James Eads, however, was convinced that the Army Corps was wrong, and that the real solution was to build a series of jetties that would speed the river's flow enough to flush away the silt and remove the obstructing sandbars. When the government rejected this idea, he agreed to build the jetties on his own. If they worked, the government would pay him $10 million for his efforts. If they didn't, he would be financially ruined.
The jetties not only worked, they more than doubled shipping on the Mississippi and forever changed the river and the cities along its banks.
Reading a plaque dedicated to this virtually-forgotten man, I marveled at Eads' vision and determination. How could he imagine such an audacious plan? How could he be so certain it would work? How could he risk so much for his idea?
What made a man think he could command the flow of the largest river on the continent?
For that matter, what makes any person think he can do something special?
What makes a minor-league baseball player take a job without a salary, just so he can stay in the game? What makes teenagers growing up in the poverty of the Mississippi Delta think they can earn a living playing football? What makes a man driving a beer truck think he can play in the NFL?
What makes players at schools around the country think they can possibly be the one team that wins it all?
The answer is this -- a remarkable blend of confidence and hope that gives us the strength to move rivers. It's a mixture that we see every day and everywhere in American sports, a mixture that swells within fans and athletes alike ... until it rages like the Mississippi River at full flood.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.