Rabalais: An unusually sentimental night of August football

Advocate staff photo by John McCusker -- Jerry Romig, left, has been the PA announcer for Saints games for decades. This season he will hand off to his son Mark, right, outside the booth where he calls the games. He called his last game as the Saints faced the Oakland Raiders in preseason action in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday, August 16, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by John McCusker -- Jerry Romig, left, has been the PA announcer for Saints games for decades. This season he will hand off to his son Mark, right, outside the booth where he calls the games. He called his last game as the Saints faced the Oakland Raiders in preseason action in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday, August 16, 2013.

By Scott Rabalais

Advocate sportswriter

This is the tale of Jerry, Matt, Tracy and David.

Their stories intersected beneath the Mercedes-Benz Superdome roof Friday night for a game between the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders that was predictably short on drama, as most preseason contests are, but long on sentimentality.

First, appropriately, there was Jerry Romig.

On the anniversary of Elvis officially leaving the building, Romig bid adieu, too, the Saints beloved public-address announcer switching off his microphone after 44 years.

The Saints once had “Iron Mike” Ditka as their coach, but Romig was the Saints’ true ironman. He called 446 games, never missing a start, which is to say he performed better than many of the Saints teams he watched play over the years.

Not even Hurricane Katrina driving 8 feet of water into his Lakeview home drove him away. He and his wife, Janice, moved to a home in Baton Rouge near Government and Ardenwood for four months as the Saints played home games in Tiger Stadium and San Antonio.

“It’s been fun,” Romig said just after the Saints sent him out with a 28-20 victory, his words sounding a bit watery. “Good night. Love you.”

Romig’s delivery didn’t match the velvet tones of many PA announcers in pro stadiums around the country, but his voice was quintessential New Orleans. For a town that reveres its traditions, his absence at the Saints’ Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Atlanta Falcons will leave a void in this city’s soul.

“We’ve listened to him our whole lives,” said son Mark Romig, who will fill his father’s chair. “We (kids) used to go around the house saying ‘First down, Saints! Touchdown, Saints!’ ”

They weren’t the only ones.

If it was a bittersweet night for the Romigs, it was the same for Raiders Matt Flynn and Tracy Porter — only physically more painful.

The last time Flynn played in the Superdome, he was piloting LSU to the BCS championship against Ohio State in January 2008. The last time Porter was here, he was still basking in the afterglow of his game-clinching interception return against Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

Flynn was turned inside-out by the Saints’ pass rush, sacked five times in dereliction of duty by his non-blockers. Porter got burned on a regular season-worthy 56-yard pass from Drew Brees to Nick Toon (no real sin there) to set up New Orleans’ first touchdown on a 2-yard run by Mark Ingram. The Port Allen native left the game in the second quarter with a groin injury.

You have to feel for Flynn, whose six-year NFL career can be succinctly described as purgatory.

He was going nowhere as Aaron Rodgers’ backup in Green Bay but parlayed one great game at the end of the 2011 season into a fat contract with the Seattle Seahawks. There was just one fatal loophole: Russell Wilson was better. Now Flynn is quarterbacking a Raiders team that looks like it couldn’t successfully raid a pantry at midnight, one which will probably position itself to draft Teddy Bridgewater or Tajh Boyd in 2014.

Hope Flynn at least survives intact to see it.

For all the sentimentality and fond memories pinging around the Superdome, there was at least one stark reminder of how unsentimental professional football is.

Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was sidelined for Friday’s action, having undergone arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this week. It is the fourth time in Vilma’s 10-year NFL career that he has had knee issues — knees that are looking a lot older than the rest of his 31-year-old body.

Saints coach Sean Payton has been loyal to Vilma. The veteran linebacker stood firm in the face of the NFL’s “Bountygate” allegations and refused to crack, eventually having his suspensions and fines lifted.

But loyalty only goes so far if you can’t play at a high level. The NFL is a business, and a brutal one.

Into the Vilma gap the Saints inserted David Hawthorne on Friday night. Hawthorne carries a high price tag for a backup, joining the club in 2012 for a five-year, $19 million deal.

Not that Hawthorne isn’t worthy, and not to say Vilma won’t be able to return, but the Saints may eventually have to decide that the gold tied up in Hawthorne as a reserve makes him a better investment.