Grasping city's culture, Saints have power to convert

“I literally didn’t know what a down was until I was a 26-year-old man.” ANDREW WARD, 34, French Quarter tour guide

There was a time when Gaby Tillero looked forward to Sunday afternoons as a time to relax, refresh and maybe check a few errands off her list for the week ahead.

“That was my time, but now it’s the exact opposite. Now it’s Saints time,” said Tillero, who runs the local design firm Creative Zumo.

During football season, Tillero’s Sundays start with communal feasts with her Freret area neighbors, continue through multi-generational backyard bashes decked out in black-and-gold regalia, and, as often as not, peak with white-knuckle tension as the clock runs down on another close Saints game.

Tillero did not grow up a Saints fan. But that started changing a few years back, and today, at age 42, she finds herself enthralled by games, emotionally invested in the results and, sometimes to her own astonishment, joining her two young children in “Who Dat” cheers.

“It’s our neighbors, the family aspect they bring to Saints parties, the way everyone you see is so into it,” she explained. “It was impossible not to want to be part of it.”

Many around south Louisiana know Saints fandom as a birthright, tracing team loyalty back for generations. But, for others, cheering on the home team — or any football team — is a much newer experience. Think of them as naturalized citizens of the Who Dat nation.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the bandwagon effect, as the Saints have grown from a hard-luck squad to perennial playoff contenders. But the hold the Saints have on New Orleans extends far beyond the gridiron and the sports page. The fan culture pervades the city’s social life, workplaces and schools. The pull can be irresistible, even for those who spent most of their lives blissfully ignorant of divisional standings or road-game records.

One example is French Quarter tour guide Andrew Ward.

“I literally didn’t know what a down was until I was a 26-year-old man,” said Ward, now 34.

He grew up abroad as his parents followed a circuit of postings with the U.S. diplomatic corps. From Yemen to India to Egypt, his childhood sports were cricket, soccer and even fencing, not football. He moved to New Orleans in 2004, but the Saints hook didn’t grab him until after Hurricane Katrina and the team’s dramatic 2006 return to the Superdome.

“It was the first overwhelming rush of good news we’d had in a year,” he recalled.

At first the Saints were an excuse to talk about something positive, he said, and to take part in a collective celebration with new friends in a new city.

“Really, it was about the city as much as it was about the game,” Ward said. “But then you learn the game and start caring about it, and pretty soon you know about downs and two-point conversions and you’re following injury reports. I never thought I’d be excited to watch a whole game, but I’m even watching other teams in case it has an impact on playoff scenarios.”

Robert Ferris, a retired New Orleans educator, made it into his 60s before he started following football in any consistent way. Again, it was the post-Katrina experience that spurred his interest. He and his wife, Sue, bought Saints season tickets after the storm and have been fans ever since.

“It was the fact that the Saints and New Orleans became one immediately after Katrina,” Ferris said. “I wanted to support anything that was symbolic or real to help bring back our beloved city.”

For Sinéad Rudden, becoming a Saints fan was part of feeling more at home in her adopted city. Now a Mid-City resident, she grew up in Ireland as an avid fan of rugby and Gaelic football and started following American football only after moving to New Orleans in 1999.

“The Saints weren’t very good when I was first learning about football, but the longer you live here the more pride you have for New Orleans, and you support the team because you want them to represent us,” Rudden said.

While New Orleans has had more to cheer about during the Payton/Brees era, Bob Flannery can attest that the Saints’ special relationship with its city has been minting new football fans for a long time.

Now 72, Flannery grew up in Chicago and rural Iowa and never followed professional football until moving to New Orleans in 1979. In the early 1980s, even as the Saints struggled through some ignominious seasons, Flannery was impressed by the solidarity the team inspired around the city.

“This is a pretty small town, and the two things that tie it all together are Mardi Gras and the Saints, whether you’re rich or poor, black or white,” Flannery said. “There are some Mardi Gras haters out there, and probably some Saints haters, but you don’t hear from them as much. If you want to be part of what’s happening in this city, the Saints are just part of that.”