If you’ve been the voice of the New Orleans Saints for 446 straight games, you can dispense fatherly wisdom in clipped Mercedes-Benz Superdome shorthand.
Let’s begin: Saints ball, first down. Drew Brees quarterbacking the Saints. Number 22, Mark Ingram, in the running back slot. ... Brees passing, complete to tight end Jimmy Graham, 30 yards. TOUCHDOWN, Saints! Garrett Hartley will try the point after. ... It’s good! Saints TD drive: 70 yards, seven plays.
Those are a couple of the style notes that Jerry Romig recently typed in an e-mail to his son Mark, who takes over the PA microphone Sunday — aiming to fill the largest size 7 shoes in local sports-announcing history.
Romig, 83, still plans to watch from the booth that now bears his name. But he’ll sit several paces back from the perch above the field where his nasal exuberance and signature calls — “First doooowwwn, Saints!” and “Cooooooolston!” — have provided the sound track for fans for 44 years.
When Romig first traipsed into Tulane Stadium to call Saints games in the team’s third NFL season, the Woodstock crowd was still shaking off the mud. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were settling back in after their long trip. Richard Nixon was in his first year as president.
And the Saints had won all of seven games. The team wouldn’t make a playoff appearance for 18 more years.
“Those early years, God, they were terrible,” Romig said. “Didn’t matter to the fans. The fans still loved ’em.”
A devout Catholic, Romig lounged in his Metairie home last month near a note that had just arrived from Archbishop Gregory Aymond, one of the many congratulations he has received lately. Among the gifts coming his way, he said, is a Super Bowl ring from the team. He’s trying to find a safe place to keep it.
“It’s nice being a winner,” he said. “I think I was the same person in the booth that I was 40 years ago. I’m just seeing better football.”
Romig’s most cherished Saints memories include some recently minted ones, such as the 2009 NFC Championship game that propelled the team to the Super Bowl and Steve Gleason’s blocked punt in the 2006 return to the Superdome.
But there are more than a few from the lean years, which of course far outnumbered the salad days. For instance, kicker Tom Dempsey’s still-a-record, 63-yard, game-winning kick in 1970, when Romig was in his second year at the mike and the team won five games.
Romig recalled watching the crowd empty out of Tulane Stadium before the improbable boot and couldn’t help but let it know what it just missed.
“When that club-foot hit that ball, damn! Wow! Bam! I just screamed into the mike: ‘It’s gooood! It’s gooood! It’s gooood!’ ” Romig said, rising in his easy chair. “I could see ’em all going down the ramps. They missed this fantastic moment because they didn’t have the patience to wait!”
Keeping his passionate fandom tucked beneath his sleeve, then unfurling it in loops at key moments, has won Romig a lasting following as a distinctly, unmistakably New Orleans icon.
Roger Emrich said he attended Saints games from the beginning, started announcing games for West Jefferson High School and tried to follow the trail blazed by Romig. Emrich now announces Dallas Cowboys home games.
“Whenever I talk to my friends at home, I say I’m the Jerry Romig of Dallas, and they know right away what I’m talking about,” Emrich said. “I just think back to watching newsreels of Lowell Thomas, Walter Winchell. Jerry just had that kind of a voice. It wasn’t your typical announcer voice. It was more of a uniquely New Orleans voice. ...
“One of my favorite parts of him, like at the Saints games, he would start out — and I try to do this at Cowboys games — not talking about starting lineups. When the offense would come on the field, Jerry would say, ‘Your quarterback, Number 8, Archie Manning. Your running back, Howard Stevens.’ You didn’t hear that in any other stadium, a guy like that. You knew a guy from New Orleans was speaking to you.”
For Romig and Janice, his wife of 60 years, New Orleans was never not home — and they’ve never not known each other, growing up together from childhood.
“I’ve said we’ve never been properly introduced,” Janice said.
“Her mother always felt free to spank me if I was bad,” Jerry added.
The son of a general manager for the Howe Scale Co. who came south from Cincinnati and married his secretary, Romig attended grade school at Sacred Heart of Jesus, then Holy Cross, then Loyola, where he focused on journalism before heading to the Navy for a stint during the Korean War.
“I was lucky. I didn’t have to leave the States,” he said.
He edited the high school newspaper, then started at age 24 as a part-timer for the States-Item — “I got 231/2 cents an inch. I’d make it as long as I possibly could,” he recalled. He would later work for The Times-Picayune as a sportswriter. That’s when an opening for a PA announcer came up at Tulane, a year before the Saints came calling.
“And what the heck? Why not? I’d give it a try,” he said. “I was never frightened by a microphone.”
Romig worked for years in television, in front of the camera and behind it, for WDSU and the archdiocese. In the meantime, the Romigs had four kids, two others who didn’t survive more than a few days of life — then a fifth, Ellen, 16 years later.
In between they fostered 21 children, ran Scout troops and raised a family of sports diehards in a Lakeview home that was destroyed in the post-Katrina flooding.
Rule One: No major family events in the fall.
“There’s football season and everything else. Football season, we couldn’t get married. We all kind of had to work around that,” said Ellen Romig Fihlman, who’s now 37. “The year I started dating my husband, Tulane was undefeated and they played Thanksgiving Day. My husband says, ‘What time should I come over for Thanksgiving?’ My mother says, ‘Come on over at 11, and we’ll head down to the Superdome.’ ”
Their oldest, Jay, started taping players’ ankles part-time, joined the Saints staff and has never left. He’s the one running the scoreboard in the booth.
Mary Beth, a longtime public-relations executive, is there, too, having spent the past two decades reeling off downs, distances and player names for her father — and, starting Sunday, for her brother Mark, director of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.
Jerry declined to say how much money comes with the job.
“I don’t even remember. I have never talked money with the Saints, never signed a contract,” he said. “At the end of the year, they send me a check. They never said, ‘Do you want to do another year?’ They like me. They like the job I do. I love this job. They always assumed I wanted to do another year.”
That changed this summer. After the BCS Championship game early last year, Romig took a nasty fall heading out of the Dome, injuring his back. The pain in his back and running down his left leg made the 2012 season painful.
He has received several epidural shots in recent months, with mixed results. The week before the final home preseason game, Romig sat down with Saints brass.
“He had a challenging time getting into the Dome. And he sounds great. That’s the thing — he sounds fantastic,” Mary Beth said. “But it just takes so much out of him. None of us were encouraging him (to stop). We all know how much he loves it every week.
“The things I’ve heard (recently), people saying, ‘Your dad means so much to this community.’ They say ‘iconic.’ They say ‘legend.’ To me, he’s Dad.”
The Romigs sat in their apartment a few weeks ago, cruising through memories, Jerry’s indelible calls and their hopes for Mark as he takes the booth.
They have more memories than possessions from before the storm. All of the baby pictures are gone, the pre-Katrina memorabilia. They never expected the house on Marshall Foch Street to flood, so they left almost everything in place but themselves, moving to Baton Rouge and commuting to San Antonio for “home” games.
They never returned to Lakeview.
“We just didn’t want to go through tearing down and rebuilding,” Janice said.
Those were trying times for the family, followed later by the glory of a team returning home and then a Super Bowl victory that never gets old. What remains, for the Romigs and Saints home crowds alike, are the calls, some of which Jerry hopes Mark will adopt.
“I want him to put his personality into it,” Jerry said. “I’d like him to pick up two things: ‘First down!’ and ‘Cooolston.’ I like (wide receiver Marques) Colston, and I know he likes it. It makes me feel good.”
“Jerry — ‘It’s good!’ ” Janice said, adding one more patented call to the list.
“Yeah, ‘It’s good,’ ” he agreed. Still, he added, “I don’t want to get in Mark’s way.”
At his father’s final game in front of the mike, Mark, 57, paced around the booth, rolling over the nuances of the gig in his head. The team handed the job to Mark with his dad’s retirement. He gladly accepted.
“I think he wants to make his father proud. It’s the ending of an era and the beginning of a tradition,” said David Briggs, a longtime friend. “Most of the Romigs, I don’t think there’s been a camera or a microphone they’re shy of. It’s in their blood.”
One advantage to the transition: Mark, who has done years of emcee and auctioneering work for various groups, inherited his father’s telltale nasal tone. That part, anyway, is covered.
“It could be,” he said, “the way the sinuses are built.”