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Cleveland on Sports — Saints Special for Mississippians

Drew Breeze is one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks.

The New Orleans Saints — Mississippi’s NFL team by just about any measure — open the season Sunday at Atlanta.
First things first: These guys in black and gold are good. Las Vegas oddsmakers rate them as one of the top five teams in football. They are 11-to-1 to win the Super Bowl, tied with Green Bay, behind only the defending champions Seattle Seahawks, the runner-up Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots.
Drew Brees, Saint Drew, rates as one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the league. He’s as accurate as anyone, including Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. If Saint Drew is injured, all bets are off. But as long as he’s healthy the Saints can play with anyone.
For those of us who grew up with the Saints, this excellence has taken some time to get used to. For the longest time, they were the yucky pond scum of the NFL. Choose another description. They were: a) the laughing stock of the NFL; b) a blowout waiting to happen; c) stumbling, bumbling definitions of ineptitude; or d) all the above.
The correct answer: d) all the above.
My daddy took me to the first Saints regular season game back when they played at grand, old Tulane Stadium. The Black and Gold had finished 5-1 in the preseason and now they were about to play the loathsome Los Angeles Rams. Traffic was brutal. Grand, old Tulane Stadium was jammed. It was hot and humid, and the busy beer vendors were sweating through their clothes.
Rick Cleveland

We had just settled into our south end zone seats when, on the other end of the field, the ball settled into Saint John Gilliam’s hands. And here he came, No. 42 on his jersey and No. 1 in our hearts, running right at us, weaving through blue-shirted Rams defenders. He was scarcely touched. He kept coming and coming. We could see his jaw trembling as he crossed the goal line and then a smile crossed his face.
We shared high-fives and yelled at the top of our lungs. And I guess 81,000 other fans were thinking the same thing we were: “Boy, this is going to be easy.”
From that moment on, the Saints had my heart. From that moment on, for years and years, they usually broke it. The Saints lost that game 27-13. That was about as close as they usually got.
Archie Manning, who has become a good friend, was the quarterback for many of those awful Saints teams. He was the best player on some of the worst teams in history. Don’t get him started.
He will tell you about the time his coach sent in the play from the sidelines via a Saints tight end. Archie looked at the guy and asked: “Who are you?” He did not know him. The Saints had signed the guy the day before. They cut him the next day.
Archie will tell you about the time the Saints were playing Buffalo and one of the Saints coaches did not know who No. 32 was for the Bills. His name: O.J. Simpson.
Arch will tell you about coming over to the sidelines to get a play at the end of a game the Saints had a chance to win. He kept waiting for the coaches to give him a play. They kept yelling, “We’re gonna go for it!” He waited and waited and finally the referee came over to get him. He still had not received the play.
So Arch went back to the huddle and called what Johnny Vaught would have called at Ole Miss. He rolled out to his left with the option of running or throwing. He scored the winning touchdown. Barely.
It was a rare chance to celebrate for Saints fans.
There will be many more chances to celebrate for Saints fans to celebrate this season. For Saints fans of a certain vintage, the victories these days mean all the more because success was once so rare.
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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