Nostalgic moments in sports always come with themes that tug at our hearts. The veteran player who finally wins a title. The longtime coach who gets that elusive championship. The athlete who returns from serious injury, or great personal loss, to rise above it all and win.
Overcoming trial and tribulation makes it all the more special.
We’re certainly feeling that these days aren’t we? Memories of packed stadiums and delirious fans are relegated to old footage as our nation suffers through a pandemic. Tailgating and watch parties are out, social distancing and masks in public are in. We are left to wonder when is the next time we’ll even see tens of thousands of sports fans gathered in the same place?
And yet, we will be back, as strong as ever. Maybe even stronger, with a little more appreciation of what we’ve missed.
The past few months, amid a near-national lockdown to fight coronavirus, our sports fix has been watching replays of what we used to take for granted. It has been interesting to see what the networks have chosen to show us, and as we have watched we’ve been reminded of the past challenges to face our nation.
The memories are even more vivid when you see something that the world watched on television and can say, “I was there.”
A couple of times, I was.
Who can forget the Super Bowl in 2002, the first one played after the terror attacks of 9/11? The game was played in New Orleans, one week later than originally scheduled, and I was in the Superdome as the Sports Editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. The NFL even changed the logo for the game, replacing the Mardi Gras theme with something more patriotic – a flag shaped like the United States.
U2 was the halftime act and as the band played, the names of those who died in the attacks streamed in lights across the crowd. It was the most emotional halftime I’ve ever seen. It sent a message of mourning, of perseverance, of our commitment to freedom. The game turned out to be Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl win as he led the New England Patriots to a heart-stopping win over the St. Louis Rams, but even now that’s not the strongest memory I have of the game. What I remember is what it meant.
It was only 3 ½ years later that I would experience similar feelings after another tragic event – the flooding of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We all remember the horrific scenes out of the Louisiana Superdome, converted into an emergency shelter to take in those who had nowhere else to go. The stadium suffered huge damage and many wondered if and when the Saints would play there again.
It took more than a year to bring the team home, and many national pundits were critical of using resources to fix a stadium in a city with a massive list of needs. And yet, that was precisely the point. With so much to be done, New Orleanians craved an escape, a sense of normalcy in a landscape of upheaval.
To live there then felt a lot like living through the pandemic now.
I was there that night to see the Saints play the Atlanta Falcons. I remember the energy of the crowd, I remember Steve Gleason’s famous blocked punt to put the Saints ahead. I remember no one wanting to leave after New Orleans won the game.
I remember how much it meant.
ESPN showed a replay of that 2006 game a few weeks ago. I watched it that night and I’ve watched it again since. I remember taking journalist Tony Kornheiser, the game’s color commentator, on a driving tour of the disaster zone earlier that day, answering his questions, clearing up misconceptions about how the disaster had unfolded and the road ahead. I remember him asking me if I thought the city would ever fully come back. “These people,” I said, “they’re already back. Nothing could keep them away. Everyone has the right to come home.”
Sports will be back. It may be a while before we see more packed stadiums, but that doesn’t matter. There are more nostalgic moments to come. Right now we have to overcome. We will, because that’s what we do.