Like many in and around New Orleans and the far reaches of the Gulf South, I had to go to Miami to see the Saints in the Super Bowl.
I had to.
I probably could not come up with all the reasons for taking this trip and I don’t think I should try. So visceral, primal was this drive toward South Florida that little reason was required to affirm the decision. I’m going, I said. And so I made the arrangements, fully knowing that I had to be there to see my hometown team in their first Super Bowl.
It had been years since I took a long solitary trip, so I decided to drive. These four days – two to get there, one for the game, one day back – were to be my retreat, where self-reflection surely would overwhelm any other activity.
As I traversed I-10 out of New Orleans, first past the Superdome and then over the Highrise toward the eastern reaches of the city, I thought of many things. Mostly, I thought of my mother. She died in October, having lived with cancer for seven years. I thought of how much she would enjoy this season and how she’d be excited for me that I was going to Miami and how she would have loved to have gone, too. She and my father had a cruise booked for late October and she was talking about definitely going only two weeks before her passing. She could not walk or even sit up for more than a few minutes at a time, but there she was fully expecting to sit on the deck of that cruise ship and breathe salty sea air and, for the last time, watch the sunset over the ocean, its sprawling streaks of orange, red, pink, and violet lingering tenaciously until inevitable night subsumed their luminescence.
As I cruised into Mississippi, I thought about all the family trips we had taken along that same route, sometimes cutting northeast toward Tennessee or Virginia; but, mostly, driving to our summer home in Pass Christian, MS. The enduring image for me is that van. Brown on the outside, but thick double stripes down the side. Shag carpet. The seats were made of the very thickest material available. It was as if the dealership offered a thickness upgrade and we HAD TO HAVE IT. The van was constructed before there was a such thing as rear air conditioning vents or the expectations that back seat passengers would wear seat belts. So, on very hot days we’d hover above the seats as we waited for the air conditioning to circulate throughout the cabin. Upon acceleration, our then slight bodies would go hurtling about the back depths of our over-customized ride.
My current car is far more comfortable – if less memorable – for long drives and upon nearing Mobile I was in the zone…
Much has been written over the last week about what the Saints mean to the city and to the Gulf South. There is no denying how they have lifted the spirits of this community in the last four years. But, it’s the lessons they have given us in their own story that strike me as the most meaningful, and enduring. And, they apply if you don’t give a wit about football, as I am sure some of you do not. Teamwork, resolve in the face of adversity, belonging to something bigger than yourself and fighting for it – that’s what the Saints have taught us this season. They have also shared that greatness is a choice – it has to be earned, sought for. Hard work is the foundation for anything worth doing, and an accomplishment doesn’t mean very much if we are not challenged on the road to securing it.
…Florida is lovely. Smooth roads and nicely manicured landscapes. Smiley people at rest stops and restaurants. South Florida is charming in its diversity, as it food, music, and rich influences remind one of the kind of cultural confluences New Orleans enjoys. Sure, you can try to put a label on this or that aspect, but why do that? Just take it all in and be happy for the experience, which, no doubt, could not be duplicated even if you tried. Like New Orleans, when you are in Miami, you know where you are.
I arrived at the stadium as early as possible – about 5 1/2 hours before kickoff. I spent a little while walking around the fan plaza outside Sun Life Stadium, where a kind of “NFL experience” had been configured. Grown men (I was one of them) and women, and some kids, were seen chucking footballs in the “Let it fly” competition and kicking field goals off field turf. There was a concert and massive food offerings, but it’s not why I came. I had enjoyed the spectacle of the side show, but the main event – even at this early hour -beckoned me toward my seat.
At 2 p.m. eastern, I entered Sun Life Stadium and rode the long escalator to the 400 level.