Underdog Saints become a Super Bowl favorite

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- As he watched the New Orleans Saints line up for Garrett Hartley's game-winning field goal in overtime in the NFC championship game, James Carville still couldn't bring himself to think that it actually was going to happen, that the Saints would be an honest-to-goodness Super Bowl team.

The political strategist and commentator, who lives in New Orleans and grew up in a Louisiana town named Carville after his grandfather, said he remembers watching the first play in Saints history "like it was yesterday" and the team's years of travails produced "a lot of tears and a lot of beers" between that inauspicious beginning and Hartley's kick. So his skepticism was based on enduring a multitude of agonizing Saints failures.

"I did not believe it was going to happen even when [holder Mark] Brunell put the ball down for Hartley's field goal," Carville said Monday. "When he was putting the ball down, I never thought it would go through. I'm hopeful that sometime before the game this weekend I'll be able to say the words 'Saints' and 'Super Bowl' in the same sentence. Right now, I can't."

Hartley's kick was good, of course, to beat the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game, and the Saints arrived in South Florida on a rainy Monday as a sentimental favorite, perhaps overwhelmingly so, for Sunday's highly anticipated Super Bowl matchup with the Indianapolis Colts.

The Saints' story is so compelling, with the formerly downtrodden franchise making its first Super Bowl appearance and serving as a highly visible and powerful symbol of the rebirth of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, that they might have the vast majority of the nation rooting for them Sunday.

"Who isn't?" Carville said by telephone Monday. "If you're not from Indianapolis and you're rooting against the Saints, there's something wrong with you. You're a flawed human being. I'm serious. There's only one reason to be against the Saints, and that's because everyone is for them and you want to be different. This country loves two things above everything else, and that's underdogs and comebacks. That's the whole story line here."

Even those in positions that otherwise might produce neutrality on such topics acknowledge that they are likely to find themselves pulling for the Saints.

"I think you have to, in some ways," former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a phone interview last week. "But I found out in that last [NFC title] game, I started off that way. And then Brett Favre played such an amazing game. I thought he was done for the game. He got hit like that and it looked like he was really groggy. It looked like he might have had a broken ankle.

"You end up saying, 'Wow, whoever wins it, they earned it.' I think a lot of people feel that way. You start out feeling like it's manifest destiny. But it's going to take more than manifest destiny to beat the Colts."

President Obama told ABC News in a recent interview that he would be "rooting a little bit" for the Saints.

"You know, I think both teams are terrific," Obama said in the interview with Diane Sawyer. "I guess I'm rooting a little bit for the Saints as the underdog partly just because when I think of what's happened in New Orleans over the last several years and how much that team means to them. You know, I'm pretty sympathetic. And Drew Brees came to visit here at the White House, a terrific young man, and he's done a lot not just for New Orleans, but also for military troops. I'm very impressed with him."

Carville said that he and other longtime Saints followers have no problem with those who are just now joining the ranks.

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