Football fever sweeps NO as Saints, Vikings meet

Published 5:16 pm Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tailgating began near sunrise around the Louisiana Superdome though the New Orleans Saints’ season-opening NFL game with the Minnesota Vikings wasn’t scheduled to start for more than 12 hours.

As the Saints prepared to open the defense of their Super Bowl title, the city was in Mardi Gras mode: schools set to close early and concerts and a parade planned in the French Quarter. Even City Hall closed for the day.

Faren Verdin of Houma, La., said he, his cousin Sac Verdin and their wives, Jenn and Melissa, were up at 4 a.m. to get ready for the 70-minute drive.

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“Pretty much our whole week goes with the Saints,” Sac Verdin said. “If the Saints win, it’s great. If they lose, it’s miserable.”

Another group arrived at 6 a.m. and pitched a tent next to the Verdins’. “We’ve done it when we were terrible,” said Danny Alonzo of LaPlace, La., recalling the team’s many losing seasons. “It’s even sweeter when they’re great.”

Emotions run high in New Orleans about the Saints. The NFL awarded the franchise on All Saints Day in 1966 and the Saints played their first league game in September 1967. John Gilliam’s runback for a touchdown of the opening kickoff ignited big hopes.

But years of frustration followed for the team and its fans. And it was not until 1987 that the Saints posted a winning record for a season.

Thursday night’s game matches two of the league’s top quarterbacks — the Saints’ Drew Brees and Mississippi native Brett Favre of the Vikings. The two teams played in last season’s dramatic National Football Conference championship game, won in overtime by the Saints.

New Orleans went on to win its first Super Bowl, defeating the Indianapolis Colts.

The Super Bowl victory banner was to be installed at the sold-out Superdome on Thursday, making the game even more important, Faren Verdin said.

“The ticket is priceless,” he said.

Melissa Verdin took a day of vacation; the rest took two, since they’d have to pack everything up after the game was over.

“I pulled 35 days straight to get off today,” said Sac Verdin, 41, who said he usually works 14 days on and seven days off an offshore supply vessel. “Not going home, not seeing my family.”

T.J. Martinez of LaPlace, at the adjacent tent, said he gets one week of vacation a year at the Shell Chemical plant in Norco and uses it for the Saints.

He and a dozen or so friends expected up to 30 people to join them in chicken wings, sausage, boudin and “pork bombs” — pork, jalapenos and cheese wrapped in bacon and grilled.

The Verdins’ menu, for 30 to 40 people, included sandwiches, barbecue, po-boys, red beans and rice, hogshead cheese, beef jerky, boudin, chips and dips, five cases of beer and one of water.

Each group also had a tall, skinny black-and-gold tent holding a portable toilet. “We pioneered that,” said Danny Trent of Reserve, La. “Look inside.”

The 5-gallon black bucket was still empty. Except for a Vikings decal.