Tom Benson is a devout Roman Catholic.
He has donated hundreds of thousands to Catholic institutions over the years and was personal friends with the late Archbishop Philip Hannan. His suite on game day is often crowded with white-collared clerics.
Yet Benson’s Catholic fervency and ownership of a football franchise with a decidedly papist name did not stop him from permitting an unusual ceremony prior to the kickoff of the Saints’ wild card playoff game against the St. Louis Rams on December 30, 2000, when a genuine Voodoo priestess, complete with boa constrictor took the field to remove the belligerent spirits superstitious Who Dats blamed for the franchise’s inability to win in the postseason.
A popular legend was that the Superdome was constructed over the site of the Girod Street Cemetery, an early 19th century protestant burial ground, thus leading to the theory that the Saints football franchise was plagued by ill-tempered spirits similar to those that tormented the Freeling family in the movie Poltergeist.
Though later research proved that the stadium did not fall within the old cemetery’s footprint, only the parking garage and a nearby mall and office building rested on the deconsecrated graveyard, the voodoo priestess summoned to the Superdome recited her prayers exhorting the spirits to torment the resident football team no further.
Four touchdown passes by rookie quarterback Aaron Brooks later, the curse, real or imagined yet believed, was lifted.
The Saints had won a playoff game, though I don’t know if the voodoo priestess was awarded the game ball.
Thirteen seasons later, the Saints were staring down yet another playoff pox: the franchise had yet to win a playoff game in an opponent’s home stadium.
But instead of a snake handling voodoo priestess, the team requested a monster order of fried legs, wings, thighs and breasts…ahem, chicken breasts and some fresh Gatorade to wash it down.
Listening to the post-game locker room interview after the Saints had demolished the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to earn their sixth seed spot in the playoffs, folks might have been perplexed with what was on the players’ minds going into their sixth road playoff game.
“He said we’re adding a new flavor of Gatorade for the week,” said Jordan of Saints head coach Sean Payton’s preparations for the upcoming playoff game in chilly Philly.
Wide receivers Robert Meachem and Lance Moore were joined by running back Pierre Thomas arguing for the need for a return of Popeyes chicken for the road trip meals.
Quarterback Drew Brees chimed in that the team needed to change out the travel sweats in addition to upgrading the sports drink flavor.
It all seemed like a pretty light-hearted and farcical way of addressing the 0-5 playoff road game streak monkey that had furiously clung to the franchise’s back since Jim Mora’s team dropped a close one in Chicago in January 1991 and continued through the heart-wrenching last second loss at San Francisco in the 2011 divisional playoff game.
But the Saints had more than delicious junk food, flavored electrolytes and fresh gear going for them against Philadelphia in nineteen degree weather. They did more than change the Gatorade; they changed their playing style.
For it was in that game, the Who Dat National finally got a glimpse of the player they thought they were getting when the Saints traded back into the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft to grab Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. The stout running back went from being the proverbial goat to a raging bull, racking up 97 yards on 18 carries, including a run to the Philadelphia end zone.
In his own career redeeming performance, Saints’ curbside kicker Shayne Graham, on his tenth team, was a perfect four for four, booting the game winning field goal to win the game and snapped the road curse.
Credit should also go to Coach Rob Ryan’s defense that largely bottled up the Eagles’ prolific offense, particularly the league’s leading rusher LeSean McCoy.
Though the change in routine and gimmicks might have helped the Saints psychologically prepare for the game, the Black and Gold earned the franchise’s first ever road win in the postseason by playing hard and getting out of their comfort zone, swapping the aerial assault with a brutal ground game grind session that bowled over the Eagles on both sides of the ball.
And just maybe the spirit of the late Popeye’s founder Al Copeland helped nudge that Eagle field goal off course, finally tearing the road playoff game monkey off the organization’s back.