There's no Bourbon Street in Jersey

September 20, 2005|By RICK MAESE

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. It sounded like a bad joke - What happens when you move the French Quarter to Jersey-only no one thought to create a punchline. I wish they had. A chuckle would have felt good last night.

Instead, therewere tears during the national anthem. There were cheers throughout last night's Giants-Saints game. And there were jeers whenever the "home team" tried to make itself at home.

"We hate you, Saints!" a tailgating Giants fan yelled at a pair of New Orleans' fans prior to kickoff. He softened his voice. "But we got love for New Orleans," he said, raising an open palm in the air for a high-five.

Forced from their home by Hurricane Katrina last month, the Saints are football vagabonds this season, playing most of their home games in San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La. The NFL scheduled their home-opener in the stadium of the opposition, forgoing parity for convenience.

The game was nationally televised and the country tuned in out of curiosity more than anything. Does watching 11 men run around on the field, breaking tackle after tackle and charging toward a goal symbolize something bigger?

It was something of a letdown, but Bourbon Street didn't exactly stretch 1,200 miles to Giants Stadium. Itwas just a football game, themadefor- TV grandeur missing a little something up close.

Even the grittiest of NewYork fans seemed a bit uncomfortable at first. Could you boo Saints tailback Deuce McAllister without booing the families living in Texas shelters? Of course you can, but emotions become muddled when we assign grandiose meaning to professional sports.

When the Saints play, it's difficult to separate the team from the city they represent.

"The Saints are a Godsend to us," said New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass. "We're trying to get back to a normal life and there isn't nothing more normal to New Orleans than watching the Saints."

Monday night's sentiment was well-intentioned. A league-sponsored telethon was held in conjunction with the game, several hundred displaced Gulf residents were brought in for the game and small bits of New Orleans spirit was sprinkled throughout Giants Stadium. Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis performed the national anthem, and the Saints' cheerleaders danced on the sidelines.

But it never felt entirely right. We saw a homeless team pretending to play a home game. And we felt for their fans, whose own homes became mere trinkets in a fishbowl. The very idea of home has taken on ameaning so different fromjust one month ago.

The NFL should have known better. But it charged ahead with a convoluted plan that somehow linked the 9F11 tragedy in New York with the drowning of one of America's great cities.

The stands were overwhelming filled with Giants fans. The souvenir stands hawked solely New York gear. Even the dusk sky - a vivid setting sun glowing against a blue and white backdrop -seemed to champion the Giants' colors.

A few Saints' fans tried their best to root for the home team. Randall Roberson and Reed Hogan, both 25, flew in from Jackson, Miss., on Sunday. They had purchased Saints season tickets months ago and weren't about tomiss the opener.

Each had the Saints' logo - a black fleur-de-lis - painted on his face. They wore black afro wigs and gold shirts with inscriptions: "Lost our homes, but not our faith."

"These are our boys," said Hogan. "[New Orleans' players] are supporting everyone back home and we wanted them to know that we're supporting them up here."

The Saints wore their home black jerseys, but it was no Superdome. Though the NFL promised a fleurde- lis on the field, the only evidence of the home team was the team name painted crudely in white in one end zone.

Saints coach Jim Haslett has hinted at the unfairness of playing on the opposition's home field. You wonder how much his own bosses even care.

Team owner Tom Benson appeared at a news conference Antonio last week to announce Alamodome as host to three remaining home games. The economic impact is estimated at million per game. Asked whether of that money will trickle down the relief effort, Benson foolishly said: "[The Saints] winning football games is going to mean more relief effort in the Gulf South money can ever do."

He's either too callous or detached. Benson doesn't know home is. This is a guy who constantly threatens to uproot the NFL franchise from the Big Easy. If really wanted to help heal the community, he would have demanded that the Saints' first game take place at least in the neighborhood as their actual home.

The league's telethon thankfully raised a lot money. Pretending New Orleans can be transplanted New Jersey should have raised collective eyebrow.

It'd take a lot more than booze beads to ever confuse the New Jersey Turnpikewith Bourbon Street.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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