I will try to write this from the heart. I remember watching West Monroe and Shaw play for the Class 5A state championship in the Superdome in 1997. It was my senior year of high school and I was a member of the tournament. I wanted to go to New Orleans a week before to see Carencro play Shaw at Hoss Memtsas because it was on account of the Bears
When I was a senior in high school, our high school football state championship was played the same day the Heisman Trophy award was given to the best college football player. With a New Orleans native as the favorite that year, it was big news in the Superdome.
Well, Peyton Manning did not win the Heisman trophy that day. Charles Woodson did, and the Superdome erupted.
Now, over a decade later, Manning is the only player to ever win the NFL’s MVP Award four times. And he has a championship. Some believe he will be considered the best to play the game whenever it is over for him.
What happens until then depends on who his opponents will be. Come Sunday, it will be the team that bears the name of the city that he grew up in and for which his father no less played quarterback.
After more than 40 years of never playing for a tournament championship, often just exhibiting some incredible bad luck, the New Orleans Saints have finally advanced to the Super Bowl.
I guess I became a Saints’ fan sometime in the mid-‘80s. It intensified each year until I was nearly bursting at the seams in 1991 when they finally bested the 49ers for the NFC West Division Title.
The nucleus of those teams was pretty darn good, winning 12 games in one season twice. But they had the unfortunate luck of playing in the same division as San Francisco, a team that won five Super Bowls in that era.
I remember everywhere I was and what I was doing or eating during every one of the Saints’ playoff games (there aren’t many) beginning with their first against the Minnesota Vikings and Anthony (not Chris) Carter.
I watched the ‘91 game against the Bears and ‘06 game against the Eagles at my grandmother’s. I remember the disappointment after they lost to the lowly Falcons in ‘91 in a match-up of teams to never win a playoff game. I recall shucking a sack of raw oysters from New Orleans when they finally broke through to win over the Rams in ‘00. And I will never forget the snow in Chicago when they played for a NFC Championship in unbelievable elements.
The nucleus of that team is the heart of what 2009’s version was built on. It begins with the hiring of Sean Payton as head coach and is closely related to the signing of free agent quarterback Drew Brees. Included are the draft selections of running back Reggie Bush and wide receiver Marques Colston, plus the signings of linebackers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle.
Already in place were the Saints’ longest tenured veterans in defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith, offensive tackles Jon Stichcomb and Jamaal Brown and wide receiver Devery Henderson.
Along the way came the drafting of Roman Harper, Tracy Porter, Robert Meachem and Sedrick Ellis and signings of Jeremy Shockey, Jonathan Vilma, Darren Sharper and Pierre Thomas. Now the Saints are complete and have proven that by being one of only seven teams in the professional history of the sport to start the season 13-0.
But as the Colts start with Manning, so do the Saints with Brees -- and it is justly so. In this game of entertainment, players take the form of gladiators and the quarterback is the unquestioned leader.
Manning has taken studying the game to a new level. But he has experienced the best and worst of his career against the Saints, throwing for a franchise record six touchdowns one time and getting his jaw broken in a separate game.
Brees is a natural. He went to college not far from Indianapolis at Purdue. He is not 6-5 with a rocket arm. His strength is accuracy. He is the everyday guy who watches just as much film as his counterpart and will be equally prepared.
So what will it come down to? More than likely which defense puts the most pressure on the quarterback.
Manning doesn’t get sacked very often. He has a quick release, and his line is anchored by Jeff Saturday, who has been his center for a decade. But it is much more than sacks that could tell the story. It is the collisions that are simply recorded as knockdowns and hits that can really rattle a quarterback.
I have always been confident in New Orleans’ defensive front because they consistently lay the wood. Even when years got bad, they still had sack specialists, and in the past two weeks, end Bobby McCray has turned into one scary individual -- laying defining blows to quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre.
The Saints hit Favre 15 times in the NFC Championship, and I imagine the game plan will be to do the same to Manning. If New Orleans can get pressure to him, you have to believe they will have the advantage after two weeks of solid protection of Brees and the Colts’ top pass rusher Dwight Freeney injured.
The Saints and Colts were destined to play each all along -- not just due to their undefeated starts to this season but simply because they are a cut above the rest of the league right now.
The Saints’ season seems almost spiritual. I guess it is just destiny. Enjoy every second of it.
Peter Silas Pasqua writes for the Weekly Citizen in Gonzales, La.