New Orleans gears up for Super Bowl, but we still have lots of work to do

Editor’s Note: Surprise, surprise. After a long hiatus, Geaux Therefore is back – just in
time for the Super Bowl!

By GaNewOrleansSignry D. Myers

It’s game time.

In the days leading up to the Super Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Super Dome Feb. 3, New Orleans may be the world’s largest construction zone. Construction is nothing new for the Crescent City. This place has been under construction constantly since Hurricane Katrina left her battered and wounded, down but not out.

Aided by the massive reshaping and rebuilding, the city came back with passion and spice. And when New Orleans was announced as the host city for the 2013 Super Bowl, NOLA ordered up yet another round of updates and improvements. The Super Bowl is a chance for the city shine and I believe she will look good for her close-up.

For over a year the touristy sections of town have been reduced to a maze of traffic cones, barriers and orange construction netting. Street and sidewalk work in the French Quarter, a new streetcar line on Loyola Avenue, and a $300 million airport makeover. And the work continues. On Jan. 23, Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared the city Super Bowl ready. Mission accomplished … almost. I suspect the work will continue right up until people begin to arrive for the big game. Maybe we should change the welcome signs to read, “Welcome to New Orleans: Careful, The Paint is Still Wet.”

This Super Bowl is important for our city. We’ve survived Katrina, the BP oil spill, a cantankerous little storm named Isaac and the corruption trials of countless civil “servants.” The game brings an influx of cash. It means major exposure. People will visit and want to come back. You just can’t help falling in love with New Orleans.

New Orleans has already hosted nine Super Bowls. But this tenth one, though very important, isn’t our most important Super Bowl. That came in 2010. We didn’t host it, but the Saints won it. Rarely has sport been so transcendent. The win was so much more that a reason to brag about a game. Players and coaches alike wanted to win it for the city. They wanted to make a statement. The win said our city was back from the brink. It gave a measure of hope just when we needed it.

I will always treasure my memories of the victory parade that follow that Super Bowl win. We saw Drew, Reggie, Pierre, Sean and the team. That was cool. But the best part was sharing the night with 800,000 other Saints fans – people of all walks of life.  We shared something special together as a city and a region. We experienced community. My love for the city and its people grew that evening.

But a championship can only do so much. It provided some hope, but it didn’t solve all our problems. Our educational system is improving, but it is what it should be. We still have a ridiculous murder rate holding us back. Still we have a lot going for us – food, history, music, art, architecture, passion, etc. All this good needs to be matched with good schools, safe streets and opportunity – in a word, hope – real and lasting hope.

This Super Bowl won’t solve our lingering problems either. We will look good for the camera. I won’t discount the importance of that, but we need to be good. We need to be good for the children of this city. We need to foster their potential to rise above the status quo.

It is game time, but the paint is still wet. Solutions to our problems still can be found. The solution rests with you and me – everyday New Orleanians. It won’t be easy … in fact it often seems like fourth and long. It’s game time. Will you get in the game?

Better now than never: Steve Gleason’s story

By Frank Michael McCormack

The first time I stepped in the Louisiana Superdome I went there to cheer against the New Orleans Saints. I know, it borders on blasphemy. It was during the 2004 NFL season, and the Saints were playing the Seattle Seahawks.

I’d bought two tickets on eBay and was so nervous about it (having never bought anything online prior) that I had the tickets sent to my parents in Tuscaloosa. They drove the tickets down to me. We met “halfway” in Carriere, Miss., at a truck stop just off the interstate. Juanita from the Andy Griffith Show works there.

At the time, former University of Alabama standout running back Shaun Alexander still played for the Seahawks. I hadn’t yet discovered the wonderfulness of the NFL, so that small, shallow connection put me in the Seattle camp.

Jennifer and I sat near the top of the Dome where people pound the metal walls to distract opposing offenses. All in all, the Sept. 12, 2004, game was forgettable, with the Saints out-sloppying the Seahawks to lose 21-7.

The next images from the Superdome to stick in my head came almost a year later, when thousands sloshed their way to the Dome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The roof had been ripped off by the hurricane winds. The Superdome came to symbolize everything that had gone wrong before, during and after Katrina in New Orleans.

But a little over a year after that, things began to change.

On Sept. 25, 2006, the Saints and Saints fans returned to the Superdome in a Monday Night Football showdown with the hated Atlanta Falcons (more accurately referred to as “Dirty Birds”).

Jennifer and I had, in one of our finest moments, bought season tickets earlier that year. On that Monday evening, we made our way up the ramp to Gate A, this time adorned in black and gold. We moved as part of a sea of people, marching with excitement and overflowing with emotion. Returning to the Superdome was like visiting a tomb, raising a victory banner, turning a page and gathering for group therapy, all at once.

Green Day and U2 sang their now famous “The Saints are Coming,” along with “When September Ends” and “Beautiful Day.” U2’s lyrics “see the bird with a leaf in her mouth, after the flood all the colors came out” took on a much deeper meaning that night.

Then came the Hurricane Katrina and 2006 Saints montage. All 70,000-plus people were wiping away tears.

The Falcons received the opening kickoff and went three and out. And when they lined up to punt the ball away (on our side of the field, in fact), Saints special teams favorite Steve Gleason charged up the middle untouched, dove toward the Falcons kicker, and blocked the punt. Defensive back Curtis DeLoatch dove on the ball in the end zone to score the touchdown. The game wasn’t close. The Saints won 23-3.

The blocked punt by Steve Gleason is arguably the greatest play in Saints history. The emotion of that moment helped Saints fans turn the page after Katrina. It set up the Saints to make a run all the way to the NFC championship game that season, and it started the Saints down the road toward their Super Bowl 44 victory Feb. 7, 2010.

We celebrated the five year anniversary of that night this past Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011.

To commemorate the anniversary, Gleason, who retired in 2008, returned to the Superdome as an honorary captain. He performed the coin toss and led fans in the traditional pre-game “Who dat!” cheer.

Gleason, though, did not charge onto the field last Sunday like he did in 2006. He walked slowly this time, with a limp, aided by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Gleason, we learned Sunday, is living with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He is 34.

ALS is a disease affecting the “nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement,” according the the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The nerve cells gradually die, causing muscles to atrophy. Only about 25 percent of people diagnosed with ALS live longer than five years, according to USNLM.

The revelation regarding Gleason set off several days of tributes and public outcries of support. Times-Picayune reporter Jeff Duncan and sports broadcaster Jim Henderson have both published extremely moving pieces about Gleason.

Gleason’s wife, Michel, along with friends and teammates threw Gleason a surprise reception Monday night, during which New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave him the key to the city.

“It’s just amazing to me that you have continued to teach us and show us, with great dignity and strength, what it really means to live a full life,” Landrieu said, quoted in one of Duncan’s stories. “It is a great lesson, and you keep giving it to us.”

Saints Coach Sean Payton later presented Gleason with a Super Bowl ring.

With Michel holding the microphone, Gleason delivered a passionate speech to the 100 or so friends gathered.

He offered this challenge: “We can talk about the blocked punt, and we can talk about rings. But what’s more important to me is what we do when we walk out of this room.”

In another Duncan article, Gleason admitted, “Am I afraid now? Yeah, I’m afraid. I’m afraid to walk in public, because people look at me. But I’m not going to stop. … And I’m afraid to go back and see my teammates and coaches because I know that I’ll feel envy. But I’m going to do it anyway. Because fear is just a feeling, and if you can acknowledge that fear, digest that fear and overcome it, the rewards are incredible.”

And elsewhere, he said, “It’s easy to start questioning whether God has this plan and why the plan would include me getting diagnosed with this disease. And that’s when you can start why-ing yourself to death. More than that, I’ve thought, what does this mean, how does this help me fulfill my purpose in life? If we have a purpose in life beyond being a cog in the human machine, mine is to help inspire people and that’s pretty cool. I would like to motivate the world.”

In other words, Gleason hasn’t stopped living. If anything, he’s living more richly than ever. After his diagnosis, he and his wife went on a cross-country adventure. They’re expecting their first child at the end of October. He’s filming a documentary for their child, and he’s starting an organization to benefit those living with ALS called Team Gleason.

Team Gleason’s theme is “Better now than never.”

For us last Sunday, driving to the Superdome, seeing the crowd, cheering for our team and high-five-ing friends, was a great way to reflect on the past five years. A lot has happened, for sure. But learning about Gleason’s diagnosis and reading about his approach to life made me do more than just reflect on the past five years. It also got me to thinking about how I’m living today and how I want to live in the future.

Have I always lived with intensity and purpose? No. Have I made more calls and personal visits than sent text messages and emails? No. Which do I pursue more – entertainment or adventure? Which do I value more – that which is fleeting or that which lasts forever?

Watching Steve Gleason makes me want to live with more passion and purpose for life.

Better now than never.

Visit Team Gleason’s website.

Jim Henderson: We must never forget Steve Gleason

Jeff Duncan: “New Orleans Saints cult hero Steve Gleason battling ALS”

Memoirs of a Mardi Gras maniac

Mardi Gras fell on March 8 in 2011, which is the second latest day it can fall on.

By Frank Michael McCormack Jr.

I’m not ashamed to admit it: Carnival season is one of my favorite times of the year. Some of my favorite New Orleans memories and traditions are tied to Mardi Gras. And with Mardi Gras 2011 now in the rearview mirror, I’ve been reflecting on some of my Carnival memories from the past few years. These are just a few:

First impressions

For all the hardships faced in 2005, Jennifer and I will always remember that year for our first taste of Carnival. It was a season of introductions – to King Cakes, to parades, and to leftover bags of beads. Just going to the parades was an adventure to us newcomers, not to mention the colorful floats, awesome throws and epic people watching.

Ground rules

I had a professor once who, when introducing Mardi Gras to students from outside Louisiana, said, “When it comes to Mardi Gras, you find what you look for.”

Coconut, King Cake and lace

In 2006, though still exiled in Chattanooga, Tenn., we were determined to make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Just six months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was still a wreck in February 2006. But Mardi Gras gave the city a chance to prove that things really were getting better, and it was a way for us to prove to ourselves that we were on the mend as well.

We set out that Mardi Gras day with one goal: to get a Zulu coconut. On Mardi Gras day, the Krewe of Zulu parades first and is followed by Rex, King of Carnival. Zulu is famous, among other things, for its painted coconuts that riders pass out.

Jen and I worked hard to talk rider after rider into bestowing upon us a blessed coconut. We were coming up empty. Jennifer tried to charm a six year old girl on one float. When a mischievous grin appeared on the girl’s face, we thought she was about to pass Jen a coconut. Instead, the little girl dropped some lacy Zulu underwear into Jen’s upheld hands. Not quite what she was expecting.

Farther down the parade route, I offered the same girl’s dad a King Cake in exchange for a coconut. Apparently they only had one left and it was one the little girl had decorated. So the dad handed the cake to the girl, who carefully examined it for a couple minutes, then gave an approving nod. Success! We had a coconut and some underwear to boot.

Familiar faces and places

So much about Mardi Gras revolves around family, friends and traditions. We only have seven Carnivals under our belt, but even we have a few. 1) Our parking spot. It’s amazing. Same spot every year. I don’t understand why no one else has discovered this spot. But I’ll never tell. 2) Every year we set up around the Lutheran church near St. Charles and Jackson Avenues. We see the same people each year, like the dress guy and his wife who knows everyone in Zulu, the Blues Brother, Captain America and Wonder Woman. 3) Our lunch spot: the Popeye’s on Paris Avenue. We love it because many of the Zulu paraders show up after the parade.

Spike Lee and Lombardi Gras

The Saint’s Super Bowl win in February 2010 jumpstarted a unique Mardi Gras. From the victory parade that featured signature floats from all the big parades to Saints coaches and players riding in the parades, it was a Carnival like no other. Mardi Gras already carries a spirit of unity among the paraders and people along the parade route. The Super Bowl championship only heightened that feeling of unity. Everyone came out to see “Our Boys” on parade. We even ran into Spike Lee, who was documenting Lombardi Gras.

From King Cakes to fried fish

Mardi Gras is also special for what comes afterwards, particularly with regard to the menu. Lent, which begins on the Wednesday after Fat Tuesday, signals seasonal Friday fish fries and superb St. Patrick’s Day parades. At the Irish, Italian (and Islenos) parades, watch for flying potatoes, cabbages and other produce. You can eat for weeks off of what you catch. Look for a fish fry at your neighborhood Catholic church.

Connecting Carnival to Lent

Mardi Gras may be one of my favorite times of the year, but it’s Carnival’s place in the broader liturgical calendar that I especially enjoy. I love having so much of the year organized around the story line of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.

When it comes to Mardi Gras, though, people too often settle for one of two extremes.

On one side are those who object to Mardi Gras altogether and believe that any parading puts you on the path to personal disaster. These people often claim they’re pro-Lent but anti-Carnival.

On the other side are those who revel in Mardi Gras with no observance of Lent.

I for one think the two go together quite well. It’s hard to observe Lent – a time of introspection, penitence and self denial – without first feasting. And the Carnival celebration lacks much of its meaning without being juxtaposed with a sober appraisal of one’s relationship with God.

The power of both lies in the contrast of one to the other.

For those who wholeheartedly object to the feasting and revelry of Mardi Gras, let’s just be honest: For most of us, everyday is Fat Tuesday. We all live indulgent lives compared to most of the world. Maybe it’s good to revel in that for a season each year to remind us of our tendency toward greediness and also to celebrate how precious life is.

After all, each day we live in a world where Jesus was born in a manger, yet we set aside a specific season each year to commemorate it. And each day we live in a world where Jesus was raised from the dead, yet we dedicate one Sunday each year to celebrate it.

And each day we live in a world full of sunshine and friends and food and family – all of which are priceless gifts from God. With that in view, Carnival season takes on a much deeper meaning, especially when teamed with Lent.

On the other hand, many shy away from dedicating the 40 days of Lent to serious, honest, inward examination and some kind of self denial. Seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, after all, can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. But Lenten introspection should also remind us of God’s love and motivate us to a deeper relationship with him.

During Lent, some people deny themselves a favorite treat, like chocolate or ice cream. Others fast from all food or from meat on Fridays. Those things are certainly admirable (and often very difficult), but don’t forget to connect the spiritual dots. We deny ourselves simple pleasures during Lent to point us to Jesus, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross,” as Philippians 2 says. Lent leads us first to Good Friday, then to Easter Sunday.

So as we embark on this Lenten season, consider this challenge from New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Archbishop Aymond has called Christians to a threefold observance of Lent this year. First, identify something from which to abstain. Second, identify a new action or discipline to begin that will deepen your relationship with God. And third, devote time to pray specifically for the issue of violence in the New Orleans community.

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Click below to see some sights and sounds from Mardi Gras: