Local Saints fans excited

Published 2:24 pm Sunday, January 21, 2007

As Sunday’s big game rapidly approaches, both Saints and Bears fans are anticipating the chance for their beloved franchises to rise above their past.

The game is especially integral to the Saints, because this is the farthest New Orleans has advanced in the postseason in the team’s 40-year history.

The Saints advanced past the wild card round of the NFL playoffs for the first time ever in 2000. They have not been in the playoffs since, prior to this season.

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Former Natchez mayor Tony Byrne, who has been a Saints fan since the team’s inception, and was also a Saints Fan Advisory Board member from 2000-2005, said this game is not just about the Saints getting to the Super Bowl.

“This game gives the city of New Orleans hope. It is something to take the peoples’ minds off the drudgery of the day, especially for those who have suffered with the Saints for the past 40 years,” he said.

He said if the Saints make it to the Super Bowl, it would revitalize not only New Orleans, but the Mississippi Gulf Coast as well.

Byrne left the Saints Fan Advisory board in early Aug. 2005, prior to Katrina’s landfall. He said he amazed at how the team has competed since the hurricane.

“It’s unbelievable, especially after what they went through last year. It feels fantastic to be a fan right now,” Byrne said.

To his surprise, he said he has not seen any T-shirts with something about the Saints and hell freezing over.

Robert Johnson, better known as Bobby J,, owner of Bobby J’s Lounge, has also been a fan of the Saints since their inception.

“It was like a gift for me when the Saints arrived,” he said. “I’ve been whooping and hollering for them for 40 years.”

Johnson said the Saints’ season has been truly amazing. He said they have overcome Katrina, and having to play all of their games last season on the road.

“After all they’ve been through, here they are, Super Bowl contenders.

“This is phenomenal. The organization has brought their potential to a professional level,” Johnson said.

Byrne attributes the Saints success this season to two things. First, Saints’ coach Sean Payton has done an excellent job coaching the team and dealing with all the outside turmoil that has surrounded the team and the city of New Orleans since Katrina flooded and destroyed many parts of the city.

“Coach Payton has put together a team of 27 new faces and had to started without his three starting linebackers. He has done an excellent job with that.” Byrne said.

Byrne said he is naturally picking the Saints to win on Sunday. He thinks if Saints’ quarterback Drew Breeze and running back Deuce McAllister have a big day, New Orleans should come out on top in Chicago against a tough Chicago defense.

“Chicago has a heck of a defense. Hopefully Rex Grossman will have a typical day, which is a horrible one,” he said.

Johnson has his own prediction about the out come of the game.

“The Saints are going to win,” he said. “They have gotten this far.”

Johnson said as he is concerned about the game, the game might as well be the Super Bowl.

“This is the Super Bowl. There is no tomorrow if they lose.”

He said he plans on watching the game at Bobby J’s Lounge, and he said all Saints fans are welcome to watch the game there.

Byrne said he plans on watching Sunday’s game at his house with his wife Annette, who he said is also a big Saint’s fan and knows the game of football real well.

Normally, Byrne said he might watch the game with his good friend Joe Fortunado. But since Fortunado, who lives in Natchez, spent 15 years with the Bears organization, 13 years as an all- pro linebacker and two as a coach, he said would have to pass on this game.

Fortunado said he plans on watching the game in the same fashion as Byrne. On the other hand, he said he is picking the Bears for obvious reasons.

“I have watched every game that the Bears and Saints have played this season,” he said.

He said the Bears have an advantage playing at home. The wind that comes off the lake next to Soldier Field could cause problems for the Saints.

Fortunado said the key for the Bears will be for their defense and their quarterback to play like they did during the early part of the regular season.

He said Grossman must eliminate his erratic play and inconsistency, and the Bears defense has to pressure Breeze.

Breeze and wide receiver Joe Horn must have big games for New Orleans in order for the Saints to do well, Fortunado said.

Ironically, both Byrne and Fortunado said they root for each other’s team as long as they are not playing each other.