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Mourners at funerals in New Orleans often come away from the grave in a strut, their weeping turning to revelry so suddenly as to baffle outsiders. The dance, called the Second Line, is more of the mind than of the feet, the intent being to bury grief with the dead. The ritual is performed mostly at jazz funerals, but the mentality of sudden turnabout from misery pervades the local culture.
An especially giddy Second Line was afoot on Sept. 22, after the New Orleans Saints buried the Minnesota Vikings 26-0 to become 4-0 for the first time in Saints history. On that joyous afternoon at the Superdome, New Orleans fans also reconciled with quarterback Bobby Hebert, who, by holding out all of last season in a contract dispute, had irritated the populace with his apparent preference for playing with some other NFL team that would pay his asking price. The fans' beef with Hebert had been doubly bitter because he had been considered "a good Cajun boy," and that resentment had continued even through the first three victories of this year.
Last week the Second Line made its way to Atlanta; Saints fans piled into cars and buses and planes, and headed for Sunday's game against the Falcons. Now, Atlanta's team may not seem like much to get excited about to NFL fans in other cities, but to the New Orleans faithful the Falcons are the vilest of villains.
The Saints-Falcons rivalry, little known outside the South, has stewed since the late 1970s, when Atlanta was a regular purveyor of heartbreak to New Orleans. In '80, with the Saints struggling and the despised Falcons coming to town, Catholics went to their knees in the grottoes around New Orleans, lighting candles to St. Jude, patron of the hopeless. Still, Atlanta won in a romp, and after that the Falcons were perceived with a certain amount of resignation in New Orleans: It was as if the Falcons were placed on this earth for no real purpose other than to bedevil the Saints.
On Sunday, though, the Falcons were little more than trifling pests, causing merely a twitch of concern when they went ahead 6-3 on a fumble return for a touchdown in the second quarter. Hebert swatted them away with TD passes of 47 and 17 yards to wideout Floyd Turner, and New Orleans tailback Dalton Hilliard, who had missed the game against Minnesota with a hip pointer, finished them off with a 65-yard scoring run. In a typical performance, not so much spectacular as solid, Hebert completed 18 of 29 passes for 197 yards as the Saints won 27-6. He avoided being sacked, scrambled once for 14 yards and did not throw an interception.
New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson, who has fought a decade of wars with Atlanta, was so certain of dominance this time that he spared Falcon quarterback Chris Miller when he blindsided him for a sack in the second quarter. "I could have put him out for the rest of the day," Jackson said. As it was, Jackson laid out Miller fairly gently and then issued a warning: "I told him, 'You haven't seen the last of me today.' " Indeed, Jackson got two more sacks, the Atlanta offense never got beyond the New Orleans 37, and the Saints defense extended its streak of quarters without allowing a point to 12. New Orleans fans made up one third of the crowd of 56,556 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and provided three fourths of the noise. And if there was any communication with St. Jude, it was but an invitation to grab a parasol and join the Second Line back to New Orleans.
None of this is to say that the misery so suddenly shed has not been strongly rooted. For most of the Saints' 25 years, their black jerseys had seemed more funereal than ferocious; New Orleans didn't have so much as a winning season until 1987. The Superdome was the birthplace of the Bagheads, the 'Aints—hopelessly loyal fans who showed up masked in brown paper bags because they were ashamed to be seen at Saints games.
Even in 1987, when New Orleans went 12-3, the Vikings humiliated the Saints 44-10 in the NFC wildcard playoff. That was the second of four straight poundings at the hands of Minnesota and the beginning of what was thought to be a Viking jinx among a populace that to this day only half-scoffs at old notions of mojo, gris-gris and sundry hexes. Not until last year did New Orleans reappear in the playoffs, by the thread of an 8-8 record. Again it lost in the first round, 16-6 to the Chicago Bears.
With Hebert sitting out the '90 season, New Orleans was without a savvy veteran quarterback. Steve Walsh, who was in his second year as a pro, was acquired three weeks into the season in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys. Walsh underwent a cram course in New Orleans's offense but couldn't pick up where Hebert, who had guided the Saints to three straight winning seasons, had left off.
Hebert's contract dispute, which wasn't settled until June of this year, began as a disagreement with general manager Jim Finks about Hebert's value to the team and mushroomed into a massive misunderstanding between Hebert and the citizens of New Orleans. While the Saints were slogging into the 1990 playoffs, the private and deeply religious Hebert was visited with a sudden plague of personal tragedy. In one week shortly before Christmas, his beloved maternal grandmother died, his father was diagnosed as having colon cancer, and his 29-year-old sister, Jill, committed suicide. Little sympathy for his private life was shown by a public blind with bitterness toward Hebert. It was all a matter of gumbo ya-ya.