ebyMay the best story win.

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John Eby: Sainthood for underdogs who just Purdue it and bag Colts

Published 12:59pm Monday, February 8, 2010

That’s why I rooted for New Orleans, underdog for 43 years of its sad-sack NFL life and against Peyton Manning, whose family has lived in Louisiana for 39 years.

It’s pretty much Peyton’s Place wherever he plays, even in Indiana, which used to be about basketball and “Hoosiers.”

But Archie’s boy made it look (Big) Easy taking a scalpel to the Jets’ top-ranked defense in the AFC Championship Game for a 30-17 margin.

The Saints dispatched the Minnesota Vikings and Brett Favre, 40, 31-28, in the NFC Championship Game after romping past the Arizona Cardinals 45-14 in the divisional playoff.

Did a Purdue quarterback, even one as beloved in the French Quarter as Drew Brees, stand a chance of inhabiting the hallowed halls of only two other such accomplished Boilermakers, Len Dawson and Bob Griese?

You betcha, as Sarah Palin would say.

Was the XLIV president watching at the White House when Tracy Porter’s 74-yard interception scamper by one of the four native Louisianans, although he played his college ball for Indiana, sealed the deal, 31-17?

I was predisposed to cheer for the Saints and the way they have lifted up the drowned city and breathed hope into its fragile recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the bungling Bush administration.

Katrina in 2005 was the turning point for the Bush White House, which wrecked its reputation for competence.

I couldn’t believe it when they gave Brownie of FEMA a chance at redemption and he continued his political tone deafness by predicting an Indianapolis victory.

Not me. I’d gladly trade the party of no for the party in N.O., which electrified Bourbon Street like Mardi Gras.

But then, so did the CBS line of talking chairs from Dan Marino on down with the notable exception of 15-year Steelers coach Bill Cowher.

We’re the same age, so I figure he vividly remembers the ‘Aints, too.

Sports Illustrated picked the Colts to prevail, which is money in the bank for their opponent.

Only two cities, Detroit’s dyin’ Lions and the Cleveland Browns have fielded NFL teams longer than New Orleans while failing to reach the Super Bowl.

Five years ago it didn’t look like football could ever be played again in the Louisiana Superdome.

The Saints were like the pre-’69 New York Mets of football, enjoying only nine winning seasons – and five of those came from 1987-1992 behind Bobby Hebert. They had tasted only four playoff wins.

That’s why this script was so tempting, a struggling city that unconditionally loves its team in good times and bad.

Post-Katrina New Orleans especially rallied behind the new Brees blowing behind Sean Payton the past four seasons.

Vehicles congregate at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to greet the Saints after road trips.

Born Nov. 1, 1966, the Saints were named for the jazz song “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Now they go marching on.

They had an auspicious beginning under younger-than-his-players owner John Mecom Jr., 27, son of a wealthy oilman.

On Sept. 17, 1967, John Gilliam returned the kickoff on the first play 94 yards for a touchdown against the Rams.

The starting quarterback was supposed to be Johnny Unitas’s backup, Gary Cuozzo. New Orleans traded the No. 1 draft pick to Baltimore.

Instead, the signal caller for most of the first four seasons became Billy Kilmer, former 49er, now, like Mecom, 70.

One player I really remember was Doug Atkins, 37, 6-foot-8, 257 pounds.

He had been a defensive end for the Chicago Bears. I might have had his football card.

A card I do remember having was running back Jim Taylor, a Baton Rouge native coming off nine seasons with Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers.

Another noteworthy Saint was placekicker Tom Dempsey.

Born without toes on his right foot, in 1970 he booted a 63-yard field goal to defeat (who else?) the Lions, 19-17 in Tulane Stadium.

I didn’t remember that he was just 23 when achieving that feat of the feet that still stands as an NFL record today.

In 1975, the year I graduated from high school, the Saints moved into the Superdome.
In 1979, while I waited in line for gas in Three Rivers, Tulane Stadium was demolished.
No marker commemorates the historic spot, which is in the middle of an intramural quad on the campus.

Dempsey played only two of his 11-year career in New Orleans, but lives there still.

In fact, he was reported to be tuned in with his wife, Carlene, in the French Quarter.
Archie Manning of Ol’ Miss was drafted in 1971.

Even the patriarch of the Manning clan couldn’t rescue the Saints.

In 11 seasons and seven coaches, his best was 8-8.

That promising .500 season was followed by an awful 1-15 in 1980, which only padded the losing lore.

At the urging of sportscaster Buddy (Buddy D) Diliberto to wear bags over their heads and to call their team the ‘Aints.

Cooper, the son who isn’t Peyton or Eli, asked Mrs. Manning for permission to boo, too.
It was later revealed that many players deadened their pain with cocaine.

After 18 disastrous seasons, Mecom peddled the team in 1985 for $70 million – a tidy profit on a franchise which originally cost $8.4 million.

Auto dealer Tom Benson hired former Bears and Vikings executive Jim Finks, who in turn called on Jim Mora of the USFL’s Baltimore Stars to coach.

A solid, defensive-oriented team resulted known as the Dome Patrol.

Linebacker Rickey Jackson has just become the first player inducted in Canton on the basis of his Saints career.

In that productive period from 1987 to ’92, New Orleans ranked in the top five in total defense in the NFL three times.

Four times they qualified for the playoffs, but never managed to win.

Finks died of lung cancer in 1994 – six years before the Saints’ first postseason victory.
Another six-year dry spell ensued until Payton and Brees arrived in 2006 and made their infamous drive into the Ninth Ward.

How could a team with a Cajun gumbo of a story like that not win against a team that snuck out of Baltimore in the middle of the night, lived down a nickname of its own – Dolts – and lost the third Super Bowl to swaggering Joe Namath’s Jets?

Heckuva story, Brownie.

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby @leaderpub.com.

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