- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
- 0 Shares
We are traveling in the footsteps
Of all those who've gone before
But we'll all be reunited
On a new and sunlit shore
NEW ORLEANS -- Perhaps more than any other place on Earth, the Big Easy loves a party.
Mardi Gras, the ultimate carnival, lasts only a few dizzying weeks. Charlie Kertz opened his bar at the corner of Apple and Cambronne streets a week before Mardi Gras in 1966, but when the city was awarded an NFL franchise nine months later -- on All Saints Day -- he came up with a way to extend those good times through the entire year.
"He said, 'We're going to have a club for the Saints,'" explained his daughter, Joan Serpas, who was 20 at the time. "Way before the first season started, we formed the club and, because it was my dad's club, they wanted to name it Charlie's Marching Saints Club.
"When the season actually started, it was just wild. Wild."
Charlie served with the Army's 1st Cavalry Division in World War II, and took a bullet just above his left knee in the Philippines. He brought a slight limp and a Purple Heart back to New Orleans. He liked to have a good time as much as the next guy -- OK, maybe more than the next guy; behind the bar, he would sip the local brew, Dixie, along with his patrons.
The New Orleans Saints were the city's first big-time team, and months before the opening kickoff, Kertz already was all in. He changed the name of the bar to Charlie's Saint House Bar, and painted the bar itself black and gold. There were gold fleur de lis on the bathroom doors and Saints stuff all over the place. They had monthly meetings and, sure, a few pops, too.
"Just a bunch of normal people that like to imbibe a little bit," said Steve Slumber, who joined the club in 1970. "Most of our members were middle class, maybe towards lower middle class. We do look for a reason to party. If the sun rises, we're going to party, OK? We really enjoyed it when they won and you know what? We didn't do bad when we lost."
If the Saints won, hey, so much the better.
Not that it happened all that much in those early days, though the 1967 inaugural season started with a flourish. The very first play in franchise history was a touchdown, a 94-yard kickoff return by John Gilliam, but it was just a parlor trick; New Orleans lost to the Los Angeles Rams 27-13 at Tulane Stadium. In fact, the Saints lost the first seven games in their history. But then, on Nov. 5, Walter "Flea" Roberts scored three touchdowns in a 31-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Ecstatic, Charlie's Saints trooped back to the bar and, well, what do you think they did? They celebrated. And celebrated.
No one is exactly sure how or why it happened, but pretty soon pots and pans were coming out of the kitchen and, suddenly, the boys were taking it to the streets. They were hitting the tops of garbage cans with spoons, there was a kazoo, a tambourine and one guy jammed a railroad flare onto the top of a broom handle.
They marched around the block, hooting and hollering, singing, "When the Saints Go Marching In." Curious, the neighbors came out of their houses, and damned if they didn't start singing, too.
A wonderful precedent had been set, but Charlie's Marching Saints Club, more than 250 strong, would celebrate a victory only two more times in that debut season. Going forward, the Saints would be in their 21st season before they fashioned their first winning record and made the playoffs in 1987.
Still, the black and gold had a powerful hold on Charlie and his people; they were fanatics, but not in a creepy way. During her interview at the club's present home, The Cabin, west of the city in Metairie, La., Serpas grew emotional. That the Saints finally would reach the Super Bowl in the 43rd season of their existence -- eight years after her father passed away -- brought tears to her eyes.
Every year, she said, Charlie thought they were going to the Super Bowl. And now that it finally happened -- with the Saints taking on the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV on Feb. 7 -- he's not here to savor the moment. Serpas, sitting in her father's old seat, was at the Superdome for the NFC Championship Game between the Saints and Minnesota Vikings last month. When it reached overtime, she asked her late father to influence the coin toss.
"Daddy," she said, "please blow and make sure whatever we need on this toss comes up right."
"And," she remembered, "they won the toss."
At that instant, two clouds above collided, creating a rogue bolt of lightning. The booming thunder clap that followed cut Serpas short and stunned those at the bar into silence.
"Oh, that was scary," Serpas said, gathering herself. "That was my daddy."
Some say this world of trouble
Is the only one we need
But I'm waiting for that morning
When the new world is revealed
The eternal optimist
There was a charming time and place, not so long ago, when there wasn't so much separating players and their fans. The gap between their salaries wasn't as great and they'd sometimes socialize together, and share a beer and some food. Even after a loss on the road, Charlie's Marching Saints Club was there to greet the Saints when they stepped off the plane.
Tom Jones joined the club in 1972 after three years in the Army.
"In 1973, they lost at Dallas by about five touchdowns," Jones said. "I had a few during the day and I wasn't feeling any pain. We went right up to the door of the plane as they came out. I see these poor guys, they're all battered and bruised and the first few out were rookies and I said, 'Yay!'
"They looked at me like I was crazy."
Every year the head coaches, starting with Tom Fears and J.D. Roberts and John North, all came out to Charlie's bar before the draft for a couple of hours to answer questions and maybe knock back a few beers. In 1976, coach Hank Stram would sometimes bring more than a dozen players to the bar, and some of the wives, too.
Before the club's "homecoming" game against the Houston Oilers in 1976, the club built a 50-foot oil well with two-by-fours in the vacant lot across the street, soaked it with kerosene and set it on fire. Good thing the former New Orleans fire chief was a friend of Charlie's. On a hunch, William McCrossen had brought along a fire truck just in case. When the wind shifted, the rig came down.
"I said, 'Oh, my God, we're going to burn the neighborhood down,'" Jones said. "I thought Stram and all his players are going to jail. Thank God the fire truck was there. That was something out of a 'Three Stooges' episode."
The 1980 season was the ultimate test of commitment. The Saints were in the process of going 1-15 when the bag-heads appeared. They wrote "Aints" on their brown paper bags and mocked the team.
Said Charlie's son, Charlie Kertz III, "They came into the bar, the people with the bags on their heads and they said, 'Charlie, put the bag on.'
"And he said, 'Absolutely not.'"
Charity was a big part of Charlie's vision for the club. In fact, the club's seats, in the first row of Section 107, on the side of the end zone that runs along Poydras Street, was chosen so they could be near the wheelchair-access seats of the children they brought to home games. Originally, the club worked with the Children's Hospital of New Orleans, and later, the Methodist Home for abused and abandoned children and the Magnolia School for mentally challenged children and adults.
Charlie always had trouble with his leg; four surgeries never set it straight. By the mid-1990s he had lost his sight, but he still went to the games to feel the atmosphere. That was around the time the marching stopped. A few years later, when his hearing started to go, he'd stay at home and run the radio through a baby monitor. Toward the end, it was the only contact he had with the Saints.
He died in 2002, at the age of 86. On a Sunday, of course.
On that hallelujah day
On that hallelujah day
Oh Lord, I want to be in that number
When the Saints go marching in
Winds of change
Head coach Jim Mora Sr. changed the culture in the early 1990s, when the Saints actually made the playoffs three years in a row. The Saints reached the playoffs again in 2000 under Jim Haslett.
And then inertia set in; the Saints went .500 over the next four seasons. When Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans with Category 3 winds in August 2005, football was temporarily forgotten. More than 50 levees were breached by storm surges and 80 percent of the city was under water. More than 90 percent of the residents of southeast Louisiana were evacuated. Some of those who stayed behind found their way to the damaged Superdome.
"We felt like we were going to lose the Saints," Serpas said. "And you know, it may be a silly thing to people in other parts of the country -- 'Oh, you're worried about losing a football team? You don't have a house.'
"But they were more than a football team to this community. They didn't have a house, but the Saints gave them hope that things can come back."
One of the things lost in the wake of Katrina was Haslett's job. Sean Payton, who had spent the previous three years as a Dallas Cowboys assistant, was brought in. One month into the job, he was sitting in The Cabin, drinking beers with Charlie's Marching Saints Club. He answered questions until there weren't any left to ask, took pictures all around and shook every hand in the place.
"When I first got here, I got a nice letter from them and they explained their history," Payton said last week in New Orleans. "It's a group that has pulled for this team since they started playing football here. I drove over there after work and spent an hour or two, talking about the state of the team.
"It's a unique group of people who are die-hard Saints fans."
Payton brought in Drew Brees from the San Diego Chargers despite the quarterback's questionable shoulder. The Saints rebuilt the roster. State, local and national funds poured $185 million into the Superdome. The emotional 2006 home-opening win on Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons announced the city's -- and the team's -- return.
"There was no way that the Atlanta Falcons were going to beat us that night, OK?" said Terry Crapanzano, a member since 1978 and the guy credited with creating the first "D-Fence" sign that you see all around the league today. "There was no way the Saints were going to lose that game."
The Saints finished 10-6 during the 2006 regular season and made it to the NFC Championship Game. They hovered around .500 in 2007 and 2008, two non-playoff campaigns.
This season, they won their first 13 games.
"It's a different world when you've been through all those bad times, all of those years and then all of a sudden -- bingo -- here it is," said Charles Kertz III. "When it hits you like this, it's hard to believe that it's really happening."
The NFC Championship Game against the Vikings on Jan. 24 went into overtime and Serpas felt she needed to change the karma. Because the Saints had asked fans to wear all black, she complied, folding her bright yellow Charlie's Marching Saints Club shirt over the back of her seat. After the Saints won the toss, she put it on. A few minutes later, they were going to the Super Bowl.
And the first thing that went through her mind?
"God, I wish Daddy was here," Serpas said, her Drew Brees No. 9 earrings swaying. "He'd be on Cloud 9, my daddy, his feet would not be touching the ground. We won the game and I feel that came from heaven."
The old bar is now a home in a residential neighborhood west of the French Quarter. The only outward clue as to the history it contains is at the top of a towering flagpole: a gold fleur de lis. The new spot, The Cabin, was originally a model log-cabin home. Cases of Abita Amber and Bud Light are stacked in the corner. The banister is draped with black and gold beads the size of softballs, there are yellow parasols with fleur de lis, the kind you see in New Orleans funeral processions, and a "Who Dat?" banner hanging on the mantle.
The first Super Bowl and the first Saints game were both played in 1967, some 43 years ago. The championship game itself has been played here nine times, but through the years the Saints and the Super Bowl have never crossed paths. Until now.
Last week, more than 100 members of Charlie's Marching Saints Club converged on the bar to celebrate their founder and the team they so dearly love. There are only about 10 original members left, including Joan and Charlie III; the cast is a little smaller these days and there are some younger faces. They ordered beers and they danced and they sang the song that is their anthem: "When the Saints go Marching In."
Win or lose, they've scheduled a parade for the Saints in New Orleans on Tuesday. It will kick off Mardi Gras. Can you imagine what it will be like in the Big Easy if the Saints win?
Charlie Kertz could.
Oh when the Saints go marching in
When the saints go marching in
Oh Lord, I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
-- "When the Saints Go Marching In"
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.