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Greeting New Orleans Saints at airport a longtime fan tradition

By Ted Lewis, special to

As part of our celebration of the 50th season of Saints football we'll be taking a look at some traditions and great moments in team history.

**From the earliest days of the franchise, fans have found their way to what was then Moisant Field and is now Louis Armstrong International Airport to greet the New Orleans Saints after road games.

More often than not, it's been after a loss (152-223-4 in the regular season, 1-6 in the playoffs), but the players say that's when they appreciate it the most.

Conditions have changed in the last half-century, especially when airport security is involved. But the Saints players and coaches can always count on when they arrive at the Atlantic Aviation terminal; somebody's going to be there to welcome them home. That was the case early Monday morning when the team returned from San Diego, even though the players'normal route out was altered because of construction of the new terminal.

Here are recollections from some of those who have been there:

Archie Manning, quarterback, 1971-82

 "Our road record wasn't real good, but there were always people there – diehards like folks from Charlie's Saints Marching Club or the Touchdown Club.

"In those days they didn't have much security at the airport, and sometimes we even flew commercial, so fans could come right down to the terminal gate.

"When you come home after you've lost and there are fans there to lift you up, you really appreciate it. In football you work so hard for a week to prepare for three hours on Sunday, and if you lose, it's such a downer. Seeing fans there helps makes you ready to tee it up and try it again.

Chris Bonura, tuba player in the Storyville Jazz Band

 "I was 7 and when the Saints beat the Packers (29-21 in 1971) and my parents thought it would be good a good idea to go out to the airport.

There was a pretty good crowd there and it was like a Mardi Gras parade. I didn't recognize a lot of the players, but I did know who Archie Manning was. He was wearing a corduroy sports coat and for some reason he looked like a deer in the headlights.

"I wish we'd done it more."

The team's lack of success over its first two decades made airport greetings almost negligible.

But in 1987, after a 3-3 start the Saints went on a nine-game winning streak, with the first three victories all coming on the road – at Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

All of a sudden, meeting the team plane became the thing to do.

Vaughn Johnson, linebacker, 1986-93

"My first year with the Saints we didn't have much success, but in 1987 when we got on a winning streak, it was like we were having a victory parade with thousands of fans lined up along the road.

"I think it was then we realized were really doing something special for New Orleans. I had a Mercedes with sunroof, and I liked standing up while somebody else – it might have been Sam Mills or Antonio Gibson - drove. That way I could wave, give high-fives and shake hands.

"Usually when you get home after a road game you're tired and just want to get out of there, but landing became the best part of the trip.

"And when you lose and fans still come out, you know they're the true fans. You be down, but they'd always pick your spirits up."

The liveliest airport crowd came after a 20-16 victory at Pittsburgh, which clinched the franchise's first winning season.

Greg Paretti, clarinetist, Storyville Jazz Band

 "I was watching TV in my apartment with some other guys and we said, "We've got to go."

"Everybody was so excited. We just couldn't believe the Saints were in the playoffs. I remember how Vaughn Johnson just ate it up – hollering and waving back at everybody. We might as well have won the Super Bowl that night."

The players thrived on the emotion

Bobby Hebert, quarterback, 1984-92, current radio host

"We couldn't believe it. It would take you an hour to get out of there, but you didn't mind. I did learn to bring my old car because fans were hitting on the good family one so much.

"The next day at meetings that all anybody would talk about. You realized you are playing for more than just yourself or your team or your family. You were truly playing for the entire community. Nobody ever came out like that when I was playing for the Falcons.

"I understand there aren't as many that go out to the airport today. But whenever the teams wins on the road, and usually when it doesn't, we always get calls wanting to know when it's wheels up for the team and what time they're expected."

Some fans have been making coming to the airport port of their post-game routine for years.

Dawn Hopkins, Metairie, fan

"I moved back to New Orleans in 1993 and when I don't go to a road game, I'm usually at the airport so that must mean I've gone out there at least 100 times.

"There's usually about six of us, my sister Darryl and my nieces Taylor and Samantha. It's mostly women that you see out there.

"My most memorable night there was when we beat the Eagles (in 2013) in the playoffs because we'd never won a playoff game on the road before. It was real late when the team got back because the plane was delayed, but nobody cared. It was just unbelievable because nobody thought we could go up there and win.

"We bring signs and other things sometimes. The players will roll down their windows and honk their horns. Zach Strief, Thomas Morstead and Delvin Breaux always let you know how much they appreciate it, win or lose, maybe a little more when we lose.

"I don't plan on stopping going out to the airport any time soon. I just want to come and see our guys."

After making the playoffs four times in five years, the Saints went through seven straight non-winning seasons. Accordingly, the airport crowds dropped off dramatically. But in 2000, things changed.

Willie Roaf, Saints tackle

"There weren't many people there during the late Mora years and all of the Ditka years, but when we got on a winning streak that first season under Jim Haslett (2000), when we'd get back there were people everywhere.

I think 2000 was special because it came from out of the blue. And somehow we were 7-1 on the road, which was better than we did at home. We were real road warriors.

"The true fans were out there every week, shaking our hands, giving us hugs and just wanting to let us know how happy we'd made them.

"Probably the best time was when we won at St. Louis. Jeff Blake had gotten hurt and Aaron Brooks had a great game up there. Guys like La'Roi Glover, Mark Fields, Kyle Turley and Joe Johnson were just eating it up because it had been a long time for us.

"Everything was clicking and when you get a special feeling like that, you want to share it with the fans.

"Usually it didn't end at the airport, either. Especially after the early games, we wanted to get out and have a good time after we got home.

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the team began meeting at the Saints headquarters on Airline Highway and busing to and from the airport, so there were no fan greetings through 2004 plus 2005 when Katrina forced the team out of New Orleans

But a change in security rules – plus unexpected success in 2006 - revived a tradition that continues today.

Deuce McAllister, running back, 2001-09, current radio analyst

"Everybody remembers when we came home from the Super Bowl and the fans were all the way back on Loyola.

"But the big year to me was 2006. We'd been on the road – training in Jackson and playing all of games in other places while they were finishing the Superdome.

"When we won the second game (at Green Bay) and got back with the Atlanta game coming up, you couldn't believe the emotion people had. Everybody was hollering, "Who Dat!"

"This is just something that doesn't happen in other cities. The crowd after the game at Atlanta was great too. We were really feeding off of it.

"The best one though was when we lost to the Bears (in the NFC championship game in Chicago). The plane was late getting back because of the snow in Chicago, but people waited until late in the night.

"Everybody had gone through so much. The people just wanted to thank us for how we'd helped them and we were thanking them. It's a truly, truly special memory for me."

Fans have their own special memories – plus tips for newbies:

Claudette Leblanc, Larose, fan

 "I'm a teacher (third grade, North Larose Elementary) so sometimes it's too late for me to go out there, but I've made at least two or three times for the last five years. I want to show my love for the players, win or lose.

The last time I went, Willie Snead stopped his car and gave me a big hug. Junior Galette did the same thing after the last game he played here (at Tampa Bay in 2014). A security guard fussed at him for stopping, but Junior told him that it was OK because we'd come to thank him.

"Drew (Brees) is always waving and blowing his horn. Once he was videoing us as he went by.

"I know everybody can't get out there, but if you come, you have to be prepared to sit and wait because they're usually a little late. Don't get there too early, but you should give yourself about an hour before they due back to find a good parking place.

"You have to park on the side of the road because they can't let you inside the gate. So be careful about getting too close because you don't want your foot run over.

"Bring a sign if you can because they get noticed.

"And more them anything else, don't be negative. If somebody ever was, the rest of us would drown them out or probably run them off."

Even those who weren't wearing uniforms relish the experience.

Dan Simmons, equipment manager, 1978-2014

"I was always the last one to leave, as much as an hour after the plane had landed, but there was still always someone there. Maybe they just wanted to see the equipment truck going by.

"You'd see families out there with little kids and you knew they had to go to work or school the next morning, but they were still there. The guys always appreciated it though.

"New guys on the team were always overwhelmed by the crowds because it just doesn't happen in other cities.

"Where does it come from? I don't know. It's just New Orleans."​

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