By Michael Hull, special to NewOrleansSaints.com
The chants roared from the crowd in the hot, Sunday afternoon sun at TIAA Bank Field. Despite the change in venue from New Orleans to Jacksonville, Saints Nation showed up in full force to witness the beginning of the post-Drew Brees era in person. Nothing, not even a hurricane, could keep the Black and Gold from rooting on their team.
Melissa Zocoti has lived in New Orleans for 33 years. With the threat of Hurricane Ida looming, she called her friend and evacuated to Jacksonville to escape the brutality of the storm.
Little did she know, the lifelong Saints fan would be back just weeks later.
"I've never missed a game in 17 years with the exception of last year (due to Covid-19 restrictions)," Zocoti said. "When they said they were bringing it to Jacksonville, I called (my friend) back, and I was like 'I'm coming back, and we're going to the game.'"
Zocoti has had four season tickets for nearly 20 years. She said she was heartbroken when she couldn't attend the Chiefs' game last season in the Caesars Superdome and wasn't going to miss another home game, no matter how far away it actually was.
For Zocoti, the shift to Jacksonville caused her to travel away from home. For others, like the Lincoln family, the new location gave them a chance to cheer on their team live.
Nathan Lincoln drove his wife, Rebecca, and two children, Payton and Trent, from Valdosta, Ga., to Duval County to watch the kickoff of the new season. Rebecca said they've been Saints fans forever, and the move to Jacksonville allowed the family to come because it was very close to home.
In a similar fashion, longtime Saints fans Patrick and Rebecca Sowell came over from Tallahassee to watch their former hometown quarterback Jameis Winston make his starting debut. Patrick said there's a little good and a little bad in coming to TIAA Bank Field.
"Obviously, a hurricane's not a good thing," he said. "But it gave us an opportunity to come to a game, so it's exciting."
New Orleans Saints fans make the trip to Jacksonville, FL for the team's home game against the Green Bay Packers in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season.
Despite being away from home, Saints Nation showed out in full force. From Black Panther-inspired costumes to dressing up as the Pope, fans made sure the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars felt like their home
Joshua Manning and his family came from Shreveport to watch their team. Joshua said he's been a Saints fan since he was a baby, and he came up with the idea to dress like the King of Wakanda T'Challa, aka the Black Panther, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His uncle Derek helped put the outfit together, complete with a large chain featuring the gold fleur-de-lis and gold shoes
"It means a lot we can be here," Derek said. "Even though we're not at home, it feels like we're at home."
Jake Alvarez is from South Carolina, but the 17-year-old Saints fan wanted to be sure the feel of New Orleans came with him to Jacksonville, showing up in the 83-degree heat dressed like the pope.
"In New Orleans a lot of fans, like a lot of people, do it," Alvarez said. "There'll be multiple popes at a game, and I knew I had to bring the Saints fandom to Jacksonville."
Despite all the destruction in New Orleans caused by Ida, fans still showed out in another state to support their franchise. The Saints repaid the fans' dedication with a 38-3 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers behind Winston's five touchdown passes.
"There's a lot going on in Louisiana right now," Zocoti said. "They (the Saints) give us that four to five hours every Sunday where we don't have to worry about anything."
The Black and Gold faithful survived Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago and grew stronger. Again, a natural disaster tried to knock them down, and again, they came back with more fervor.
"This is the strongest city I've ever seen," wide receiver Juwan Johnson said after the game. "That was for New Orleans."