The Saints lost to the Vikings Sunday in the most excruciating way possible when Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs hauled in a pass with 10 seconds to go, sidestepped a tackler and scored a touchdown as time ran out. Game over. Who Dat dreams of a return to the Super Bowl crushed — at least temporarily.
This loss will hurt for a long time. The Saints were one play away from the NFC Championship game and two wins away from a return to the Super Bowl. They had come back from 17 points down against Minnesota and had taken the lead twice at the end of the fourth quarter.
It would be understandable if we all got stuck in the second stage of grief: anger. But that isn’t happening.
Hours after the game dozens of Saints fans lined the airport exit road to cheer the Saints as they returned from Minneapolis. It was 1 a.m. and chilly, but that didn’t matter. As one letter writer put it, “Love is like that.”
Lynda Woolard posted a photo on Twitter of her signs. One said “Love You Marcus” for rookie safety Marcus Williams, who missed the tackle on Diggs. “Got my #whodat kit together, bundling up & heading to the airport,” she tweeted.
Later, she posted a longer message on Facebook. In it, she included a link to a January 2007 story by ESPN’s Wright Thompson about Saints fans who spontaneously went to the airport to greet the team after a loss to the Bears in the NFC Championship.
Their spirit inspired her, she said. “I’m thankful to those fans after the first season back from that wretched disaster for showing me the kind of supporter I should be,” she said.
She also explained why she went to the airport Sunday night. “#IBelieve in the Saints Family. I owe them & this community so very much. So really, it was no sacrifice to be at the airport last night … and to show some grace & compassion to a young person with such potential, both on and off the field. We have a lot of those in our ranks! So what a season, y’all! And think of what more we have in store.”
The support for Marcus Williams, who earned a starting spot at age 21, has been inspiring. Jill and Marc Winston put their message for him on a billboard: “Dat’s OK Marcus, We (big pink heart) our Saints.”
“I was just thinking about how bad this kid must feel,” Jill Winston said. “They’re so hard on themselves. I just wanted to give him a big hug and some love.” The couple, who have been in the outdoor advertising business for years, put their words of encouragement up along Interstate 10 near the City Park Avenue exit. They spoke for many of us.
Certainly, not everyone has been kind. Williams made a reference to “real fans” in a tweet Monday. “I appreciate my friends, real fans, family, and team for everything they have done for me this season … No the season didn’t end as planned but one thing for sure I won’t let one play define the type of MAN or PLAYER that I am or will be!”
The abrupt way the season ended doesn’t define the Saints, either. After starting 0-2, they improbably won eight in a row. They went 11-5 during the regular season and won the NFC South title, then beat the Panthers in the first round of the playoffs. They showed grit and heart and the power of camaraderie.
But perhaps the true measure of this team and this city is all those fans who showed up at the airport Sunday night, not to celebrate a victory, but to ease the pain of a loss. How many other teams have fans who would do that?