Thrill of victory, agony of defeat, all in one bar


By Patrick Hedlund

As a lifelong Minnesota Vikings fan, I never imagined myself reacting to another of our playoff flameouts by dancing wildly with a group of supporters from the enemy side.

But this is New York, which boasts a bar for loyalists of every major sports team. And our opponent was the New Orleans Saints, a group playing to deliver its long-suffering fans to the pantheon of pro football achievement while still nursing wounds left over from the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history.

After a decade of watching the Purple play at Bar None on Third Ave. in the East Village, Big Apple-based Vikings fans experienced their first wave of immigration a few years ago from a smattering of black-and-gold-bedecked die-hards who claimed the pub’s rear room.

The original “krewe” only grew from there, and so did their game day parties. We’re talking homemade jambalaya and Popeye’s Chicken, copious beads and Mardi Gras attire, at least one freshly inked fleur-de-lis tattoo on an overly dedicated fan’s shoulder — all accompanied by a never-ending stream of “Who Dat!” chants echoing up through Vikings Nation.

As the initial contingent of New Orleans nuts continued to multiply, the flourishing fan base seemed to symbolize what Saints players were doing on the field: They were winning. What was once Valhalla for Vikes fans had become Bourbon St. for the Big Easy set, and you knew what had to come next.

After exceptional regular seasons by both teams, a meet-up in the playoffs now seemed serendipitously guaranteed. I, for one, welcomed the challenge, having made some solid Saints allies during my many Sundays spent affixed to a bar stool.

All previous trash-talking aside — and there was much jawing over $8 pitchers to be had — here we both were, playing in the NFC Championship game for a shot at the title.

Oh, how sublime a story line! But not the one I had hoped for.

The one year the Vikes show so much promise to make the Super Bowl, after a record four losses in the big game and nary a berth since the dawn of the Carter administration, we end up facing a team that has been adopted as America’s. Hell, had it not been for the Vikings making it this far, I would have been rooting for the Saints.

Aside from their magical season’s obvious Hurricane Katrina subtext, the Saints and their fans embody exactly what makes their city, and our country, great. They are diverse in ethnicity and style, and gregarious and hospitable in a way that makes “Minnesota Nice” fans look like hardened New Yorkers.

Vikings supporters, most but not all of us expats from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, fancy ourselves similarly agreeable and good-natured. Despite our differences — even if we had cooked homegrown comfort food every Sunday like our Cajun counterparts, our lutefisk would likely not match up with their crawfish — the two sides have much more in common than they probably realize.

Still, why did we have to end up on the unfortunate end of history? How cruel a sense of humor does fate have for this team? How come our quarterback grew up an hour outside of NOLA rooting for the Saints? In Viking Land, there always seem to be more questions than answers.

I’ll spare you the agonizing, beer-splattered details of the game — my memory still a bit hazy from the eight hours I spent at the bar — but the Saints emerged victorious. After a nail-biting overtime finish, the second such excruciating ending I’ve lived through in a championship game, I politely made my way to the back room to extend congratulations. (But only after sweet-talking my way past two burly bouncers who had assumed I was a suicide bomber.) I didn’t hide my colors, and greeted everyone with a wide smile and a handshake for a win well earned. Besides, did I really want to engage in another glum, profanity-laced, “Why does this always happen to us?” exchange with my fellow brethren? Not this time. The Saints fans had already struck up the band by blaring jazz and hip-hop, and their cathartic howls sounded better than our depressed ramblings.

Sports are a funny thing. They are capable of uniting people in a way that would seem preposterous given that these contests are just glorified gladiator games. So instead of running for the nearest exit, I joined the party, dancing along with the krewe as if I was a member. In some small way, I was.

Although the win was that much more important to the hardy Gulf Coasters who had lived through the worst of times, I hope that fans everywhere took some small measure of satisfaction knowing that New Orleans, at least for that moment, stood on top of the world.

“Do me a favor,” I told the revelers before finally leaving, only to begin sulking on the long walk home. “Just win the Super Bowl.”

With fans like that, I don’t doubt they will.