I pulled my old New Orleans Saints jersey from the recesses of my closet a few weeks ago, when I sensed something big from them this season. They’ve rewarded me by winning two of the last three games, including a pretty convincing slam on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, bringing them to first place in the NFC South.
I’m not saying the jersey had anything to do with it, but it couldn’t have hurt.
My Saints jersey is a punchline — and not just because it reps Heath Shuler, a Heisman Trophy also-ran who parlayed a great career at Tennessee into a first-round draft pick and disappointing three seasons at QB with the Washington Redskins. He took a disastrous turn with the New Orleans Saints, in 1997, marked by injury and sub-mediocrity. This was before he got himself elected to Congress in 2007, where he represented North Carolina’s 11th District until 2013.
So yes, Heath Shuler, ha ha.
But the jersey is also funny because of the manner in which I obtained it, way back in the first few weeks of Shuler’s only season with the Saints.
The Saints were not a good football team in 1997, and no one but the die-hards — which did not include me — felt that Shuler could do a damn thing about it. We had finished at 3-13 the previous seasons, sadly just the second-worst season in team history, and anybody who knew anything knew that we were looking at another year in the NFL toilet.
Maybe that’s why everyone was so on edge that fall down in New Orleans: There were a lot more bar fights than usual at Igor’s, where I worked — what Big Tiny used to call the “boom-boom” — and this was right around the time that an unhappy customer tried to throw a golf ball at me.
I had a wedding in town that particular weekend, a bunch of guys from high school and college, and I invited one of my bar regulars to tag along with us as I showed my old friends the city.
That turned out to be a mistake.
Now, 20 years later, the exact circumstances elude me, but I remember that just around midnight I was on the sidewalk of St. Charles Avenue preventing my barfly from initiating a street brawl with an old friend from high school.
And in the process, the barfly gave me a pretty good poke in the eye.
He understood immediately the severity of what he had done: Barflies do not punch bartenders in the city of New Orleans. It goes against the natural order of things. And it can get you 86-ed for life, complicated in this case because the barfly in question lived in an apartment above the bar. It was where he got his mail.
So I booted the barfly for a week, a slap on the wrist, really. And at the start of my next shift, by way of apology, I found a brand-new Saints No. 5 jersey, which bore Heath Shuler’s moniker but had my name all over it.
I still keep in touch with that barfly, who largely keeps his fists to himself these days. And I imagine he’d be surprised to learn that I still have the jersey, let alone remember how I got it.