In New Orleans, they wrestle with Falcons’ place in Super Bowl

NEW ORLEANS — There was a commotion on Magazine Street. Teddy Gelagabir had parked his provocative taxi in front of a hotel there, awaiting a fare. And a valet parking attendant had risen to the bait.

The two men’s voices raised in good-natured debate.

“Anybody but the Falcons,” Corey Davis declared.

“We got the best wide receiver. We got a MVP quarterback. Two great running backs,” Gelagabir reminded his foe.

Davis: “OK, I like your running backs.”

Gelagabir: “We’re gonna burn it up.”

Then Davis would make another run at the cab, as if trying to rip off the small Atlanta Falcons decal decorating the back window. And Gelagabir would block him. For one more day, he protected the bird.

That isn’t always the case while flying Falcons colors here in the belly of their most ardent rival. Gelagabir, who moved to New Orleans from Atlanta three years ago, has had to replace that decal maybe a dozen times, he estimated. The luggage rack atop his taxi still bears the damage from others who disagreed with his NFL affiliation. All in good (?) fun, he insisted.

For these are the best of times to be a displaced Falcons fan, your team in the Super Bowl while all around you simmers the discontent of your antagonists. “I’m loving it,” the cab driver said. “We joke around and have a lot of fun with it.”

The roles were reversed in 2010 when the Saints, born one year after the Falcons (1967), defeated Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl and took ownership of the ultimate bragging right. Then it was the Falcons fan base that had to weigh conflicting emotions when deciding which way to lean in America’s biggest game.

Whether they want to admit it or not, these franchises are family, as closely related as cousins. They both are about the same age and have risen from the bleakest kind of competitive poverty. They both helped push the frontiers of the NFL southward. Both collide twice a year as divisional foes. And there is no racket quite like the one when Falcons and Saints fans intersect — save maybe when starlings flock.

Whether, if the Falcons win Sunday, they and their fans can rejoice quite so fully is open to question. The Saints victory had importance beyond the game, coming as it did less than five years after Hurricane Katrina. This was a restorative moment. The winds blew, the water rose, but the Saints remained, rooted deeper than ever into the community.

“I lost my voice for a month after that,” said Conrad Emerson, a sous chef taking a smoke break outside on the corner of Chartres and Wilkinson.

“The city went crazy. We stayed out until 4 or 5 a.m. It was like Mardi Gras had come early,” said Kevin Porter, over his glass of wine at the locals watering hole, Chuck’s Sports Bar, just outside the French Quarter.

But Falcons people certainly would like to test their capacity for celebration.

It is generally assumed the Falcons, as the non-titled commoner facing the lordly New England Patriots, will be popular in most precincts outside the northeastern corner of the map. But can they root for them way down here in Saints country?

T-Bob Hebert, the son of former Saints and Falcons quarterback Bobby Hebert, posed that question last week to listeners to his WWL (New Orleans) nighttime sports talk show. Respondents came in two distinct flavors.

The Never-Falcons People, those who told Hebert, “I can’t cheer for those stinking Dirty Birds.”

And those who consider the Falcons the least objectionable alternative. (Hebert, an LSU lineman who played his high school ball at Greater Atlanta Christian, counts himself loosely among this group. “I grew up kind of a Falcons fan,” he said. “But even beyond that I think they are easier to cheer for. The Patriots are a little haughty, a little cocky. And I’m getting some echoes of Alabama fans — the Yankee version.”

“I thought it was going to be very heavily slanted in New England’s favor, with just a small element going toward Atlanta,” Hebert said of this expectations going into his informal poll. “But I was surprised. It was really like 50-50, split down the middle.”

“I guess it’s a bit easier to cheer for David over Goliath. People get behind the underdog, the team trying to win for the first time. A lot of people don’t like the Patriots because they think they cheat. A lot of people don’t like the Patriots because they win all the time.”

With maybe a few traces of self-interest thrown in for seasoning. “Some people had some interesting logic about cheering for Atlanta, that it turns up the heat on Saints leadership. Carolina was in the Super Bowl last year (another divisional rival). The Falcons are in it this year. And if they win this Super Bowl you’ve lost your trump card over your arch rival. People think that sort of shake-up can re-invigorate the Saints franchise,” Hebert said.

The college-age clerk behind the counter at the Black and Gold Sports Shop in Metairie — where it’s all fleur-de-lis and no Falcons — figures she can afford to root for the rival. Even if that could mean no longer being able to hold the Saints Super Bowl victory over the head of the occasional Atlanta visitor who wanders into the store when the Falcons are in town, if only to engage in a little smack talk. “If they win, I can always say we got ours first,” Alaina Robinson said.

And the night manager working the door at Mother’s restaurant can swallow hard and cheer for the Falcons. He’s an Alabama guy and so is Falcons receiver Julio Jones, so that makes it marginally OK.

His friends don’t agree. “Oh, no, they look at me like I’m crazy,” Marty Muller said. “It hurts to pull for them. But you got to recognize the talent on that team.”

But some wounds just won’t heal.

In Jackson Square, tending to the mule-drawn carriages that he manages — look out for Bojo there, he likes to bite — Kevin Joseph remembered the bus trips he and his father used to make to Atlanta and old Fulton County Stadium to watch the Saints play. He can still hear the taunts of the Falcons fans.

“Ever since then I don’t like Atlanta,” he said.

“I do not like the Falcons. I don’t want them to win. I want the Saints to have the distinction of having won the Super Bowl (all to themselves),” Joseph said.

And he went back to cleaning up the mess that mules will make, certain that even that chore would be preferable to cheering for the Falcons.