In this excerpt from his book The Arena, Rafi Kohan explores how the ghosts of Hurricane Katrina still haunt the stadium the New Orleans Saints call home.
Attending a live sporting event is as American as apple pie or watching The Bachelorette, and with tailgating season at our doorstep, what better time to take a trip across the country, visiting the cathedrals that host those games? Former GQ contributor Rafi Kohan’s book The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport is out today and is worth cracking if you’re a sports fan, or even just a curious human. It covers everything from how those fighter jet flyovers sync with the national anthem to an inside look at the disease that is rabid fandom (in the chapter “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Gross”). Think of it this way: for less than the price of admission to most any of these stadiums, Kohan will let you travel from Wrigley to Lambeau to the Superdome—whose history as both a football stadium and Katrina sanctuary is explored in the excerpt below—in the most American way possible. Without ever having to leave the comfort of your couch. — The Editors of GQ
“Dude! The dome?” Chuck Simpson says, pouring charcoal and wood chips into his well-worn sidewalk grill, contemplating the meaning of the stadium known as the Superdome.
It is hours before an early November 2015 matchup against the Tennessee Titans—more than a decade after the dome became a poster child for the destruction and despair of Hurricane Katrina, before leading the post-storm rebuilding charge throughout the city—and I have fallen in with the Saints supporters, taking advantage of New Orleans’s open-container laws, a little breakfast booze. While every NFL stadium has a whiff of bacchanal, with face-painted fans and daylong drinking, New Orleans is a city that believes deeply in the power of communing, of coming together around big events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, and I have been told that home games here can feel like Carnival. Sure enough, there is a festive mood, as drum lines march to their own beat, costumed fans go full-on masquerade, and tailgaters set up in the city’s limited parking lots, on every available side street, and underneath the highway overpasses that graze the northern tip of the Superdome.
A middle-aged man dressed in camo Saints shorts, Simpson is on the corner of Julia and Rampart Streets. He interrupts his train of stadium thoughts with loud cries to passersby of “Who dat,” which functions as a kind of all-purpose call, like aloha or shalom.
Along with an old Navy buddy named Scott Mitchell, and another pal, Mickey Lanclos, Simpson is readying what appears to be a month’s worth of meat—chicken, country ribs, sausage, and boudin. Finally finding the right words, he says, “On Sundays, there are three kinds of churches in New Orleans. There’s Catholic, there’s Baptist, and there is the dome.”
As if to accentuate Simpson’s point, to demonstrate the stadium’s inalterable place in city history, Lanclos fetches a yellowed newspaper out of his pickup truck. It is the front page from the day after the dome reopened in 2006, when the Saints beat the Atlanta Falcons, on the back of a dramatic first-quarter blocked punt by special-teams-player-turned-local-legend-turned-tragic inspiration Steve Gleason. (In 2011, Gleason received an ALS diagnosis.) The headline reads: REBIRTH. REJOICE!
On the opposite side of the stadium, under the Route 90 overpass, a man named Derrick Campbell, who is part of a group called the Violet Tailgaters, tells me he calls the dome the “People’s Champ.” Explaining, “Even though he never won no belt, he’s the People’s Champ. That’s what the dome is. Even before the Super Bowl. It just brings people together.”
That’s the beauty of the building, according to Campbell. In a town as deeply divided and diverse as New Orleans, the dome manages to marshal a wide cross-section of folks from throughout the community and the whole Gulf Coast, because everyone—everyone—just loves the damn Saints. The affection is unwavering. And when the ball is in play, real-world concerns simply melt away. “I don’t know where you work. You don’t know what I do, but we sit right next to each other. Whatever your story is, you put it on hold,” he says.
This escapism was part of the gift the Saints gave the city following Hurricane Katrina. But while the Superdome has been reclaimed, those stories of trauma remain, and some roil pretty close to the surface. Like the story of Ray Byrd, a twenty-plus-year member of the New Orleans police department, who tailgates beneath a different overpass and never rooted for the Saints before Hurricane Katrina.
That changed in August 2005, when Byrd found himself in New Orleans East, stuck on a roof, and started getting flashbacks to his time in the Marines, to operations like Desert Storm and Desert Shield. “It was like Beirut,” he says of the city. “It was like an atomic bomb hit. Even though to my eyes it was color, it looked black and white.”
Byrd lost everything during the storm. Left with nothing but the clothes on his back, he transported stranded storm victims to the convention center in an eighteen-wheeler that he learned how to drive on the spot. “I was driving back and forth, sunup to sundown,” says Byrd. “Trips all day long.” As he went, Byrd made pit stops, anytime he saw a body, and he would tie the corpse to a pole. “I couldn’t just let them float away. That is somebody’s family member.”
After the storm, Byrd says he had job offers from other cities, from poachers. But he wanted to stay. “I love my city so much. I can’t abandon my city, my team, no. I couldn’t do it.” That’s when rooting for the Saints took on even more meaning. When he stopped pulling for the Eagles or the 49ers or the Cowboys, or whichever team caught his fancy. He says, “After Katrina, I had to support my town.”
Chuck Simpson and Scott Mitchell lived through Katrina, too, although for them, the storm went beyond the dome, beyond New Orleans. As active-duty members of the Navy, they were stationed in Mississippi, and when the base in Pascagoula flooded, they decided to commandeer a Navy van. “They had little distribution points, where the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard were handing out MREs [Meals Ready to Eat] and ice and water to people driving by,” says Mitchell. “Well, we took that van down there, opened up the back, and said, put as many pallets as you can in there. We’re going to drive down where people can’t drive up.”
And that’s what they did for two months after the storm, covering about two hundred square miles, from Alabama to Louisiana. In some areas, they would just drive up on the beach because there were no roads. Says Simpson, “We would pull into places, in between Long Beach and Gulfport, pull into a subdivision, and as far as the eye can see, toilets. That’s the only thing left.” But the weirdest visual came in the north part of Biloxi, says Mitchell. “There is this guy’s house, the roof was sitting on the ground, like the walls just fell, and he’s sitting on top of it. There was a Bayliner in a tree and a coffin in the road—”
“We drove around it,” says Simpson.
Mitchell remembers kids running alongside the van, as if it were a Mardi Gras float, as they tossed out pieces of chewing gum. Folks weren’t afraid to show their appreciation, either. Says Simpson, “I remember getting back in the van. I said, ‘If one more person hugs me that hasn’t had a shower, I’m going to fucking puke.’” He pauses, flips the grill cage, smiles. “Dude, it was beautiful.”
With about an hour until kickoff, I enter the stadium, where the Saints have sold out of season tickets every year since the team’s 2006 return to the city, where a banner hangs from the rafters honoring these season sellouts, a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is testament to the fact that New Orleans would not let this team leave.
It isn’t my first time inside. Months earlier, during the off-season, Bill Curl, who served as the stadium’s spokesman for more than three decades, had taken me on a tour of the building, calling attention to a variety of little details, like the vestige outline of a baseball diamond, which can be seen on the Superdome floor. He pointed out where the stadium’s six-sided gondola—a pioneer of instant replay—once hung and told stories of how they used to bring in fan boats to dry off the turf. We also visited the engineering room, which is still scarred with Sharpie wall markings from Katrina, when those in the dome fought off the flooding of the generator, and which must be monitored twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. (There a woman named Patricia sat bragging about job security.)
It wasn’t hard to appreciate the size of the facility from the upper levels, as we looked out on the vast expanse of the main room and seating bowl, where insect-size workers scurried below, setting up chairs for a convention. With the stands empty and no natural light, it felt like being inside a giant tuna can. But the dome feels different today. No less big but more intimate, somehow. The noise of fans filling the space slingshots around the room, amorphous, all-encompassing.
I can’t help but feel a vague sense of haunting. As the legend goes, the Superdome has always held spirits inside after being built atop the abandoned Girod Street Cemetery. But the haunting feels more recent than that. As I walk the concourses, I think about where people slept and shat and cowered and died during the storm. I think about those who suffered here—survivors of robberies, beatings, and rapes—and how, for some, the dome may never be redeemed. I think about the Katrina stories from beyond the stadium as well—Ray Byrd plowing through floodwater in an eighteen-wheeler, the Navy guys delivering MREs. Each of these experiences reverberates through the halls, part of the cacophonous concerto of post-Katrina fandom. But with a game to be played, no one else seems to notice the noise. Not the fans. Not the players. Not the drunk dude being rolled out on a gurney. This makes sense, I guess. In New Orleans, even the iconic athletes are haunted by tragedy; Archie Manning, Pete Maravich, and Drew Brees each lost a parent to suicide.
It is a town that is used to dealing with ghosts.
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