Family finds joy in Super Bowl run

Published 12:11 am Saturday, February 6, 2010

The New Orleans Saints are in the Super Bowl. No. Seriously. The New Orleans Saints are in the Super Bowl. For a franchise that had 21 straight losing seasons to start its NFL tenure and a beleaguered city whose families have been scattered and whose spirit had been all but broken, the feeling that accompanies that realization is nothing short of magical.

For Gary Rabalais and his family, it is a welcome cause for celebration. His brother-in-law, Dave Gagliano, sums it up perfectly.

“Not in my lifetime,” he says plainly when asked if he thought the Saints would ever achieve the feat.

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It is Saturday, just six days after the Saints punched their Super Bowl ticket with a game-winning, fortune-changing, 40-yard kick off the toe of Garrett Hartley a placekicker who missed the first four games of the season due to violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

The Rabalais family, like most native New Orleans residents, is still buzzing from the excitement of their home team reaching the pinnacle of the sport.

“I was in the (French) Quarter, slapping hands with people I didn’t even know,” Dave says, recounting his experience following Hartley’s now-legendary kick.

“Oh my God, coming home from a game party the other night, as soon as he made the kick people were running outside and screaming, shooting fireworks. It was like New Year’s Eve,” Cindy Maas, Gary’s sister, says. “Driving home on the interstate, people were honking their horns at you.”

Cindy, her husband Dave Maas and their two children, Allie and Nicky are up for the weekend from Chalmette, La., a suburb of New Orleans. They make the trip to Demopolis a few times a year. This particular weekend it is to help one of their family members move to her new home.

There was a time when the entire family got together much more frequently than they do now. Then came Katrina, the 2005 hurricane the re-routed the course of a city and countless families. It was Aug. 29, 2005 when Gary, his mother, Ellie, his then-wife Christi, and their son Murphy made the trek from just outside of New Orleans to Demopolis. They stayed with Christy’s father, Terry Calloway, at first.

“We all came up and stayed with Christi’s dad,” Gary recalls. “Christy and I bought this house. Wendy and Dave found a place and then mom found a place.”

Gary’s house has become a kind of central gathering point for the family whenever they find the opportunity to get together, which they have done on this day because Ellie is in the process of moving to a new home.

Gary now works at Rock-Tenn. His sister, Wendy Gagliano, also found a job in the area and made the move as well. It is not an ideal situation for the tight-knit family, but it is one they approach with a down-to-earth flare and unflappable sense of humor.

“Dave lives here temporarily,” Gary jokes, referring to Dave Gagliano, who makes the drive from New Orleans to Demopolis every weekend to be with his wife, Wendy. “He’s got a long drive to work in the mornings.”

“I belong to the Who Dat Nation,” Dave says of his residence while also making reference to the phrase given to describe the body of passionate Saints fans.

That humor is evident in nearly everything the family does. As Gary reflects on the day that Katrina forced the family to leave its home, he smiles and cracks another joke.

“It wasn’t hard to move,” he says, making reference to the fact that the bulk of the family’s possessions were destroyed by the flood waters. “It’s hard with the family, with my sister and my dad still down there.”

But the distance is a fact of life for the family, which does what it has to do in order to stay close. After all, as avid Saints fans, the family is used to hard times and disappointments. After all, it is Saints fans who first introduced the concept of wearing a paper bag as a mask to home games to signify the shame of rooting for such a monumentally bad franchise.

“They’re supposed to have a Jazz funeral to bury the bag,” Wendy says, a ceremony that would be odd in any part of the world other than New Orleans.

But that is the mood around the city and the households of the families who were given adequate, albeit sudden impetus to leave it.

“The Arch Diocese has declared the day after the Super Bowl a holiday,” Cindy says. “In the public school system, something like 1,000 kids stayed home from school (the day after the NFC Championship game).”

The last two weeks have been otherworldly for Saints fans, some of whom are still trying to wrap their minds around the reality that their team — perennially known as “Ain’ts” — is really in the Super Bowl.

“I woke up the next morning and I felt like it had been a dream,” Dave Maas explains. “Then I realized, ‘Wow! It really happened!”

This weekend, the Rabalais family and the Maas family and Gagliano family will be back in their respective homes, some 250 miles apart. But it is a safe bet that, come Sunday evening around the game’s scheduled kickoff time of 5:25, they will all be gathered around a television somewhere watching their beloved Saints.

There will be excitement. There will be elation. And, most likely, there will be gumbo.