Dave Reardon

Points East

By Dave Reardon

Monday, October 11, 1999

Tough times down in
The Big Easy

NEW ORLEANS - This is supposed to be a happy place, where they invented spicy cooking and perfected hot partying.

But they're down on the bayou. Really down, and it's been that way since before Emeril chopped his first pepper.

Louisiana's football teams rarely fail to disappoint the fans here - fans who are loyal and fervent. You'd say to a fault, except that their love of the sport spawned the spacious and comfortable Superdome, host to four Super Bowls.

But never a New Orleans playoff victory.

The sad irony is that the Saints have never come close to NFL supremacy in the franchise's 33 years. The Battle of New Orleans - fought after the War of 1812 was officially pau - is the last time this city knew the feeling of postseason victory.

And, despite the common trait of bluster, Iron Mike Ditka is no Andrew Jackson. Jackson didn't need a Buddy Ryan to win, like Ditka did in Chicago in 1985.

DITKA came to New Orleans three years ago, and started to rebuild the team, starting with the offensive line.

Chris Naeole, the Saints' third-year guard from Kahuku and Colorado, is a major part of that rebuilding process. Naeole had little experience with losing when he got to New Orleans, and has had all the lessons he wants in back-to-back 6-10 seasons and a 1-3 start this year.

Naeole seemed to take the Saints' 20-17 loss to the Falcons yesterday harder than most of his teammates.

"This is the worst," he said, staring dejectedly at the locker room floor. "Three weeks in a row. All we had to do was run the ball to win."

The Saints were supposed to be able to do that this year, with the line, and with Ditka's entire 1999 draft - Ricky Williams.

But Williams, who got the first 95 of his NCAA-record 6,279 rushing yards in his debut against Hawaii four years ago, has been hobbled by injuries as a pro.

It's obvious Williams has to break out, because Brittle Billy Joe (Hobert) and Choking Billy Joe (Tolliver) can't do it by themselves. Williams' fellow Heisman Trophy-winner, Danny Wuerffel, is still holding a clipboard and wearing baseball caps in his third NFL season.

SEVENTY-FIVE miles down Interstate 10 on Saturday, LSU quarterback Josh Booty got a literal baptism from Wuerffel's alma mater, Florida, which threw him around in the mud.

After some typical petty bickering, this time over uniform colors, constant rain had both teams in brown by halftime. Especially Booty, who was on his often in the Tigers' 31-10 loss. Death Valley was the consistency of gumbo (think curry stew) and looked a lot more like a swamp than The Swamp ever did.

You may remember Booty as a third baseman for Maui in the defunct Hawaii Winter League. Fitting he played some games at Hans L'Orange Field, which has a definite Cajun ring to it.

When Booty got to LSU, strength coach Curtis Tsuruda - who previously held a similar post for the Rainbows - was one of the guys who helped Booty get into football shape.

"Some of them want his head already," Tsuruda said of the sophomore.

It's a tough crowd at Death Valley, especially when they're hot and wet and, well, drunk.

They seem a little more civil at the Superdome - until you hear the postgame radio callers demanding Ditka's departure.

"I like him. He's straight-up," said Ink Aleaga, a Saints backup linebacker. "First and foremost, we all have to stick together.

"I have to like it here. It's my job," the former Pac-Five and Maryknoll star added. "I'd just like to start winning."

Hey, no one ever said football would be easy in The Big Easy.

Dave Reardon, who covered sports in Hawaii
from 1977 to 1998, is a sportswriter at the
Gainesville Sun. E-mail

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