Local fans look to Saints to take it all the way

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cedric Tillman’s phone rang all last week.

Friends. Relatives. Acquaintances. All of them want what he’s got, which is one of the most coveted possessions on the Gulf Coast — a ticket to Tonight’s NFC championship game between the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings.

Tillman, a Vicksburg resident who bought Saints season tickets for the first time this year, isn’t about to cave in — not with a chance to see the team he’s cheered on for 30 years reach its first Super Bowl.

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“All of my brothers, college friends and high school classmates have been calling me and wanting to go,” Tillman said with a laugh. “I just tell them no. I’m keeping it.”

Tillman, 40, started rooting for the Saints when he was a 10-year-old growing up in Picayune. He came aboard the Saints’ bandwagon just in time for the glory years of the late 1980s, when their dominating “Dome Patrol” defense helped the franchise to its first playoff berth.

This year has been even better. The Saints won their first 13 games, clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and advanced to the conference championship game by beating the Arizona Cardinals 45-14 last weekend.

Tillman has been there the whole way, cheering on the Saints from Section 645 of the Superdome. He missed two of the team’s nine home games this season, but has made the 3 1/2-hour trek to New Orleans every other Sunday.

“It’s been real exciting. I just wanted to see a couple of games. After they jumped out to that 13-0 start, I realized I picked the perfect season to go,” Tillman said, adding that he plans to frame all of his ticket stubs when the season is over. “There have been some guys selling things, but not me. I’ve been saving my tickets all season, and I’m going to put that up somewhere when it’s finished.”

Tillman isn’t the only Vicksburg member of the growing “Who Dat?” Nation.

Each Sunday, anywhere from 15 to 30 Saints fans gather at ROCA restaurant to watch the team on television. For Michael Woodrick, a member of the group, this has been a season unlike any other.

The Saints played their first game in 1967 and didn’t reach the playoffs or have a winning season until 1987. Their first playoff victory had to wait until 2000. The first conference championship appearance came five years later, but ended with a crushing 39-14 loss to the Chicago Bears.

Even though the Saints reached the NFC title game just three years ago, this season’s success has turned the lovable losers into bonafide championship favorites for the first time. It’s a little jarring — even for diehard fans.

“It’s almost surreal. In the last five years, nine different teams have gone to the NFC championship game and we’re the only ones to do it twice,” Woodrick said. “It’s a little nervous for me. I’ll be pacing at ROCA for sure.”

While being a fan of a winner has taken some getting used to, both Woodrick and Tillman said the wait was worth it. After three decades of seasons ranging mostly from bad to mediocre, this year has brought an optimism that wasn’t there before.

“It still feels like a dream. Even for the people that were watching the games, it was hard to comprehend what was going on,” said Rob Mordica, the manager of ROCA who started the restaurant’s gameday gatherings. “A couple years ago, we waited for it to crash. This year, you could just see where they were a team and we were going somewhere.”

Tillman said the Saints’ success has created a buzz across the region.

“Since I’m from the area, it’s been great. Every time I go home that’s all anybody talks about is the Saints,” Tillman said. “This year has been totally different. Everybody hopes they can win, and it’s a surprise when they lose. Before, when they lost it wasn’t a surprise.”

Tillman will be in the center of the action, just like he was for last week’s playoff victory over Arizona. With another win today, he plans to help America’s most raucous city start a party the likes of which it has never seen.

“It’s going to be crazy. Everybody in New Orleans is excited about this game,” Tillman said. “All you’ve been hearing all season is ‘Black and Gold Super Bowl.’ It’s going to be loud from the start.”

Contact Ernest Bowker at ebowker@vicksburgpost.com