- Dome from home: How Saints superfans are handling the upcoming season
- BY JAKE CLAPP AND SARAH RAVITS
- Sep 7, 2020
Leroy ‘Whistle Monsta’ Mitchell at his home bar in Mid-City, in slightly more toned-down (at least, for him) gameday attire.
PHOTO BY SARAH RAVITS
Gambit staff writer
Even in the better forgotten days of the 1980 football season, when the Saints would first earn the dubious “The Aints” moniker, Mack Cuenca couldn’t help but cheer his home team. While other fans were donning those infamous brown bag masks to register their embarrassment with the team, Cuenca went in another, happier, direction.
“I decided I wasn’t going to wear a bag, I was going to wear a wig,” Cuenca says. “I think of myself as a cheerleader.”
Cuenca’s look slowly evolved as he tried out different wigs or added suspenders to his game day outfits, until the Saints’ first ever playoff game on Jan. 3, 1988. Just before kick-off against the Minnesota Vikings, Cuenca added a simple, but defining touch: a clown nose. With that simple act of celebration, Mack the Quack the Who Dat Clown was born.
Mack Cuenca and his wife, Sue. ‘She wanted to marry a Saints player growing up,’ he says. ‘Instead, she married a clown.’
PHOTO PROVIDED BY MACK CUENCA
A New Orleans native, Cuenca pledged his allegiance to the Saints when the team made its debut in 1967 while he was still in high school. Eleven years later, Cuenca and his wife as newlyweds bought season tickets. “She wanted to marry a Saints player growing up,” Cuenca jokingly says. “Instead, she married a clown.”
And for the last 33 years, Cuenca has gotten into character for every Saints home game, making Mack the Quack one of the greats in the pantheon of Saints superfans, along with the likes of the Whistle Monsta, the Bless You Boys Popes, Cyborg Saint and others. Spiritual avatars of their fellow fans, the characters not only help cheer on their team, but rally fans and electrify the stadium. And over the years, they’ve become symbols of both the Saints and the city of New Orleans, easily recognizable to anyone who’s seen a game on TV.
That is, of course, until this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic throwing the world into chaos — even derailing the NFL, arguably the most powerful force in American popular culture not named Beyonce. Thanks to the pandemic, the Saints’ season opener and first home game on Sunday will be played without fans — including superfans like Cuenca. Beyond that one game things are even more uncertain: nobody knows if fans will be allowed in at all this season, or even if an entire season will be played.
The impacts of the virus extend far beyond the stadium. Bars, normally packed on game days, remain closed. Large public and private gatherings are barred, and there’ll be no (legal) tailgating anywhere in the city. A weekly ritual of fellowship and stress relief that blurs all religious, racial, economic and even partisan lines has been taken from us, just when we need it most.
But just as they rise from the ranks of a crowd quieted by a seemingly unstoppable opposing team to bring energy and new life to fans and players alike, Saints superfans are already applying their makeup and icing down beers, beacons of hope and a late game comeback.
After all, says Cuenca, “Fandom is fandom. I love my team.”
Mark Morice, Hank Staples and Keith ‘Fish’ Williams were the original Bless You Boys Popes.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY MARK MORICE
The Saints’ 2020 regular season opens at 3:25 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 13, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — a match-up that will bring quarterback Tom Brady and a recently signedLeonard Fournette into an unusually quiet Superdome to face a Saints squad led by Drew Brees and (hopefully) fan favorite Alvin Kamara as well as Gambit 40 Under 40 recipient safety Malcolm Jenkins.
It’s painful to imagine more than 72,000 empty seats, but in August, the Saints officially said they would not host a crowd at the game, citing the spread of the coronavirus in the region. Champions Square also will be closed.
“While state numbers are trending in the right direction, further mitigation of cases is needed and a reduced infection rate is required for the team to welcome back their fans,” the team said in a statement.
Although last week, state officials cleared the Saints’ proposal to host fans beginning with its Sept. 27 game against the Green Bay Packers, details about that proposal haven’t been released. What we do know is that like every other team in the league, even if fans are allowed back into the dome, the Saints won’t allow seating in the first eight rows off of the field, and the team has hinted at limiting the size of any crowds allowed in.
But before Who Dats get into the Dome, the city will have to sign off on the plan as well. And so far, that seems like it could be a month or more from happening, if at all.
“We are still under guidelines that are associated with Phase 2 but also aligned with the state of Louisiana,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said at a Sept. 2 news conference. “The priority of the City of New Orleans is getting our kids back into the classroom in person … What has been approved [by the state] is the reopening plans by the Saints organization asking for some concessions. My team has met with the leadership there. We have reviewed the plans. We’re continuing to look at our numbers and where we are in terms of public health before we make a final decision on that game.”
Whatever the risks, fans Gambit spoke with universally said they are excited to see this season’s Saints roster in action — regardless of whether or not they’ll be inside the stadium. And many longtime New Orleans residents, by this point familiar with what keeps being referred to as “unprecedented” chaos, have long been comforted, or at least felt unified, by the city’s football team.
Brandon Rizzuto, dressed as ‘Breesus,’ and a group of Saintly friends pose outside of the Kansas City Chiefs’ stadium.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY BRANDON RIZZUTO
“A lot of people, including myself, are optimistic about the season,” says Brandon Rizzuto, who co-organized the 2019 Boycott Bowl and whose career has been in the sports industry. “We have a solid team, a veteran-led team. It’s unfortunate we won’t be able to go to the games, especially the first one [against Tampa Bay]. We’re looking forward to that game to start off to put Tom Brady in his place. Look at the Saints’ home schedule — a lot of great games. Not being able to go as fans, it sucks. We’re a big part of the game as far as the atmosphere and creating noise on defense.”
Still, Rizzuto says he takes the coronavirus seriously and understands the need to limit crowds in the Superdome to not only protect fans but also players. The Saints organization, he says, has been handling the situation well — the team rented out four floors of the Loews Hotel downtown in order to create an optional bubble for players and staff. The organization also offered season ticket holders the choice to opt out of their 2020 packages and use money already paid toward the cost of 2021 tickets or to receive a refund upon request.
In recent years, Rizzuto and his wife’s gameday tradition was to have brunch near the river and then work their way back to the Superdome for kickoff. At least for the beginning of this season, they’ll watch the games with friends on a rotation of houses.
“Hopefully we’ll get back in the Superdome, and we can continue [the watch parties] for away games,” he says. “You’ll be able to see each other a lot more if we can do that. So it’s still bringing everybody together under one roof, and that’s the most important thing.”
Leroy ‘Whistle Monsta’ Mitchell
PHOTO BY JOSH BRASTED / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE | THE NEW ORLEANS ADVOCATE
In the meantime, however, even the team’s most diehard fans are going to be largely on their own, forced to find ways to make the most of it and recreate the energy and spectacle of the Dome at home.
Leroy Mitchell, who has dressed up as the “Whistle Monsta” since 1995, is adjusting plans for the season similar to the way he adapted this spring during what would have been the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
To say he is an enthusiast for New Orleans celebrations would be an understatement, even in the pandemic era. For instance, this past spring each day during what should have been Jazz Fest, Mitchell sat outside the shuttered Fair Grounds and blasted WWOZ 90.7 FM, which was broadcasting “Festing in Place.”
For the Saints season, he will still celebrate and don costume pieces. But his heavy, one-of-a-kind whistle headpiece may be sidelined in favor of a more toned-down accessory: a hand-decorated, fully sequined, feathered captain’s hat.
Mitchell at this juncture plans to stay planted on his couch for home games in his Mid-City living room, surrounded by Jazz Fest posters, costumes and an adjacent home bar that he admits has been well-stocked since pandemic restrictions were put in place and shut him out of his favorite venues. Depending on public health data, he may venture to a friend’s house for watch parties with a crew he normally sticks with during away games.
Leroy ‘Whistle Monsta’ Mitchell at his home bar in Mid-City. The season ticket holder says he’ll likely stay put, even if the Superdome reopens for home games.
PHOTO BY SARAH RAVITS
“Everyone has pandemic fatigue, make no mistake about that,” Mitchell says. “But I don’t want to expose other people [to the virus] … I have a huge bar at my house. And my wife and daughter already made streamers.”
His priority, he says, is to do “whatever we have to do to stay safe. Not one person’s life is worth a game.”
Cuenca has a slightly different approach. At 71, he acknowledges that he’s in a high-risk category for fatalities should he catch the virus, but he craves the human interaction and misses riling people up and “making them smile.” For now, his biggest adjustment to his costume is swapping out his clown nose for an N-95 mask — though it’s painted so similarly to his normal face paint it’s hard to tell the difference.
He hopes that the Saints organization will at least open Champions Square for gatherings that would allow for social distancing, although a team’s spokesperson told Gambit that for now it will remain closed. He also hopes that fans will continue to boost the team’s morale by greeting them at the airport when they return home from away games.
Mack Cuenca, aka Mack The Quack, will be swapping out his clown nose for an N-95 mask — painted like the real thing.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY MACK CUENCA
Though her outfits rotate during the season, Monica Charlton’s typical gameday tradition always involves grabbing a couple of beers and her gold cape, jumping on her bike and heading to the Superdome. Once she’s past security and in the building, she obsessively times herself as she rushes up the ramp and to her seats. She has to be in her seat in section 602 within 2 minutes, crowds be damned.
This year, Charlton has already decided to watch the games either alone or in a small group. If she goes to a watch party, it has to be outside, she says. Charlton is a personal trainer and fitness instructor, and she wants to avoid any risk of exposure she could potentially pass on to her clients.
A fitness instructor who normally sits in section 602 for home games, Monica Charlton plans to watch this season’s games at home or in small groups.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY MONICA CHARLTON
“As much as I would love to — if I don’t know you and I don’t know how careful you’re being and how serious you’re taking COVID, I don’t want to expose myself to random Saints fans, unfortunately,” she says. “I’ll probably be watching more with just close friends or people in my immediate bubble inside. Or some of those projection, outdoor-type gatherings where our chairs are a good ways away.”
Charlton says she’ll adapt a few traditions for the unusual season. Instead of her black and gold Elvis outfit, she’ll rock some Saints pants, Alvin Kamara socks and a Michael Thomas jersey. She also might rotate through a set of autographed hats, including a sweet one signed by several players at Steve Gleason’s 40th birthday party.
“And my section 602 cape. We made capes two years ago and we wear our capes to every game,” she adds with a laugh. “We call it the Section 602 Fan Impact Players. Whenever they say ‘That’s a fan impact play’ — we like to take personal credit for that.”
Charlie Fontenelle is quick to joke the virus is the latest part in the conspiracy against the Saints, just like the endless penalties and blown or outright fabricated calls that have plagued Who Dat Nation for years. It’s a lighthearted remark, and Fontenelle makes clear he understands the seriousness of the illness. Still, like most New Orleanians, the Saints are special for Fontenelle.
Charlie Fontenelle is one of the organizers of The Korner Krewe, a large tailgating group.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY CHARLIE FONTENELLE
“If for some reason they can’t pull off this year because of this COVID thing, it’s just gonna break all of New Orleans’ hearts, you know,” he says. “There are so many of us Saints fans feel it’s a repeat of 2005, where we were just horrible — I don’t think we’ll ever be that bad. But what happens, for instance, if your entire offensive line gets COVID, and now, Drew Brees is running for his life. This is a very deadly disease. What if an NFL player gets sick and passes away? So this is just all in the back of our heads, like the next storm coming in the Gulf, you know.”
Fontenelle helps organize The Korner Krewe, a large tailgate group that has set up in a parking lot at the corner of Poydras and Clara streets for almost two decades. Their tailgates attract 400-500 people in the hours before kickoff, attracted by the cold beers, smells of the barbecue pit and occasionally the sounds of a band or a drumline. The Korner Krewe is just one of a sea of black and gold tailgaters that stretch along South Claiborne Avenue and the surrounding area, sharing music and burgers and bowls of gumbo.
Fontenelle says he isn’t entirely sure of his group’s plans this season. They’re playing it by ear. But he may watch the games at a couple of local restaurants or with his buddy Scott “Sparky” Sparks in Sparks’ Saints-decked-out man cave. Sparks and Fontenelle also have a Saints-themed repurposed school bus they could pull out for impromptu tailgates, although Fontenelle isn’t sure how much of a crowd they could draw right now.
“We’re going to try to keep the group together as much as possible this year,” Fontenelle says. “But yeah, it’s going to be tough. If you don’t have that draw — there’s just something about being outside, being together, the music, the people. It’s tough to keep that if you don’t know if you’re going into a stadium.”
Wherever he decides to watch the games, Keith “Fish” Williams will be decked out in beer-blessed vestments and a fleur-de-lis crested pontiff hat. Williams is one of the original Bless You Boys Popes, normally seen in the first few rows doing the Lord’s work and tossing good-natured taunts at opposing players on the sidelines.
Williams and his friends Mark Morice and Hank Staples started the Popes in 2009, and they have become crowd favorites. Morice and Staples decided to retire their cassocks in recent years, but with a cloud of white smoke, Kerry Clanton and Romeo Della Santa have recently stepped into their robes.
Left to right: Keith ‘Fish’ Williams, Kerry Clanton, Leroy ‘Whistle Monsta’ Mitchell and Romeo Della Santa at a Saints game. Williams, Clanton and Della Santa are the current Bless You Boys Popes.
PHOTO PROVIDED BY ROMEO DELLA SANTA
“We’re Bless You Boys and we’re truly blessed that we’re able to affect people in a positive way and give [Saints fans] this rallying cry,” Williams says.
Williams says he intends to watch each game, but the details aren’t finalized — he half-jokingly says he and a group of friends would love to build some mini-bleachers later in the season for backyard parties.
When asked if he’ll still dress as a Pope this season, he says, “I almost want to fire back the question: ‘Well, is there any other way?’ Heck, I wouldn’t want to jinx [the team].”
“Mean” Willie Green also has joined the Bless You Boys as a Pope in past seasons. The drummer says he’ll be watching the games this season at his house or with some friends and a glass of wine.
“New Orleans, we always dress up for occasions,” Green says. “We’ve got Mardi Gras, we’ve got these other hookups. We’ve got the [Mardi Gras] Indians down here. It’s a dress-up thing. This is one of the only cities that dresses up like that. The Oakland Raiders, they’re more gangster to me. This city, we can have any event and everyone dresses up in costume.”
Leroy “Whistle Monsta” Mitchell agrees, saying rooting for the Saints and making the most of it all is second nature for Saints fans, especially during this era of uncertainty.
“When I get sad,” he says, “I say stay focused on one thing: We have a team.”