A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
It’s in New Orleans. By the Mercedes Benz Superdome to be precise. The statue is called Rebirth and was sculpted by Brian Hanlon. It’s of a man who’s name I had to Google.
I even discovered it by accident. Myself and two accomplices were in New Orleans and taking in the sights. Looking for a chance to sober from our exploits in the French Quarter, the Superdome was something that even being from 7,000km away we had heard of, so we went to check it out.
It’s a very impressive structure, set back high on a mound, and absolutely huge. It was January and the Saints had been eliminated before the playoffs, so we only saw the outside. And no one else was around. Facing the front stand of this mammoth stadium we looked around for a visitors entrance or gift shop. None was apparent. Let’s just walk around it and we’ll stumble upon something, we thought. We turned right and set off.
Have I mentioned how massive it is? Well, after about twenty minutes and walking 350° of the circle we finally found the (unmarked) gift shop. The clerk, friendly though he was, made no attempt to hide laughing at us, the funniest thing he’d heard that year, pointing out the dumb Scottish boys who walked all the way around the stadium to every other customer in the store. Awright mate! Maybe if you had a sign outside?
But I’m glad we did go the wrong way. Not only because it meant we saw the ridiculously named Smoothie King Stadium tucked away around the back, but we also stumbled upon the Rebirth Statue.
It was 2006. The New Orleans Saints were playing their first game in New Orleans in almost two years, after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, which almost brought the city to its knees. There was talk the area would have to be abandoned, left to become the biggest ghost town in the world. But despite it all, the city pulled through, and was beginning the long road to recovery. Their opponents that night were division rivals Atlanta Falcons.
Just over a minute into the game, the Falcons are on a 4th down so go for a punt. These are standard plays and, with my limited understanding of American football, pass without much drama. However this time as the kicker, Michael Koenen, receives the ball and drops it to kick, a Saints player, Steve Gleason, breaks through the Atlanta lines, throws himself in front of Koenen and blocks the kick. The ball breaks for New Orleans who score the touchdown and the 75,000 crowd erupts.
New Orleans, beaten, battered and bruised, was still alive, its spirit unbroken, its determination intact. It was an experience unique to sport, a unifying, cathartic moment seen by the world that galvanised an entire city. New Orleans returned and recovered its status as one of the most vibrant and unforgettable places in the world. The Saints went on to have their best season to date that year, and many put it down to that moment, the blocked kick, that marked New Orleans’ rebirth.
And as if Steve Gleason wasn’t inspiring enough, by the time the statue was unveiled in 2012, he had been diagnosed with the terrible disease ALS, however had become a campaigner to raise awareness of ALS, and, unbeknownst to me, only three days after I write this is due to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for his contribution to the cause.
But that’s not why it’s my favourite statue. It’s my favourite because, as well as marking Gleason’s heroic block, they have also included Koenen, the Atlanta kicker, in the statue, forever immortalising his fuck up.
Imagine being Koenen in that moment. 75,000 screaming fans going berserk, and forgetting the wider symbolic resonance of the play, knowing that you’d messed up a pretty basic play. I wonder if he thought, “Damn, I made a right arse of that. Hope no one ever goes and builds a statue of this.”
That to me is art at its best. It can encapsulate moments of such intense emotion, ecstasy, pride, inspiration and hope. But if you can also capture some humour and an eternal “Get it right up you” to your local rivals, all the better. It's simply beautiful.