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This Newfoundlander has led a Saintly existence

Jonathan Clarke of Corner Brook proudly shows off his New Orleans Saints colours during the 2006 NFL Championship game, played between the Saints and Chicago Bears on Jan. 21, 2007 at Soldier Field in Chicago. To his left sitting next to Clarke are the two Bears season-ticket holders who sold Clarke a ticket for the game — for $100 less than he offered.
Jonathan Clarke of Corner Brook proudly shows off his New Orleans Saints colours during the 2006 NFL Championship game, played between the Saints and Chicago Bears on Jan. 21, 2007 at Soldier Field in Chicago. To his left sitting next to Clarke are the two Bears season-ticket holders who sold Clarke a ticket for the game — for $100 less than he offered.

The two players who are arguably the New Orleans Saints’ biggest stars ever have been with the team at opposite ends of the its half-century in the NFL — quarterbacks Archie Manning, who joined the Saints a few years after their expansion season, and present-day pivot Drew Brees.

We’re telling the stories of fans who dare to be different
Most sports fans, we can agree, cheer for the so-called traditional teams — the Leafs, Canadiens and Red Wings, Steelers, Cowboys and Packers, and Lakers, Celtics and, certainly, the Raptors. In baseball, the Blue Jays are big in Canada, but so are the Yankees and Red Sox.
But there are fans out there — granted, not many — who support teams that are perhaps not so popular.
We’re telling their story, about how and why they started cheering for — and remain fans of — the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks (before they became good), Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Kings (see Seattle Seahawks) and Washington Capitals.

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In between, there have been the likes of Hall of Famers Rickey Jackson and Willie Roaf, and ageless kicker Morten Andersen, the “Great Dane.”

But while Jonathan Clarke’s affinity for the Saints began with a player, it didn’t start with any of these New Orleans standouts. (In fact, his first NFL loyalties weren’t even for the Saints.)

It started with a two-time Pro Bowl running back, one not named Deuce McCallister.

“Like most kids growing up in the late 70’s, early 80’s in Newfoundland, I enjoyed watching football on TV every Sunday,” said Clarke, who lives in his hometown of Corner Brook.

“Back then, our options were very limited. The Internet and widespread home satellite television, much less the NFL Sunday Ticket package, were well over a decade away. So we had to make due with whatever games the CBS and NBC affiliates out of New England would be assigned.

“At that time, the Dallas Cowboys were very popular and would be featured regularly, so it made sense to jump on that bandwagon. Also bear in mind that the NFL had yet to become the global marketing juggernaut that it is today; the only merchandise you could buy was through the Sears catalogue, and it only featured half a dozen teams, including Dallas.”

Then, in the summer of 1987, Clarke came across the Sports Illustrated article “The Saint From Shiloh.”

It was about running back Rueben Mayes, a native of North Battleford, Sask., who had been the 1986 NFL offensive rookie of the year after rushing for 1,383 yards with New Orleans.

“The idea someone from Canada could make the NFL and be successful sounded pretty cool,” recalled Clarke. “And because I didn’t know anyone else who cheered for the New Orleans Saints, I decided to adopt them as my own team.”

Mayes almost hit the 1,000-yard mark again in his second season, but missed four games with the injuries that would eventually lead to the premature end of his career.

But even after Mayes was gone from the NFL, Clarke kept following the Saints… although it wasn’t easy.

“Getting the opportunity to see the Saints’ game televised live on TV was a very big deal,” he said. “In the first few years, you might see a handful of games, depending on who they were playing and the quality of the match-up. I can recall a few Sundays where the nationally broadcast game was supposed to feature the Saints only to have the regional blackout rules apply.

“Years later, I ended up buying a DirecTV satellite dish off eBay and much to the surprise of friends/others who had the same technology and were using hacked cards for free, I was able to set up a legitimate account with the company and paid for the Sunday Ticket Package, which at the time was only available on DirecTV. The Canadian dollar was only worth 65 cents (U.S.), but at least I was able to see the Saints every Sunday.”

Clarke hoped to travel to see the Saints in person in a 2005 home game, but that plan was ended by Hurricane Katrina.

He did get to see his team in 2007 in the NFC championship final against the Bears, a game played at chilly Soldier Field in Chicago, but only after having his request for the necessary time off vetted by his new employer.

 “The request went all the way up to the senior vice-president of the company (and) I was summoned to his office,” said Clarke.

“He asked ‘This must be some kind of special occasion… a wedding or something?’

“I paused before answering, nodded my head and mumbled ‘Umm-hmm.’”

Clarke got the time off and arrived at snowy Soldier Field dressed in a Saints-logoed winter coat.

“I’ve only ever seen one other person wear this jacket and they weren’t anywhere near New Orleans,” he said.

But while he had the appropriate outerwear (although perhaps not the appropriate colours for Bear-mad Chicago), Clarke didn’t have a ticket to the game.

“I had $400 US in my inside coat pocket, and walked to Soldier Field, looking to get a ticket,” he said. “I came across a couple of (Bears) season-ticket holders and offered them $300 for the single seat they were selling. They quickly stated that was way too much money, and offered it for $200 instead.

“My run of good luck soon ended, however, as the Saints played horribly and lost 39-14.”

Clarke did eventually make it to New Orleans in January of 2010 for another NFC Championship game, one which saw the Saints beat the Arizona Cardinals en route to their first Super Bowl win.

“Such a great victory for the team, but especially the people of Louisiana who were still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina,” said Clarke, who found his love for New Orleans extended beyond the city’s football team.

“Despite not knowing a single soul or having any other connection, (I find) for a Newfoundlander, it’s a place that feels very familiar,” he said. “It’s got a unique culture, the people march to the beat of a different drum, they know how to have a good time, they don’t take life too seriously and they have a very down-to-earth hospitality.

“I think that’s why I go as often as I do, and why I enjoy everything else (jazz music, warm weather) outside of watching football.”

Over the last few years, Clarke has planned vacations where he can take in a road game in a city where he has yet to see the Saints play, as well as a home game back in New Orleans.

“The fans —regardless of the city I’m in — are astounded at my story, as well as the notion of taking in multiple games within five to seven days of each other,” he said.

So far, he’s seen games in Buffalo, Chicago, Charlotte, San Francisco, Green Bay and Philadelphia, with five different trips to New Orleans.

Next season, the Saints will take on the Miami Dolphins in London, England and Clarke says he will be there as he works toward his goal of attending a game in every city where the Saints will play.

“If the current trend of relocation is any indicator, I’ll simply have to go to Los Angeles a few times a year to meet that goal,” he joked.

 

sports@thetelegram.com

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