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How The New Orleans Saints Used A Voodoo Priestess

NEW ORLEANS -- It feels like ancient history now. But there was a time when the Superdome curse was threatening to take its place alongside the Bambino and the Billy Goat.

The New Orleans Saints didn't win a single playoff game in their first 33 years, going 0-for-3 in their iconic home building. And people started to wonder whether it wasn't such a great idea to build the Dome on top of the old Girod Street Cemetery in the early 1970s.

So as Voodoo priestess Ava Kay Jones said in ESPN's latest 30 for 30 podcast, Cursed and Blessed, the Saints decided to "bring in the big guns" before their 2000 wild-card playoff game against the reigning Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

The Saints actually held a Voodoo ritual in the middle of the field to cleanse the Superdome of negative spirits. Jones wore a large boa constrictor around her neck and carried a custom-made Voodoo doll, a gris-gris bag and a bottle of gin while being accompanied by drummers and dancers from the Voodoo Macumba Dance Ensemble.

"We had never won a playoff game. And everybody was like, 'What is it?' Because no one ever wanted to admit it may be the caliber of the football team. So it had to be something else, right?" Saints president Dennis Lauscha said with a laugh. "So we leaned into it. And we worked with [Jazz Fest and Essence Fest producer] Quint Davis, and he found us a Voodoo priestess. And lo and behold, we won."

Indeed, the Saints beat the Rams 31-28 and did it in a fashion that seemed to put the curse on the opposition when Rams receiver Az-Zahir Hakim dropped a punt in the final minutes to secure the win.

"All of our Saints were marching in, let's put it that way," Davis said.

The Saints (10-3) have won six playoff games in the Superdome since, and they're hoping for at least one more this season. They have already clinched the NFC South title as they prepare to host the Indianapolis Colts (6-7) on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Davis has helped produce entertainment for the Saints for years -- including the Monday Night Football performance featuring U2 and Green Day when the Superdome reopened after Hurricane Katrina in 2006.

But even though part of the purpose was to entertain the fans before that 2000 playoff game, he said those involved were deeply serious about the rituals they were performing.

"I do believe in blessings and curses. Not just because of local folklore or anything but because the Bible speaks of blessings and curses. So this concept, I believe, is spiritually and biblically valid," Jones said. "And then growing up in New Orleans, you know, we're always conscious of things from another world."

Voodoo is more than a curiosity for tourists in New Orleans. It is a religion with African and Caribbean roots that is deeply embedded in the city's diverse "gumbo pot" culture.

Jones -- who was part of the inspiration for the Mama Odie character in Disney's animated "The Princess and the Frog," according to directors John Musker and Ron Clements -- is a bit of a gumbo pot herself. Her parents have Native American and French roots. And she called herself a "dyed in the wool Catholic" who is also "very much aware of my New Orleans spiritual heritage."

Brandi Kelley, the owner of Voodoo Authentica in New Orleans' French Quarter, is the one who got Davis and Jones together for the Superdome ceremony. She said the idea was to "honor the spirits that were in the Dome, appease them and give them the acknowledgment that they deserved.

"You know in Voodoo we serve the ancestors. And these ancestors, their spirits were unknown and forgotten. And that's a no-no," Kelley said. "So we wanted to pour libations to them, sing songs to them and let them know that we recognize them, we honor their presence, and we asked them to remove the obstacles that we felt were creating problems for the Saints.

"We love our Saints, and we were prepared to do whatever it took to get them that win."

The snake was used to pay tribute to New Orleans Voodoo queen Marie Laveau -- as well as to symbolize Damballa, the serpent snake of wisdom and balance. Filling a small gris-gris bag with roots, herbs and charms is another traditional part of the ceremony. Jones' included some John the Conqueror Root, magnetic sand, hyssop, frankincense and myrrh to attract good fortune and ward off evil influences. Jones said it was also key that the 67,000 fans were fueling the prayers, joining in with hollers of "Ashe!" -- the Voodoo "amen."

And Jones and Kelley didn't stop there. While the game was going on, they continued to perform rituals around town at the International Shrine of St. Jude and Congo Square until they got word of the four-word phrase that has become part of the Saints fan lexicon: "Hakim dropped the ball!"

Only a portion of the Superdome parking garages and the area now known as Champions Square rest on top of the old Girod Street Cemetery. And the idea of a Superdome curse doesn't explain how the Saints won a total of 30 games in their first eight seasons while playing home games uptown at Tulane Stadium.

But talk of a haunted Dome really picked up when construction crews unearthed a collection of human bones and pieces of gravestones just outside the building in 1987, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.

And the idea was widespread enough that Saints assistant head coach Rick Venturi was quoted by The Times-Picayune as saying, "Take that curse and stick it" during the exuberant postgame locker room celebration.

Others said they didn't pay it much mind.

"I remember seeing the pictures with the people with the snakes and all that stuff on the field and I couldn't believe it," said Hall of Fame offensive tackle Willie Roaf, who was with the team in the locker room at the time of the ceremony. "So I guess for them to do that, I mean, someone had to approve that, right? So that means they really believed it. That was kind of crazy.

"But I was just so proud that I was a part of that history of getting that win for the Saints. You've gotta get the first one out of the way."

Former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, who was the starter in each of those three home playoff losses in the 1980s and 1990s, said, "I was never one to believe in a curse. I just think it was more that we didn't make halftime adjustments."

He also had a good theory for what changed the Dome's mojo.

"I think if we'd had Drew Brees at quarterback we would have won," Hebert said, "whether they had a curse or not."


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