The New Orleans Saints without Jim Henderson calling games? What’s next, no fleur-de-lis on the helmets? When I saw Jim Henderson was retiring as the play-by-play voice of the Saints, it just didn’t seem possible. Jim Henderson would call Saints games forever because that’s the way it should be, but nothing is forever in life or football.
Having lived in four different cities and been exposed to five NFL teams local radio broadcasts I can tell you with 100 percent certainty Jim Henderson was a treasure. He was a television network quality announcer doing play-by-play in one of the smallest media markets in the country. And when I say ‘network quality’, it’s not just an opinion, Henderson called NFL games for CBS television in 1990.
Radio is such a personal medium in that it’s just you listening. There’s no interaction with people like Twitter or Facebook.
The way Jim Henderson called Saints games reminds me of how British commentators call a soccer match in the English Premier League; rarely screaming, never over describing the action, and if the play was terrible, expressing disgust or disapproval with quiet contempt and humor.
Listening to Henderson’s great calls Thursday, the thing that stuck out to me the most was how he could squeeze in subtle details in the biggest moments in a way that it felt so natural and easy you hardly noticed how spectacular he was at doing it.
Listen to Henderson’s call of Tracy Porter’s interception in the Super Bowl for the 10,000th time; do you notice all the details he manages to drop in so casually during the greatest moment in Saints history?
“It’s Tracy Porter AGAIN! 70 yards on the return! 70 yards! He did it to Favre, and now he’s done it to Manning.” No screaming, no yelling. A football movie couldn’t have an Oscar-winning actor deliver those lines as perfect after 100 takes. Henderson did all in the moment. He connected Porter to Favre and Manning forever. I guarantee if that happened to 90 percent of NFL teams their play-by-play guy would be a screaming, rambling incoherent mess. Henderson delivered poetry.
There are so many great Henderson calls but probably the two that stick with me the most include one great and one terrible Saints moment.
The great is Henderson’s ‘Hakim drops the ball’ call of the Saints first playoff win in 2000. That game for three and a half quarters was a party. The Saints were steamrolling the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams and the then chaos ensued. The Rams made a furious comeback and what seemed like an insurmountable Saints lead was hanging by a thread. If you were in the Superdome like I was, the level of fear, doom, and angst was off the charts. Were the Saints really going to have a collapse for the ages and lose a 31-7 lead? This couldn’t be happening and suddenly it wasn’t.
Henderson managed to describe what appeared to be 70,000 people about to be run over by a bus of ultimate sadness and then miraculously aren’t, and by the way, they also won the lottery. All in the span of about 35 seconds.
“Hakim drops the ball! Brian Milne might have fallen on it at the 10-yard line. It IS THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS FOOTBALL! Brian Milne the most unlikely hero of them all falls on the fumble, the muff by Hakim…there is a God after all.”
Henderson’s voice cracked ever so slightly, which was rare for him, but our joy, was his joy. From terror to euphoria with just a touch of perfection describing Milne was probably as perfect an in the moment description of a play and a fan base's emotions as there ever was.
The Saints had finally won a playoff game and of course it took divine intervention because it’s the New Orleans Saints.
The other Henderson call that sticks with me most is the River City Relay where John Carney missed extra point. “NOOO! He missed the extra point wide right. Oh my God how could he do that?”
In that moment Henderson asked the simple question going through every Saints fans mind.
Great play-by-play men don’t just describe a game; they connect the fans to the team with emotion and history and stamp moments in our memory forever. Jim Henderson’s background as a former English teacher made him unique and he had the gift to not just describe the action but he could paint a picture as if we were reading a great book.
The little old Saints might have not always been great on the field but they had a master describing the action. Jim Henderson combined literary wit with the passion of the fan base that followed the team to deliver us something great. Listening to great Saints games will always be memorable but Henderson added a sense of sophistication to the madness. Henderson made Saints radio broadcasts feel sui generis and now they’ll be will exactly like every other team and that makes me just a little sad.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.