Fourth in a season-long series on New Orleans Saints super fans
VIOLET – It’s not hard to find the most popular New Orleans Saints fan in St. Bernard Parish. Head south from New Orleans on St. Bernard Highway, past Rocky Carlo’s in Chalmette and the Valero Oil Refinery in Meraux, hang a left just past the industrial canal on Pope Street and step inside De Pope Launch Tavern. There, behind the bar you’ll find a gray-haired man serving long necks to the fishermen and refinery workers.
New Orleans Saints super fans series: the Saints Pope
His name is Lionel Alphonso Sr., but everyone around here calls him Da Pope, perhaps the most famous Saints super fan of them all.
If there were an ApostolicPalace of the Who Dat Nation, De Pope’s Launch Tavern would be it. Saints momentos decorate its paneled walls, fleur de lis logos are carved into the tile floors and the flat-screen TVs are always tuned to ESPN. Behind the bar, a T-shirt boasts: “NO BOUNTIES: This year we’re just going to beat your ass for free.”
Over the years, De Pope’s has served as the site for boat blessings and motorcycle blessings, along with countless gatherings for televised Saints games. This is where he celebrates big wins and drowns his sorrows after losses, like Sunday’s setback to the Kansas City Chiefs.
“When I come in after we lose, people say, ‘Pope, you didn’t pray hard enough. You cost us another game,’” Alphonso said. “But I can take it.”
Alphonso has bared that burden for a quarter-century of Saints football. Along with Leroy “Moses” Sylvester, he’s credited with starting the super fan craze in among the Saints’ loyal legion. If Whistle Monsta is the Drew Brees of Saints super fans, Da Pope is Archie Manning.
Moses started the movement in 1979. Alphonso followed in 1987, when, on a whim, he decided to honor Pope John Paul II after his historic papal visit to New Orleans before the start of the Saints’ regular season. The Saints recorded their first winning season that year. The miraculous turnaround was not lost on a devout Catholic like Alphonso. He’s attended Saints games in a flowing white cotton cassock and mitre ever since.
“I never thought it would ever be this big,” said Alphonso, 65. “I did it as a joke, the fans liked it and it just kept going and going. After a couple of years, it was too late to even think about stopping. If I don’t go to a game now, I feel like I’m letting the fans down.”
Alphonso debuts a new outfit replete with fresh airbrushed lettering and fleur de lis logos every season. He’s tweaked the costume only slightly over the years. He once carried a papal scepter and chalice but ditched them after a season or two because they prevented him from double-fisting the drinks and cigarettes. He’s shortened the poster-board mitre to aid the unlucky fans who sit behind him at games. In 1999 he featured a drawing of Coach Mike Dita on his hat to honor the coach for recommending him for Hall of Fans induction. He did the same for Drew Brees in 2010 as a way of thanking him for the Super Bowl XLIV title.
He still dutifully irons his cassock and vestments before each game and lays them out carefully in the back of his truck before transport.
Alphonso claims to have missed only a handful of games in Saints history. He and Pam try to leave home around 7 a.m. for games with a noon kickoff. He doesn’t change into his outfit until he arrives downtown. The couple tailgates until 11 a.m., then heads to the Dome. Along the way, they pose for hundreds of photos with Alphonso’s loyal followers, with Pam serving as de factor photographer/agent/assistant.
“People go nuts when they see him,” Pam said.
Other than a brief hiccup in 2001 when the sex abuse scandal rocked the Catholic church, the reaction to his outfit has been overwhelmingly positive.
He notes that Father Robert Massett has blessed him in the Superdome and no less a devout Catholic than Saints owner Tom Benson had nominated him to represent the club in the Hall of Fans at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 1999.
Alphonso said it often takes him 90 minutes to traverse the crowded block from Champions Square to the Dome on game days.
“Sometimes I think Kodak owes me money,” he quipped.
Alphonso has inspired a generation of super fans at the Superdome, including several pope imitators. He’s been featured in National Geographic and profiled on “Real New Orleans.” He’s earned his own trading cards and was inducted into the St. Bernard Parish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
He’s ridden in parades in Violet and New Orleans and nearly caused a riot during the week of Super Bowl XLIV when he started tossing Pope trading cards to the masses from the balcony of a SouthBeach hotel.
“Da Pope is the OG of the Super Fans, the Original Gangster,” said Maximilian Ortiz, aka Darth Saint. “Often imitated, never duplicated. He is a testament to the dedication and devotion all true Saints fans have toward our team.”
Alphonso’s launch business has been shut down since Hurricane Katrina. The access canal is choked with sediment and weeds since the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet was closed. The bar provides most his business these days.
Age and health have slowed Alphonso in recent years. He’s undergone three angioplasties and had quadruple-bypass surgery in 2007. Recently doctors inserted a stint in his leg.
Katrina also took its toll. Floodwaters swamped their home to the roof, destroying nearly all of their possessions, including a priceless collection of Saints memorabilia. Alphonso barely escaped his house before the wall of water rose to the roof. He used the gutters to pull himself on to the shingles and used sticks to fend off snakes for the next several hours until rescuers plucked him and his son, Chad, from the roof. He slept on the roof of a nearby home for the next five days before eventually evacuating to Arkansas for three months. He and Pam lived in a FEMA trailer next to the bar for nearly a year while the launch was rebuilt.
The couple evacuated for Hurricane Isaac and were back in their home after only a few days. The storm caused only minor flood damage to their single-story ranch home. Their new collection of Saints collectables and fleur de lis accessories escaped unharmed.
Alphonso plans to keep attending Saints games as long as he’s mentally willing and physically able. He plans is to eventually pass on his cassock and mitre to son, Lionel, Jr., also known as Pope Jr.
“I want to keep it in the family and my son wants to do it,” Alphonso said. “You have different (super) fans now and I’m glad they’re there. It’s like one big family. And if I can get my family to get together and pull for the Saints and make enough noise to where it hurts the opponents. That’s good. That’s what it’s all about.
“I take pride in it. I love it. If I were young, I’d do it all over again. Sometimes I wish it would never end. But it’s kind of like football. Sooner or later you just can’t do it anymore.”
Meet New Orleans Saints super fan Who Dat Elvis, Randy Bonneval