Bradley Spieler is a native New Orleanian through and through. Born, raised and educated in the city, he describes its essence as being inextricably tied to having a good time, and creating an environment in which people of all ethnic and cultural stripes can celebrate one another, and be celebrated in turn. In defiance of the typical American mythos of culture as a melting pot, in which differences are dissolved into a uniform mixture, New Orleans, he said, is a gumbo steeped in the richness of which those individual flavors persist. And its traditions from the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, to epic Mardi Gras celebrations, to second-line parades are encapsulated in the love residents share of the New Orleans Saints.
Spieler, a radiologist who lived outside of New Orleans for the first time as a residency student completing his schooling at New York University, said his love of the city and championing of its culture is impossible to suppress, if somewhat difficult to explain to outsiders. His love of the city also motivated him to create a nonprofit to benefit those who call New Orleans home.
“I think anyone I met in New York within a few minutes of meeting me knew I was from New Orleans,” Spieler said. “I would say, ‘I’m going home for Mardi Gras,’ and one person said, ‘Aren’t you a little bit old for that? He thought it was like going on spring break. But it’s beyond football and beyond the parties; it’s cultural.”
“The thing about sports and music is it brings people together,” Spieler said. “On some level, we’re all part of the same fabric and network, and I think you really see that during Jazz Fest, during Mardi Gras. That’s the layer that people don’t see superficially; that’s really what New Orleans is built upon.”
Big Easy culture “really rests upon a celebration of life,” Spieler said, and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city in 2005, its NFL franchise embodied that spirit in a way that surprised longtime diehards who had only associated it with a culture of lovable losing.
The earliest days of the Saints franchise were steeped in disappointment. Spieler’s father, who attended the very first Saints game at Tulane Stadium in September 1967, was on-hand to witness their auspicious start: rookie John Gilliam’s 94-yard return of the opening kickoff for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams en route to a 27-13 win. It was one of only three victories the team secured that year. The franchise opened with 20 consecutive non-winning seasons, and in 54 years, have only posted 17 winning seasons and seven in which they finished with a .500 or better winning percentage.
Younger fans of the franchise may not have been so intimately connected to the hardships of Saints fandom, which Spieler describes as “the dark days for most of my life.”
“It was a long and really, really tough time for us,” he said. “People used to go to the ’Dome and wear bags on their heads. It was a consistent string of disappointments. You expected them to lose.”
Nonetheless, the city cheered them on, mostly in keeping with its desire to support its own. But when quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton moved to New Orleans, along with their families, the team took that spark on the field into the storm-ravaged community and ignited a rebirth that repaid fans’ enthusiasm tenfold. The Superdome, which had been repurposed as a tent city to house storm refugees, became a literal shelter for the community. So, after the team won the 2010 Super Bowl, the Mardi Gras that followed became known locally as “Super Gras,” with Payton bringing the Lombardi Trophy to the Orpheus Ball, the parade party thrown by native son Harry Connick Jr., and telling fans, “This is for the people.”
“It was amazing how it charged the city,” Spieler said. “That really galvanized the connection between the team and the city. For a lot of people in New Orleans, myself included, the Saints have represented that spirit of community, that spirit of resilience in the city. A lot of people who are true Saints fans may not know a lot about football, but they’re cheering for New Orleans.”
Emblematic of that rush to the victory was Spieler’s own visit home from New York in November 2009, when, in celebrating a Saints win over the rival Carolina Panthers, he discovered a plastic owl atop a parking garage on Fulton Street, in the city warehouse district. The carousers “liberated” it from its perch and brought it with them throughout their travels; Spieler took it back to New York with him, and it became the centerpiece of a shrine to the city in his apartment there. The group christened it Whooty Da Owl, named after the “Who Dat?” chants familiar to Saints fans.
Suddenly, Whooty developed his own social media presence, as Spieler took him on various travels, photographing him in locations as far-flung as Dubai, the Maldives, Ibiza and Iceland. Whooty became a photo-opportunity fixture for Saints superfans, like the Big Easy Mafia, who named it their official mascot. In turn, Spieler, seizing on the good luck that Whooty had brought the team, searched for a way to leverage it into a force for good.
“I do a lot of work with the biggest Saints fan groups here in New Orleans, and I thought to myself, can we transform and use this platform to help people?” he said.
With a group he christened “Saints Fans Being Saints,” Spieler partnered with staff at Louisiana State University Medical Center Spirit of Charity Foundation to donate money and gifts-in-kind to patients being cared for at the Level I trauma center.
“It sucks to be a kid in a hospital, and it can suck even more to be a kid not in a children’s hospital,” he said. “We partner with the palliative care team to cater to children and make an overall better experience for them.”
During COVID-19, Spieler led efforts to round up N95 masks for hospital staff. He coordinated auctions of work from local artists to benefit patients and their families. He helped bring in black-and-gold (the Saints’ colors) Santas to hand out gifts to children in the hospital during the Christmas holiday, and to donate musical instruments to local schools. And the support of his efforts from Saints fans has been its backbone.
“As a physician, I do my best to try to get younger physicians and trainees involved with these things, and keep them grounded, particularly in radiology. It can be easy to lose sight of the patient, but you’re not just looking at an X-ray, or an MRI, you’re looking at a person.”
“In a weird way this silly little plastic owl has helped me spawn this stuff,” Spieler said. “This is my little homage to the Super Bowl and championing the spirit of that city at the time. It’s a link to that common bond we all share; a love for one another and a celebration of life.”