True Bayou Bengals

Dan Wetzel

BAYOU DULARGE, La. – Way out here on the bayou, way out here in the heart of Cajun Country, there are few people but lots of signs.

Like the one that proclaims this is "where the road ends and the fishing begins."

Or the one that reads "Geaux Tigers. Sooners Seaux."

Carrol "Ha-Ha" Sapia likes that one best – other than the handwritten one on his cooler that asserts "Budweiser Only." And he means it. On New Year's Day, the construction worker who proclaims himself "pure Cajun" and "all LSU" used shrimp as bait as he cast for red fish in the Bayou Dularge and slowly emptied a cooler stocked with nothing but iced-down Buds.

"We take fishin' seriously," he said in a deep, rich Cajun accent. "And football. And some drinkin' too."

They say the entire State of Louisiana is obsessed with Louisiana State football, especially with the upcoming Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma that could produce the team's first national title in 45 years.

New Orleans is practically painted in Purple and Gold. Bourbon Street is awash with Bengal backers. But we decided to drive into the heart of Louisiana to find out for sure.

What we discovered 20 miles south of Houma at the end of state road 315 was Ha-Ha and his family fishing and talking football. Think he is up for the game?

"Oh, we gonna party a little Sunday," said Ha-Ha, who lives in nearby Dulac. "We gonna makes some shrimp boulette, deer roast and we got three coolers full of beer. Whole neighborhood be over. Already told my boss I'm takin' Monday and Tuesday off."

One of the beauties of college sports is how a team from an elite institution of higher learning manages to bring together everyone from the entire state, even a guy like Ha-Ha who never did and never will take a college course.

Let alone one at the big, fancy school in Baton Rouge.

A place like LSU is almost unreachable to most in Terrebonne Parish, which is rich in Cajun traditions but has nearly one-third of its children living in poverty. Here fishing isn't a sport but a shopping trip, and few locals have the money to attend games. But the Tigers are as popular here as in any neighborhood of wealthy boosters and upper-crust alums.

"My team," Ha-Ha said. "I like the Saints too, but college boys have more courage to play. They've got less rules [than the NFL] so [they] hit harder. I like hitting. We even got some city boys who hit hard."

Sapia got the nickname Ha-Ha from a tattoo on his right bicep. As the joke goes, he asks if you want to see his tattoo. You say yes. He rolls up his shirt to reveal an ink job of a hand with its middle finger extended.

Ha, ha. Get it?

"The American peace sign," he said.

It is such a popular joke that now his wife, Mary, is called Ha-Ha II and she even has the name (but not the finger) on a tattoo of her own. Their two small children are nicknamed Ha-Ha III and IV.

Everyone spends the day fishing because it is fun, it is free and whatever is caught makes for a good dinner. They could take their small boat farther out into the water rather than casting from the shore, but the state's boating regulations only allow one six-pack of beer per person.

That would only give Ha-Ha and his friend Robert Henry, who is fishing with the Sapias, a six-pack each. Mary doesn't drink, so they could split hers. But no one is certain of the legal soundness of the theory that each child is worth a six-pack also. . Mary doesn't drink, so they could split hers. But no one is certain of the legal soundness of the theory that each child is worth a six-pack also.

So staying on the shore allows for excess. Besides, the fish are plentiful and this gives them a chance to shout "Go Tigers" to every passing boat. Everyone shouts back. Everyone is a Tiger fan.

This is how it is in Louisiana, from Shreveport to Slidell, Lake Charles to Lake Providence.

"When I came to LSU I thought everyone in Baton Rouge would know about us," said Tiger cornerback Randall Gay. "But I'm telling you, everywhere they know. You can't go anywhere in the state."

This, of course, isn't unique to Louisiana. But with 4.4 million residents and only one BCS-level program, it's particularly pronounced. There are the NFL Saints, but they've often been referred to as the Aints. The Hornets of the NBA are brand new.

LSU football is an entirely different deal – a force that crosses all cultural lines.

"Fishing and football is all there is [here]," Mary Sapia said.

So on Thursday, far from the bucolic campus, far from the multimillion dollar coach, far from the Super Dome, the die-hard fans fished. And talked football. And lived a bit of the good life that comes from a day off, fish that bite and the promise of a big game.

"I don't think – I know LSU gonna win that game," Ha-Ha said. "Then we gonna drink."

Budweiser only.

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