Flashback 1990: New Orleans, Super Bowl

I’ve only been to one Super Bowl, and I only stayed for the first half. In 1990, I was a general assignment reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, stuck working the Sunday-to-Thursday shift. On the day of the big game, played that year at the Superdome, the city editor told me to go out and get a feature story. I don’t remember how I heard about Corey LeBlanc. Most likely someone sent a press release over the fax machine. I met Corey outside the stadium, interviewed him for about an hour, and then accompanied him inside to watch the game—49ers v. Broncos. At halftime, I hustled back to the newsroom to file this story:

“Boy Chases Sights To Last A Lifetime”

“Look at that, look at that, look at that hat,” chanted Corey LeBlanc, big brown eyes ablaze, as he wandered past caped banjo players, women with inflatable shoes and out-of-shape men with painted bellies.

Corey, not ashamed to admit he didn’t know who was playing in Super Bowl XXIV, came to the Superdome to see, not to cheer. He came to take in the spectrum of colors, the jumble of motions and the symphony of whoops and whistles and moans.

It is his mission, of sorts. A victim of Usher’s Syndrome, a hereditary disease, Corey, 8, is slowly going blind and deaf. With the help of one of his instructors at a Gonzales, La., elementary school, he is out to see as much of America as he can, while he can.

A siren wails.

“What’s that?”

A nurse with a stethoscope catches his eye.

“What do you do?”

A 49ers fan waves a red pompon.

“What’s this for?”

Corey, skinny as 6 o’clock and always smiling, had never been far from his home in Gonzales before Henry James Bailey Jr., a physical education teacher for the handicapped, promised to help him squeeze a lifetime of vision into a few months.

“He has a very curious mind, ” said Bailey, who calls himself Coach. “He likes to see and do things like other children. It disturbs him when he can’t do like others.”

Dr. Keith Morgan of the LSU Eye Center said Corey suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease common among Louisiana’s Cajuns. Tunnel vision has set in, and it will get worse, he said. There is no cure.

Last summer, the skinny kid and the burly coach took a trip they still talk about with awe. It started with fund-raising in Gonzales and ended with seven days in California – Disneyland, Sea World and Dodger Stadium.

Everywhere he goes, Bailey tells Corey’s story, hoping to get special treatment for his student. At Dodger Stadium, it earned a meeting with Dodger Mickey Hatcher. At Sea World, Corey fed Shamu the killer whale.

A letter this month got him tickets from the Saints for the big game.

Sunday at the Dome, Bailey walked for hours in search of celebrities and television crews. Part of the adventure for the pair has been the quest for autographs, celebrity photos and television appearances.

But on this day, with security tight and television crews busy, no one seemed to have time. Bailey had just about given up – something he’s not used to doing – and Corey was beginning to spring down the Dome ramps, when from around the curve came former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh.

Bailey’s face lit up the way Corey’s had been lit all day. Walsh picked up Corey, posed for a picture, and all parties went away happy.

“Never give up,” Bailey told Corey, who was already running down the next ramp. “You never know who you’re going to run into.”

Bailey said he’s not sure Corey fully realizes why he gets such special treatment. He knows he’s going blind, but the meaning might be hard to understand – even for a boy with a deaf father and a crippled mother.

For now, Corey’s just a kid living every boy’s dream, Bailey said. Some day, he will remember what he saw and smile – just like he’s smiling now, the coach said.

“That’s why I want him to see and hear all he can,” he said, as the pregame ceremonies began.

A motorized Statue of Liberty rolled onto the bright green Astroturf. A giant American flag unfurled from the ceiling. Mardi Gras floats circled. Joe Montana warmed up in the end zone, nine rows from where Corey sat. Purple streamers fell from the ceiling. Rockets exploded, sending plumes of smoke into the air. The 49ers kicked off. Men and women stood and screamed. A punt. A pass. A touchdown. More screaming.

As the five-star spectacle played itself out to a capacity crowd and a world of viewers, a skinny 8-year-old stood on his seat in the end zone, big brown eyes ablaze.

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