WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Reid Cumberland and his two children, Isabella and Roman, packed up their car and made the two-day drive from their home in New Orleans. Mary Conkling caught a plane from Austin, Texas. Tyler Brown, his mother, Renee, his younger brother, Tre, and his cousin, C.J., just drove from their home in Lincoln County.
The distances they traveled varied, but their mission was the same: to watch their favorite NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, practice in person. They also got to meet favorite players, shake hands, snap a few pictures and get some autographs.
On Saturday evening, the Saints took a break from workouts and drills during their training camp at The Greenbrier resort to host a two-hour, outdoor picnic with thousands of black-and-gold-clad fans.
The sold-out event hosted 4,000 fans who each paid $10 to attend.
When Cumberland, a native of New Orleans, learned that his team was moving its training facility from Louisiana to West Virginia, he didn’t get discouraged. Instead, he and his kids, ages 11 and 8, started planning their family vacation in the Mountain State.
“We arrived yesterday, and we love it here,” Cumberland, who’s staying in nearby Lewisburg, said. “We definitely plan on coming back.
“This is a beautiful facility and it’s a beautiful setting. There’s no humidity… . People are friendly. The Saints are fortunate to be here.”
Tyler Brown, 19, never imagined that his favorite team would train in his home state. Wearing a Saints’ jersey and a cap that looked like black and gold hair, he said, “I never figured that anything Saints-wise would be here. You can barely find merchandise here. For them to actually be here is crazy.”
Brown, a recent Lincoln High School graduate, said he has loved the Saints since childhood, even when they weren’t having the best seasons.
“I’ve loved them since they sucked,” he said, putting it bluntly.
Brown’s mother surprised him with tickets to the Saint’s picnic event just three days ago.
She said when she heard the Saints were coming to West Virginia, “I told a friend ‘I don’t care what it costs, he is going.’ For us, we probably won’t get to go to New Orleans anytime soon.”
But after watching his favorite team practice drills just yards away, Brown said he is determined to make it to a Saints’ game this year.
Mary Conkling, her mother, Marta, and her aunt, Carol Herrick, were ready to meet quarterback Drew Brees. They proudly sported their homemade signs stating “Westlake born and bred” and “ATX #9.”
Conkling lives in Westlake, Texas, an Austin suburb, that also happens to be Brees’ hometown.
“I just think that he is much revered and respected in the community, and we’re glad to come out and support him,” Marta Conkling said. “Austins have some Austin-strong pride.”
Before the picnic, a grand-opening ceremony for the AdvoCare Sports Performance Center was held in front of the new 55,000-square foot-multi-purpose complex that was built for the Saints. Brees, Saints’ head coach Sean Payton, and Jim Justice, the owner of The Greenbrier, all spoke.
After the ceremony, Saints’ players completed an hour-long, light walk-through practice. Fans were welcomed to watch the practice and tour the new facility, equipped with weight rooms, locker rooms, training and physical therapy rooms and dining facilities. The players remained in their jerseys after the practice and welcomed fans onto one of the two new practice fields.
The Greenbrier staff served classic picnic fare, including hamburgers, hot dogs, watermelon, potato salad and chocolate chip cookies.
Paul Kinneberg and his wife, Raymona, were in attendance for the day’s festivities.
He said he fell in love with the team when he lived in New Orleans 30 years ago. Although he has lived in Charleston for 27 years, his passion for the team hasn’t faded.
“I lived there for three years and never missed a game,” he said. “I went to every preseason game and every regular-season home game.”
Kinneberg met his wife in New Orleans and asked her to marry him during a vacation at The Greenbrier.
And 27 years later, when the couple was planning a trip to watch their favorite team play in a place they would have never imagined them to be, they knew they had to book a stay at The Greenbrier.
“When you put the Saints and The Greenbrier together, there is nothing better,” Kinneberg said.
Reach Anna Patrick at email@example.com or 304-348-5100.