Saints Superfan says it’s all about the smiles

Barry Matherne never wanted to be a super fan.

Describing himself as shy and reserved, the Hahnville man who dons the persona “Dat Fireman” at New Orleans Saints games says there was a time where he couldn’t even envision doing the things he does now when he dons his helmet and face paint.

Now, he can’t imagine it any other way.

“This character has opened up so many doors to me that I never would have imagined,” Matherne said.  “You can’t put a price tag on what it feels like to put a smile on someone’s face.”

Matherne, a police officer and volunteer firefighter in St. Charles Parish, began donning the early version of his now-iconic outfit in 2009 — helping lead the Who Dat Nation in cheering the Saints on to the franchise’s first Super Bowl win.

But since that time, “Dat Fireman” has done plenty away from the football field, supporting different charitable causes and making appearances at special fundraising events, in addition to his constant support of his lifelong favorite team.

Matherne took his first steps toward “superfan-dom” at the request of his late brother-in-law Larry Jehle Jr., who portrayed the character “Saints Fett,” a black and gold homage to the popular bounty hunter in Star Wars lore, Boba Fett.

“He asked me to start dressing up with him,” Matherne said. “His costume was just amazing. Still, (at the time), I’m not looking to play dress up. I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t for lack of passion for the team, I just didn’t know. “But there he was, living it up and having a blast with it all.”

Jehle was diagnosed with and survived leukemia when he was very young. Though he beat the illness, the radiation and treatments he endured damaged his heart. Matherne said Jehle’s heart was only functioning about 30 percent for much of his late life, and on his last hospital stay, it was down to 10 percent function.

“He just had a connection with the fans,” Matherne said. “He represented the superfans in a unique way. You never saw him inside the Superdome because he couldn’t afford a ticket. But he was there, rain or shine, wearing his outfit, with a heart functioning less than 30 percent.

“When we looked at him, we just saw this kid who was in the hospital when he was real little and he’s out there reliving his youth. It wasn’t until he passed away that we ever truly understood what it meant.”

When Jehle passed away, his family gave him a sendoff befitting of one of the most well-known Saints fan figures, a “black and gold funeral” that included a Saints casket. Former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert sent an arrangement of flowers, while Drew Brees sent out a tweet that the Saints had lost a great and powerful fan.

Matherne was approached by Jehle’s family with the prospect of carrying on the Saints Fett persona himself, but he believes nobody can fill those shoes.

But Dat Fireman lives on, a larger persona than ever, in Jehle’s memory.

“When he passed, I made him a promise. I get it now, I told him,” Matherne said. “I’d keep his memory and legacy alive and pick up where he left off.”

Though Jehle provided the inspiration to officially launch the character, Matherne had the idea to create a fireman character early on in his life, after seeing the super fan of another team in action on television: longtime New York Jets supporter Fireman Ed.

“I’m a huge Saints fan, and I’ve always been a firefighter at heart,” Matherne said.

Once the costume was established, Matherne said he almost began to feel transformed when donning it.

“I’m normally a shy, reserved person without that on. It gave me a cloak of confidence,” he said. “When I put on that face paint, I’m a completely different person. I’m very outgoing at that point. I do stuff I’d never have the courage to do without that stuff on.”

Though he has season tickets, there is one part of being Dat Fireman far more rewarding than any Saints’ win: the feeling he gets when he can lift the spirits of sick children. He began attending fundraisers, starting with a Kidd Kraddick Foundation fundraiser three years ago, and charitable appearances have become a passion of his.

“I can’t even describe and do it justice,” he said. “There’s these little angels over there (at the annual Kraddick Foundation fundraiser) … they look up to us. There are three kids specifically who I look for whenever I get there. They stole my heart the first year. Unfortunately, they’re very sick …  but their eyes light up when they see us.”

He has a deep soft spot in his heart for special needs children and adults. Matherne’s sister has cerebral palsy and he tries to do as much charity work as he can.

“I don’t think I’m anything special, but I have a platform this character gives me,” he said. “It gives me the ability to touch the life of others.”

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