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Sainthood

Feb. 08, 2010
Feb. 08, 2010

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Feb. 8, 2010

LEADING OFF
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Sainthood

Though at times it takes an unusual guise, New Orleans never hides its passion for and loyalty to its NFL team. The 43-year saga of football in the Big Easy has been a long, strange trip from sad sacks to ...

Start with a story. It might not be a true story, at least not all of it. But it's a good story, and through the years it has evolved into a rollicking tale that football players of a certain age who wore the uniform of the New Orleans Saints tell with great zeal. It is the kind of story you hear about struggling franchises with oddball characters, and to those old players it's not really important that some details have become twisted over time, because the tale represents something larger. If it didn't happen exactly like this, it sure as hell could have.

This is an article from the Feb. 8, 2010 issue

The year was 1977, Season 11 in the then short, futile history of the expansion Saints. They had won 36 games under five different coaches in the previous 10 years, and now they were preparing to play the last of six exhibition games, this one against the Houston Oilers in the two-year-old Louisiana Superdome. The Saints needed a kick returner, so they'd signed one off waivers and brought him in for the game. As the story goes, the guy arrived in the company of a large tropical bird. "The bird was sitting on his shoulder while he was getting dressed and waiting to get taped," says Tom Myers, a starting safety for the Saints from 1972 to '81. When the time came to take the field the new player carefully placed the bird in the top section of his locker and closed the door.

During the game the player muffed a punt, and afterward he was cut. He moved to retrieve the bird from his locker, but upon opening the door he found that the creature had expired, its feet pointing to the ceiling. "It croaked while we were playing," says Dan (Chief) Simmons, the Saints' longtime equipment manager, who had joined the club four years earlier and is now the longest-tenured, and possibly most beloved, employee in the Saints' organization.

It's a bittersweet metaphor. A comically bad team, constantly shuttling players through its roster in search of competence. A quirky individual who not only fails to make the team but also leaves behind a symbol of his, and everyone else's, failure. Says Myers, "It epitomized how things always seemed to go from bad to worse."

On Sunday, at the end of their 43rd year of existence, the Saints will play the Colts in the Super Bowl. Only two cities, Detroit and Cleveland, have had NFL teams longer than New Orleans and have failed to reach the Super Bowl. A victory would be the consummate moment for a franchise that is like few others in the NFL, one that has been beset by failure—just nine winning seasons in their history, five of them crammed in from 1987 to '92, and only four playoff victories—yet is unconditionally beloved in its native city.

"They loved me in New Orleans because I played well," says Rickey Jackson, a six-time Pro Bowl linebacker who dressed for the Saints from 1981 to '93 and still lives in the city. "But the thing about Saints fans is, they loved the guys who didn't play well too. Saints football is the heart and soul of the city."

As post-Katrina New Orleans has rallied behind the Drew Brees--Sean Payton team of the past four seasons, the media have chronicled the conga line of vehicles that forms outside Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, welcoming the Saints back into the city's embrace after every road trip. But that's nothing new. "In the last game of the 1967 season we beat the Redskins up in Washington," says Bill Becknell, 60, a New Orleans lawyer who was a ball boy on that first team and would eventually become the Saints' general counsel. "I looked out the window of the plane and there were thousands of fans out there; they just ran out onto the tarmac to the greet the plane."

Stan Brock, a right tackle, played 13 years for New Orleans, then was cut before the 1993 season. He went on to play three more seasons in the NFL and started in Super Bowl XXIX for the San Diego Chargers. "I would give up everything that took place after I left, including playing in the Super Bowl, to have finished my career in New Orleans," says Brock. "I hunted and fished all over the state of Louisiana, and I met people who are my friends today. It's just cool to be a Saint."

They were born on Nov. 1, 1966, and named for the jazz song When the Saints Go Marching In. Their owner was John Mecom Jr., 27, who was given control of the team by his wealthy oilman father. "I was probably a little too young," says Mecom, now 70 and retired. "A lot of the players were older than I was."

The very first play in Saints' history, on Sept. 17, 1967, was John Gilliam's 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Rams. Mecom's front office had imagined that the starting quarterback would be Gary Cuozzo, John Unitas's former backup for whom New Orleans had traded the No. 1 overall draft pick to Baltimore. Instead, the starter that game, and for most of the first four seasons, was the rambunctious onetime 49er Bill Kilmer. He became the off-the-field leader of a rabble-rousing band of veterans who would go directly from practice to a nearby bar called Chateau Ray. Kilmer's sidekicks included former Colts linebacker Steve (Stoney) Stonebreaker and former Bears defensive end Doug Atkins, a 6'8", 257-pound man-mountain who was 37 years old and still good for a long night in any saloon. "Cantankerous and tough as a boot," Danny Abramowicz, a rookie wide receiver in the Saints' first season, says of Atkins. "He was a guy you didn't want to be around when he got a few pops in him."

On the field the Saints' leading ballcarrier was Jim Taylor, a Baton Rouge native who'd spent all of his previous nine NFL seasons with Vince Lombardi's Green Bay dynasty. "Jimmy took an awful beating," says Kilmer, 70. "Against Dallas once I called a play where our right tackle would block Willie Townes [the Cowboys' 260-pound defensive end] man-to-man. Our guy pulled instead, and that left Jimmy all alone with Willie. Jimmy starts yelling at our tackle before he even gets the ball."

In 1970 it was a 255-pound placekicker born without toes on his right foot who crafted the second great moment in Saints history, after Gilliam's runback. Tom Dempsey, then 23, kicked a 63-yard field goal to beat the Lions 19--17 in Tulane Stadium and set an NFL record that stands to this day. Long after the game ended, Dempsey sat in the locker room while police waited for rowdy fans to disperse. "I told them I was gettin' thirsty," says Dempsey. "I could use some Dixie beer. Next thing I know a police car pulls up with three cases of Dixie. Where else but New Orleans?"

The Saints moved into the Superdome in 1975, and Tulane Stadium was demolished in 1979. The spot from which Dempsey made his historic kick—the 63-yarder has been matched just once since then, by Denver's Jason Elam in 1998—is now in the middle of an intramural quad on the Tulane campus; there is no marker commemorating the spot. Dempsey, meanwhile, played only two years for the Saints but settled in New Orleans at the end of an 11-year career. He will watch the Super Bowl with his wife, Carlene, at the Old Absinthe House in the French Quarter.

In loss after loss, fans rallied behind players like the safety Myers, who spent his entire career with the Saints. "I got knocked out cold in one game at Tulane Stadium," he says. "They had to put in a running back, Jess Phillips, to replace me. As soon as I woke up they got me right back out there." And like Abramowicz, a 6-foot, 195-pound wideout who was drafted in the 17th round in 1967. He was surely too slow to play in the NFL, and coach Tom Fears gave him only a cursory look on special teams before deciding to cut him in training camp. "They sent the Turk to my room and he said, 'Coach wants to see you, and bring your playbook.' I was mad. I went to Tom Fears and told him, 'You can't cut me; you didn't give me a chance.' Fears looked at me and said, 'You're serious, aren't you?'" Fears gave him another shot. In the next preseason game Abramowicz started, caught seven passes in the first half, and made the team.

Abramowicz became an All-Pro wideout. In the 1973 opener his streak of consecutive games with a reception (it would eventually reach 105) was in danger as the Saints were being pounded by Atlanta. Only after Abramowicz made a catch late in the 62--7 loss did Tulane Stadium empty.

Until 1996 the Saints' practice facility was a rickety building with sheet-metal walls; one field was threadbare artificial turf and another was natural grass on a reclaimed swamp. "Your feet would sink in six inches just walking out there," says Bobby Hebert, 49, who played quarterback for the Saints from 1985 to '92 and won more games (49) than any other passer in franchise history. At various training camps, mosquitoes descended upon players in a daily swarm.

The drafting of Southern folk hero Archie Manning in 1971 was supposed to rescue the Saints, but instead Manning endured 11 seasons in which the team's best record was 8--8; he had seven head coaches in that span. Manning's most painful year—the team's as well—was in 1980, when the Saints followed a promising 8--8 season with a 1--15 flameout. That's when fans were first encouraged by New Orleans sportscaster Buddy (Buddy D) Diliberto to wear bags over their heads and call their team the 'Aints. "That didn't bother me," says Archie. "It wasn't 10,000 bags out there, it was about 10." What did bother him was when his oldest son, Cooper, asked his mother for permission to boo along with the rest of the fans.

That season was further stained by later revelations that the team had been a nest of cocaine use, as chronicled by defensive tackle Don Reese in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in June 1982. "It was bad," says Manning about the '80 team. "At the time I didn't know there was cocaine. After the season was over, when you sit down and talk about things, you realized some of that was going on. Fights in the locker room, bad fights. It was the worst side of football you'll ever see."

The Saints had been terrible for 18 years when Mecom sold the team in 1985 (for $70 million, a nice return in the original franchise price of $8.4 million) to local auto dealer Tom Benson, who hired former Vikings and Bears executive Jim Finks to run the club. Finks in turn hired Jim Mora of the USFL's Baltimore Stars as coach. Mora used draft picks, USFL alumni and Saints already in place to form a solid team built on defense. "They called us the Dome Patrol," says former linebacker Pat Swilling, who lives in New Orleans and is a commercial real estate developer. "There was a real intimidating attitude to our defense."

Led by Swilling and fellow linebackers Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Rickey Jackson (who is among the 15 finalists on this year's Hall of Fame ballot, and would be the first player inducted on the basis of his Saints career), New Orleans finished in the top five in the NFL in total defense three times from 1987 to '92. Four times they made the playoffs but never won. Finks died of lung cancer in 1994, six years before the Saints' first postseason victory. They would wait another six for their next, when Payton and Brees arrived, post-Katrina, in 2006.

Then there is the bird, that figure of legend. It was an African gray parrot owned by Rick Jennings, second-year player from Maryland who'd been on the Raiders' Super Bowl XI championship team in 1976 and was struggling to extend his career when the Saints signed him the following September. Jennings, 56, lives in Sacramento, where he runs the Center for Fathers and Families, a community outreach group, and waits to hear periodic reminders of his role in Saints history.

"This is about the bird, isn't it?" Jennings says, before breathing a deep sigh. "The bird was never in the locker room. The bird did not die in the locker room. The bird lived to be 27 or 28 years old." Another long pause: "But it's some story, isn't it?"

It surely is. And not just the part about the parrot.

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The bags didn't bother Archie. What did was when Cooper asked permission to boo.
The city loves its team unconditionally. "It's cool to be a Saint," says Brock.
PHOTOPhotograph by BILL FEIG/AP'SAINT IT SWEET Fans once hid their faces, but Vilma (51) and crew's historic run to a first title game has consigned the bag old days to history.PHOTOMICHAEL C. HEBERT (RIGHT)[See caption above]PHOTOAP (ARCHIE MANNING)GOLDEN ARCHIE A son of the South, Manning arrived in '71 but couldn't make winners of the Saints.PHOTOALEX BRANDON/AP (SUPERDOME)HEARTH AND HOME Katrina left the Superdome in tatters, but the spirit of the city soon revived.PHOTOTHE STATES-ITEM PHOTO ARCHIVEFLOWERING Early on, fans were treated to a record-breaker in Dempsey (center) and a rabble-rouser in Kilmer (17).PHOTOAP[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN D. HANLON[See caption above]PHOTORICHARD MACKSONBON TEMPS Hebert (3) and Jackson (57) brought a spell of success, and now Benson (right) has plenty to strut about.PHOTOVIC MILTON/WIREIMAGE.COM/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTODAVID BERGMAN[See caption above]ILLUSTRATION