Today, the Saints remind of us of bad ol' days

In 2010, on the eve of the Super Bowl, here is what I wrote about my memories of the bad ol’ Saints. Today’s game — a frighteningly poor performance against the St. Louis Rams — reminded me all too much of those bad ol’ days.

The date was Sept. 17, 1967. My daddy loaded his 14- and 13-year-old sons in that old, blue Dodge Monaco and we headed down to New Orleans to watch our first pro football game.

It was also the first New Orleans Saints regular season game. The Black and Gold had finished 5-1 in the preseason and now they were about to play the loathsome Los Angeles Rams. Traffic was brutal. Grand, old Tulane Stadium was jammed. It was hot and humid, and the busy beer vendors were sweating through their clothes.

We had just settled into our south end zone seats when, on the other end of the field, the ball settled into Saint John Gilliam’s hands. And here he came, No. 42 on his jersey and No. 1 in our hearts, running right at us, weaving through blue-shirted Rams defenders. He was scarcely touched. He kept coming and coming. We could see his jaw trembling as he crossed the goal line and then a smile crossed his face.

We shared high-fives and yelled at the top of our lungs. And I guess 81,000 other fans were thinking the same thing I was: Boy, this is going to be easy.

Man, were we wrong. World class wrong. The Saints lost that first game 27-13, and they were just getting started. In reverse.

More than 43 years later, the Saints‘ long and winding road has finally led them to a Super Bowl. To say there were detours, wrong turns and crashes along the way is to understate matters entirely. For most of their first two decades, the Saints were the Aints, a fumble or a false start waiting to happen. Fans, to show their embarrassment for cheering such ineptitude, wore bags on their heads.

John Mecom Jr., a dashing, young Texas oilman, bought majority interest in those first Saints and named Tom Fears as his first coach. Trivia question: First Saints player signed to a contract? If you said former Ole Miss star Paige Cothren, then you are right. Problem was Mecom, then 27, was younger than a lot of those first Saints he signed. We have since learned that smart expansion teams build for the future.

For those Saints, the future was now, or so they thought, only 43 years prematurely. They signed aging Green Bay fullback Jim Taylor and halfback Paul Hornung. Hornung never played a down. Taylor averaged 3 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns in 1967, then retired.

The Saints‘ first draft choice? He was Alabama fullback Les Kelley, also the first of so many to flop. What the Saints saw in him we will never know. He had scored four touchdowns in three seasons at Bama. He scored none for the Saints.

Man, those early Saints were bad. Billy Kilmer, the quarterback, took some awful beatings, both physically and verbally. He’d race defensive ends back into a crumbling pocket and get nailed, time and again. As he staggered to his feet, he was booed unmercifully. When he did manage to throw, the receiver of his wobbly passes was often Danny Abramowicz, a sure-handed possession receiver purported to have run a 4.9-second 40-yard dash.

The first three Saints teams won 12 games total. And the fourth season, 1970, was the worst yet. The Saints won two. In an effort to keep the fans coming, halftime shows were extravaganzas. But even they were sometimes disastrous. On Nov. 1, 1970, the halftime show reenacted the Battle of New Orleans. One of the cannons backfired, costing one of the participants three fingers. By then, I was 18 and sitting in the press box with my Dad. He had his binoculars on the scene. “Rickey,” Dad said, “that poor guy ain’t playing. His hands are on fire.”

And so it went. One of the two Saints victories that season came the week after Fears was fired and replaced by interim coach J.D. Roberts, who most recently had been the coach of the semi-pro Richmond (Va.) Roadrunners. The Saints were playing the Lions. The Saints trailed 17-16 with seconds remaining and had the ball at their own 45.

Time for one play, so Roberts had a decision to make. For once, he made the right one. He sent Dempsey, a big, fat man with half a right foot, out to try a field goal. This was back when the goal posts were on the goal line. It looked almost silly. The holder was set up at the 37-yard line, 26 yards closer to the goal posts Dempsey wasn’t kicking at than the goals posts that were his target.

My dad, sitting just to my right, asked aloud to no one in particular, “Can you believe this (stuff)?”

“No,” answered the man seated to Dad’s right.

The other man was the NFL’s supervisor of officials. There had been many questionable calls that day, and Dad had questioned them all. The insanity of a 63-yard field goal in the New Orleans humidity was the first thing the two had agreed upon.

Detroit’s great defensive tackle Alex Karras didn’t bother to rush. “I was laughing too hard,” he later said.

Dempsey kicked the ball and it kept going and going and going. There was a strange hush and then bedlam. Tom Dempsey, the fat man with half a foot, had made it. The Saints had won. I turned to see Dad and the NFL supervisor hugging one another. When I finished my story and we exited Tulane Stadium, fans still were dancing in the streets. And they danced all night in the French Quarter, where Dempsey later said, “I got drunk as hell.”

The unlikely victory earned J.D. Roberts the full-time job. To say he wasn’t up to the task is another woeful understatement. The Saints chose Archie Manning with the second pick of the following draft, then tried to low-ball him. When the Saints made their first offer at Ole Miss coach John Vaught’s ranch house, Vaught interjected, “You must be joking. Archie made more than that at Ole Miss.”

Manning was walking the sidelines with Roberts during a preseason game before the 1971 season. The Saints were playing the Buffalo Bills, who had a running back, No. 32, who kept breaking loose for big runs. Roberts turned to Manning, and said, “Boy, I don’t know who that number 32 is, but he sure can run.”

Yes, O.J. Simpson, the former Heisman Trophy winner, sure could.

Nevertheless, Manning somehow led the Saints to a season-opening victory over the Rams, driving them 70 yards against the clock to the Rams’ 1-yard line. With time for one play, Manning called a timeout and came to the sidelines. “We’re gonna go for it!” Roberts said. Manning kept waiting for a play. It never came. “We’re gonna go for it!” Roberts kept shouting.

The referee came and got Manning. Time was up. Manning went back to the huddle and teammates asked him, “What’s the play?”

“I don’t know,” Archie said, “they never called one.”

So, Manning just did what he had always done at Ole Miss. He rolled out to his left – and scored.

Days like that were all-too-infrequent for Manning, who wore No. 8, and was the greatest talent on some of the worst teams in NFL history. The Saints, during Manning’s decade there, were a revolving door for players and coaches. The one constant was Archie, running for his life. Once early in his career, when the Saints were sending in plays by alternating tight ends, Manning looked over to his tight end to get the play. Said Manning, “I didn’t know the guy.”

“Who are you?” Manning asked.

The guy introduced himself, said he had signed the day before, and gave Manning the play.

“Can you believe that,” Manning said.

Well, yes. I saw those teams.

Now here we are, all these years later, and the Saints are about to face the Indianapolis Colts and Archie’s son, Peyton Manning, in the Super Bowl.

Little wonder, those of us who have followed the Saints all these years are pinching ourselves. The Aints are now, really, Saints, which reminds me of a story that the late Buddy Diliberto – Buddy D – used to tell.

Said Buddy D, “When you go to heaven after you die, tell St. Peter you’re a Saints fan. He’ll say, ‘C’mon in, I don’t care what else you done, you suffered enough.’ “

Yes, the Saints are in the Super Bowl, but, heaven knows, it’s been a long time coming.

 

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