Woeful Aints gave fans reasons for hiding their faces

don.ruiz@thenewstribune.comJanuary 10, 2014 

Metairie, LA. — Before the slick, successful Who-Dat New Orleans Saints that will face the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday, there were the lowly Aints.

I know. I was there.

The NFL awarded its 16th franchise to my hometown on Nov. 1, 1966: All-Saints Day. The local newspaper proclaimed the news — “N.O. GOES PRO” — in a font size that assumed no bigger news was possible.

It meant New Orleans had its own football team. It also meant New Orleans had major league status, being selected over cities that included Seattle, which would have to wait the better part of a decade for its own NFL invitation.

If it’s any consolation to my now-fellow Puget Sounders, those early days of the Saints weren’t

purely good times rolling.

Things couldn’t have started better, though. There was all the excitement of picking the name, the black and old-gold color combination, the fleur-de-lis helmet logo that has survived the decades.

Then came the expansion draft and excitingly boneheaded trades that dotted the roster with familiar names such as running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung from Vince Lombardi’s aging Green Bay dynasty, and defensive end Doug Atkins from the Bears. Also acquired as the team’s original starting quarterback was Gary Cuozzo, whose stock soared on a few impressive performances in relief of Johnny Unitas.

Cuozzo proved to be something of the Matt Flynn of his day. But before we learned that and other harsh realities, everything was new and unbeaten. Optimism soared when the Saints raced through their inaugural exhibition season with a 5-1 record. (Yes, there were six exhibition games in those days.)

The peak of unbridled joy came in the regular-season debut against the Los Angeles Rams. The inaugural kick landed in the hands of rookie John Gilliam, and he returned it 94 yards for a touchdown.

More than 80,000 fans screamed. Strangers hugged. Dixie Beers were toasted.

The Saints were on their way.

On their way, as it turned out, to a 27-13 loss that day — and to a 3-11 expansion season.

They would have to wait 21 seasons for their first winning record. And long before that, those joyful fans would take to attending games with bags over their heads.

As many Mariners fans will tell you, no team can be that bad for that long without dubious eyes staring daggers at the owner’s booth. In the Saints’ case, the man in that booth happened to be 28-year-old John Mecom Jr.

Mecom was young, rich, owned an NFL team, and — as Sports Illustrated writer Edwin Shrake noted — handsome as a singing cowboy. What more could any man want?

For Mecom, at least, the answer was to pal around with an astronaut. So in 1972, Dick Gordon retired from the U.S. Navy aerospace program and accepted a job as executive vice president of the Saints.

His NASA résumé made him only slightly less qualified for his job than the Saints’ second head coach: J.D. Roberts, hired from the semipro Richmond Roadrunners. Before considering why an NFL team would hire Roberts, you have to wonder how they even located him.

Perhaps a telescope from space.

Roberts went 7-25-3 over 21/2 ugly seasons. But the first of those wins remains burned in NFL history.

In 1970, the Saints were on their own 45-yard line, trailing Detroit by a point and with time for one more play. Roberts sent onto the field a kicker named Tom Dempsey, who had been born without toes on his right (kicking) foot and without fingers on his right hand.

I was in the stadium, and my No. 2 recollection was that there was no suspense before the kick. Certainly, this was just another new and creative way for the Saints to lose.

My No. 1 recollection was how that feeling changed the moment the ball came off his foot. It took off with unprecedented power and instantly seemed to have a chance. Finally the ball cleared the crossbar 63 yards away. The feat was immortalized in song — “The Mighty Boot of Dempsey” — and the record lasted until this season.

Mecom’s ownership lasted until 1985, when he sold to current owner Tom Benson. Saints history changed from there.

In 1986, Jim Finks was brought in as general manager. In 1987, the Saints notched their first winning season and made their playoff debut.

On Feb. 7, 2010, they defeated the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, to become Super Bowl champions.

That was literally an answered prayer, for many Saints fans who had been around from the 1967 expansion season had prayed to live long enough to see their Saints win the Super Bowl. Coming more than two generations after the expansion season, many did not make it.

Even now remnants of that early futility pop up. Until last weekend in Philadelphia, it could be said that the Saints had never won a road playoff game.

Now they have.

They will go for their second Saturday in Seattle.

Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 don.ruiz@thenewstribune.com

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