They were an odd aggregation, a collection of misfits, nomads and newcomers eager to show off football, New Orleans-style.
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — They were an odd aggregation, a collection of misfits, nomads and newcomers eager to show off football, New Orleans-style.
Those early Saints of the late 1960s and '70s didn't win a lot. No more than a little, actually. But give them credit: They sure jazzed up the NFL long before reaching the Super Bowl.
A trumpet great blew "Charge!" calls from a bandstand at the 50-yard line. Fans dressed in starched white shirts and ties. Oh, and the ostrich races.
Such fun names, too. Jubilee Dunbar scored, Happy Feller kicked and Wimpy Winther blocked.
"Those were crazy days," recalled Dunbar, aka Allen Dunbar. "They were searching for themselves back then. We knew that one day it would get better."
The franchise long known for losing actually got off to the greatest start in league history. In the Saints' very first game, they returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. A few years later, a kicker born without toes on his right foot booted a record field goal.
"We weren't the greatest football team in the world," said Tom Dempsey, who made that game-winning 63-yarder with a specially made black shoe shortened to accommodate his foot. "There were a lot of big plays, but just not enough of them."
For a while, Dempsey was annoyed with all the attention he attracted.
"It used to bother me a bit. I wanted to be known as a good kicker, more than for one kick," he said. "But I found out that if you're going to set a record, there's only one place to set it in — New Orleans!
"It was a love affair between the city and the Saints from Day One," he said. "When we'd win on the road, the fans would be out on the runway at the airport to greet us. Now, I have my daughter and grandson carry on the tradition."
Dempsey still lives in the area, and the first floor of his town house was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. On Sunday, he'll be at home rooting hard for his old team when the Saints go to their first Super Bowl and play the Indianapolis Colts.
The Colts are led by MVP Peyton Manning. In a neat twist, it was his father, Archie, who for years was the very symbol of the Saints' futility, the quarterback who was always on the run.
It took a while for the Saints to scramble this far. The NFL officially welcomed them to the league on All Saints Day in late 1966, with famed trumpeter Al Hirt as part owner. They went more than two decades before managing a winning season and waited another dozen-plus years for their first playoff victory. The Saints head into Sunday's Super Bowl with a record of 275-378-5.
Things got so bad that in 1980 a popular local broadcaster urged people to show up at the Superdome with brown paper bags over their heads. As in, fans were embarrassed to be seen at the stadium. That day, the "Aints" took hold.
"That was tough — knowing you're out there giving your all and coming up short," Tony Galbreath, among the team's top runners and receivers that year, said Monday. "You couldn't go anywhere — McDonald's, Walmart, anywhere — without hearing it."
John Gilliam knows it all too well. He was there at the start, and scored on that 94-yard kickoff return in the Saints' first game ever on Sept. 17, 1967, against the Los Angeles Rams at Tulane Stadium, their home before the dome.
"Flea Roberts and I were back there waiting, and here comes the kick," Gilliam remembers. "Flea is the veteran and I'm the rookie, so I say, 'You take it.' He goes, 'No, it's yours.' I say, 'Oh, Lord.'"
Gilliam then dashed into the end zone and threw the ball into the frenzied crowd.
"Al Hirt starts playing his trumpet over and over. It was wild," he said this weekend, laughing while singing the opening stanza to "When the Saints Go Marching In."
"They loved us. You couldn't go into any restaurant without someone buying you a meal. I remember walking down Bourbon Street and a man in a shoe store recognized me and came out and gave me a free pair of shoes."
Gilliam said training camp that summer was nuts.
"It was like everyone wanted to be part of the Saints. I think there were 300 players there. I remember I was getting dressed next to a guy who said he was a bus driver. He didn't play football, he didn't know how to put on the pads," he said. "A coach came by and told him to start up his bus and take a bunch of guys with him."
Among those early Saints was Jim Taylor. A punishing running back, he'd built a Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers and had scored a touchdown a few months earlier in the first Super Bowl. A former star at LSU, his move to the Saints was so heralded that he signed his contract in the governor's office.
The Saints went 3-11 in that first year, and Taylor retired.
"It was a little bit difficult," Taylor said. "We'd had such great teams under Vince Lombardi. You just had to accept you were an expansion team."
Danny Abramowicz was a New Orleans rookie in 1967 and quickly established himself as a sure-handed pass catcher. He played several years with the Saints, coached for them and was on their broadcast team.
"It didn't take much to excite those fans, even when we weren't winning. I think half of them were oiled up at the games, and they loved the Saints," he said.
"I'll tell you what I remember: the halftime shows. They were like Super Bowl spectaculars. Bands and balloons and ostrich races, everything. We hated to go to the locker room because we'd miss them," he said. "I once came back onto the field to warm up and a Roman chariot almost ran me over. Those were wild days."