Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum, Photo by Mark J. Sindler
Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum, Photo by Mark J. Sindler

Saints Hit 50

New Exhibit in Natchitoches Celebrates Team’s History

by Joyce Miller

 

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On November 1, 1966, All Saints’ Day, the National Football League awarded its 16th franchise to New Orleans. Over the next 50 years, the Saints brought their fans heartbreaking losses and euphoric triumphs. While all teams have good and bad seasons, the Saints’ highs and lows seem particularly dramatic. Beyond Sunday: Fifty Years of the New Orleans Saints, which opens September 24 at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum in Natchitoches, commemorates these highs and lows as well as the people who made them happen.

Beginning in the late 1950s, New Orleans businessman Dave Dixon began spearheading local efforts to bring a professional sports team to the Crescent City. In 1966, Dixon capitalized on the NFL’s desire to merge with the American Football League (AFL) to make this dream a reality. Dixon helped convince U.S. Congressman Hale Boggs and U.S. Senator Russell Long, both from Louisiana, to support the AFL-NFL merger despite prevailing antitrust laws. As a none-too-subtle reward, the NFL announced the establishment of a new team in New Orleans.

Houston oilman John W. Mecom Jr. soon became the team’s first majority stockholder. Trumpeter Al Hirt was part owner of the team, and his rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” was made the official fight song; the song also gave the team its somewhat controversial name. Mecom selected Tom Fears, a native of Mexico, as the Saints first coach, making him the first Latino head coach in NFL history.

As part of his efforts to convince the NFL to expand into New Orleans, Dixon, with the support of Governor John J. McKeithen, successfully lobbied the state legislature to create a new domed stadium in 1966. Though various locations, including New Orleans East and the shores of Lake Ponchartrain, were proposed, a site in New Orleans’s Central Business District — then occupied by part of Girod Cemetery and the Illinois Central Railroad engine terminal — was ultimately selected as the most suitable spot for the new stadium.

From these early years, the exhibition features pieces of tombstones that were removed from Girod Cemetery in order to build the Superdome Complex, as well as turf from Tulane Stadium where the Saints played for their first eight seasons. The exhibit also features a pair of shoes worn by fullback Jimmy Taylor when he was with the Green Bay Packers. Taylor, a native of Baton Rouge, left Green Bay to play with the Saints during their first season. A jersey from Saints quarterback Archie Manning will also be on display.

Beyond Sunday: Fifty Years of the New Orleans Saints
Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum
Natchitoches
Sept. 2016 – Sept. 2017

Despite some exciting plays and a bench full of talented players, the Saints failed to post a winning record for the first 20 years of their history. In 1980, after the Saints lost their first 14 games, local sportscaster Bernard “Buddy D” Dilberto suggested that Saints fans hide their shame by wearing paper bags over their heads at the team’s home games. Many fans accessorized their bags with the words “The Aints,” unintentionally coining a new nickname for the team.

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Photo by Mark J. Sindler

Things finally began to shift when Tom Benson bought the team in 1985. Under Benson, a group of linebackers — Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson and Vaughn Johnson — collectively known as the “Dome Patrol,” quickly became one of the most widely regarded defensive groups in NFL history. Quarterback Bobby Hebert, whose shoes will be on display in the exhibit, also proved instrumental in the team’s turnaround, helping the Saints achieve their first winning season and playoff appearance in franchise history.

The Saints faced yet another low point in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee failures flooded New Orleans and severely damaged the Superdome. As more than 35,000 people took shelter from the disaster in the Superdome, the structure quickly became symbolic of the city’s suffering. Displaced from their home turf, the Saints played “home games” at the Alamo Dome in Austin and Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, among other places, while rumors that the team might permanently relocate spread quickly.

And then it changed. Owner Tom Benson announced that the Saints would stay in New Orleans and the Superdome was gradually restored to its former glory. When the Saints returned to the newly repaired dome September 25, 2006, national television cameras captured images of Saints safety Steve Gleason as he blocked an Atlanta Falcons punt that was recovered for a touchdown, paving the way to a 23-3 victory. Almost overnight, Gleason became a symbol of the city’s recovery and resilience.

Thanks to the Gleason Initiative Foundation, Beyond Sunday features a special group of Gleason-related artifacts. Gleason, who was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in January 2011, has become an outspoken advocate for those suffering from neuromuscular diseases or injuries. In addition to photographs and a jersey from his career with the Saints, the exhibit features the special wheelchair Gleason used on a recent trip to Machu Picchu.

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Courtesy of the Gleason Initiative Foundation

Perhaps nothing signifies the Saints’, and to some extent the city’s, recovery as well as the team’s victory against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. Thousands of fans crowded the streets of New Orleans to celebrate the long-awaited triumph in Miami. In commemoration of this historic win, Beyond Sunday includes some of the clothing items Coach Sean Payton wore during the game, as well as Marques Colston’s helmet, jersey and shoes, on loan from the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Through all the Saints’ highs and lows, one thing has remained consistent: the undying loyalty of their fans, often referred to as the “Who Dat Nation.” The exhibition includes images and artifacts that document the creativity and determination of Saints fans from their early years to the present.

Beyond Sunday will remain on display at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum through September 2017. For more information, visit www.LouisianaStateMuseum.org.

 

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