August 14, 1967
Longtime New Orleans Saints followers weren't surprised last April when their team decided to trade eight draft picks, including two first-rounders, for the chance to select Ricky Williams. Such audacious moves have been a trademark of the organization since 1967, when the expansion Saints sent their No. 1 pick to the Baltimore Colts for Gary Cuozzo, a quiet, 26-year-old dental student who had spent his previous four years as Johnny Unitas's backup. In exchange for Cuozzo the Colts got center Bill Curry and the first pick of the draft, which they used to select Michigan State defensive end Bubba Smith. The Saints clearly got the worse deal: Curry and Smith went on to Pro Bowl careers and helped Baltimore reach two Super Bowls.
Nevertheless Cuozzo's arrival in New Orleans was cause for tremendous optimism. The former Virginia star had been hoping for a chance to prove himself as an NFL starter. "After the '66 season I asked Unitas [who was 34 at the time] if he planned on playing much longer," Cuozzo says. "Unitas said, 'I'll play as long as I can,' so I asked to be traded." SI put Cuozzo on the cover with former Green Bay Packers running back Jim Taylor, who had joined the Saints as a free agent. "There was a lot of attention on Gary," says Taylor, 63, who now lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, Helen. "The fans expected a lot."
Cuozzo started the first 13 games, throwing for 1,562 yards and seven touchdowns with 12 interceptions, before losing his job to Billy Kilmer. Nevertheless, Cuozzo didn't face the scorn that the locals heaped on the infamous Ants of the early '80s. "There were no fans with sacks on their heads," says Cuozzo, 58. "The games had a Mardi Gras atmosphere."
The party ended after the season when Cuozzo was traded to the Minnesota Vikings, with whom he spent four seasons before being shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972. Upon his retirement in '73, Cuozzo and his wife, Peggy, returned to Gary's hometown, Middletown, N.J., and he opened an orthodontics practice in nearby Lincroft. The Cuozzos' life took a ghastly turn in 1990 when one of their four children, 22-year-old Gary Jr., was murdered in Miami while trying to buy narcotics. While continuing his practice Cuozzo lectured teens on the dangers of drugs and stepped up his involvement with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, serving as national chairman from 1995 until last spring.
Cuozzo is looking forward to seeing Williams perform in the Big Easy this fall. "A lot of pressure will be on Ricky, for sure," Cuozzo says. "Only time will tell."