In sunny, windswept Tulane Stadium last Sunday, 80,636 hyperexcited New Orleanians howled, stomped, booed and occasionally cheered through 2� hours of what may be the country's best variety show. They saw a huge hot-air balloon, a thousand pigeons, five thousand red-and-white toy balloons and the Baltimore Colts go into orbit; and the only sour note was that their beloved Saints couldn't get off the ground and lost by a score of 30-10.
Not that losing is a unique experience. This was the fifth straight defeat for the Saints, giving them a perfect record—0 and 5. Usually, when a team gets off to so miserable a start, the fans stay home and watch TV, but not in New Orleans. Although it booed the Saints lustily now and again, it was an astonishingly good-natured crowd.
In part this may have been due to the harum-scarum, hell-for-leather game the Saints play. They go at it with fervor and a kind of contagious abandon, and when they trailed off the field at the end of the afternoon the crowd gave them a great big hand.
Unfortunately, the Saints caught the Colts bounding back from a disappointing month and John Unitas at his impeccable best: he completed 20 of 28 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns. Although New Orleans Quarterback Billy Kilmer was no slouch himself, hitting 20 of 35 for 219 yards, whatever small chance the Saints had to win was nullified by dropped passes, fumbles, interceptions and untimely penalties. Nonetheless, the impression was that, given enough time, the Saints will someday go marching in.
Among other misfortunes, the team had to do without the strong moral support of Owner John Mecom Jr. on the sideline during the first half. Mecom went into a local hospital last Friday in preparation for an operation for diverticulitis. He made it to the game, but his doctors insisted he watch from the press box. They wasted their breath. With the Saints trailing 16-0 at the half, Mecom went down on the field, taking his customary position on the sideline. And the Saints did better with Little John on their level—they scored 10 points and held the Colts to 14.
New Orleanians are not new to adversity or to unusual behavior by their leaders. In 1967, for instance, when the Saints were awarded their NFL franchise, Mayor Victor Hugo Schiro, a Joe Kuharich-type magician with words, said, "After an exhaustive investigation the league decided that New Orleans was indeed a big-league city, that its leadership was Johnny Unitas-ish."
It may be that Mayor Schiro wasn't voicing a majority opinion. In one Mardi Gras parade a New Orleans voter cast a decidedly negative ballot against Schiro—he threw a bag of manure at him. The mayor leaped nimbly out of the way, letting the Mardi Gras queen, who was sitting next to him on the reviewing stand, take a direct hit. "It was hilarious," said the mayor later.
New Orleanians are also, obviously, passionate. They have taken the Saints to their hearts much as New Yorkers embraced the Mets during their pre-world championship days. But theirs is not the uncritical love New York lavished on the Mets. When the Saints are having a bad day, which, being young and relatively unskilled, they do more often than not, the fans are apt to boo them and, more concretely, to bombard officials with empty beer cans or whatever other missiles come to hand. No one has yet pinked Mecom, who at 30 is the youngest owner in the NFL, although he normally presents a handsome target, prowling the sideline, exhorting his heroes, somewhat to the dismay of the other owners and to the displeasure of Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Mecom, who is as big as most of his football players (6'3", 215 pounds) and who briefly played for Oklahoma before an injury ended his career, has an almost irrefutable answer to requests that he retire to the press box or to a seat in the stands. "If I had wanted a seat in the stands," he says, "I could have bought one each Sunday for $6. I own the club and I want to be where the action is."
In the Saints' maiden season Mecom got so close to the action that he was bawled out by Rozelle. The Saints were playing the Giants in Yankee Stadium when a free-for-all broke out among the players. In the course of battle a group of Giants fell upon Doug Atkins, the Saints' 39-year-old defensive end, and Mecom rushed onto the field to help his fallen player. Freeman White, then in his second year with the Giants, took a swipe at Mecom with his helmet—a sign of immaturity, since veterans keep their helmets on their heads when a fight breaks out. Mecom dodged the swing and hit White in the belly with a right hook, dropping him. The officials rushed in and succeeded in breaking up the melee and escorted Mecom—who may have the dubious honor of being the only owner in NFL history to score a one-punch victory over an opposing player—off the field. When Mecom's departure was shown on instant replay, his figure was thoughtfully circled with light to make sure the fans recognized him.