On the field the Saints' leading ballcarrier was Jim Taylor, a Baton Rouge native who'd spent all of his previous nine NFL seasons with Vince Lombardi's Green Bay dynasty. "Jimmy took an awful beating," says Kilmer, 70. "Against Dallas once I called a play where our right tackle would block Willie Townes [the Cowboys' 260-pound defensive end] man-to-man. Our guy pulled instead, and that left Jimmy all alone with Willie. Jimmy starts yelling at our tackle before he even gets the ball."
In 1970 it was a 255-pound placekicker born without toes on his right foot who crafted the second great moment in Saints history, after Gilliam's runback. Tom Dempsey, then 23, kicked a 63-yard field goal to beat the Lions 19--17 in Tulane Stadium and set an NFL record that stands to this day. Long after the game ended, Dempsey sat in the locker room while police waited for rowdy fans to disperse. "I told them I was gettin' thirsty," says Dempsey. "I could use some Dixie beer. Next thing I know a police car pulls up with three cases of Dixie. Where else but New Orleans?"
The Saints moved into the Superdome in 1975, and Tulane Stadium was demolished in 1979. The spot from which Dempsey made his historic kick—the 63-yarder has been matched just once since then, by Denver's Jason Elam in 1998—is now in the middle of an intramural quad on the Tulane campus; there is no marker commemorating the spot. Dempsey, meanwhile, played only two years for the Saints but settled in New Orleans at the end of an 11-year career. He will watch the Super Bowl with his wife, Carlene, at the Old Absinthe House in the French Quarter.
In loss after loss, fans rallied behind players like the safety Myers, who spent his entire career with the Saints. "I got knocked out cold in one game at Tulane Stadium," he says. "They had to put in a running back, Jess Phillips, to replace me. As soon as I woke up they got me right back out there." And like Abramowicz, a 6-foot, 195-pound wideout who was drafted in the 17th round in 1967. He was surely too slow to play in the NFL, and coach Tom Fears gave him only a cursory look on special teams before deciding to cut him in training camp. "They sent the Turk to my room and he said, 'Coach wants to see you, and bring your playbook.' I was mad. I went to Tom Fears and told him, 'You can't cut me; you didn't give me a chance.' Fears looked at me and said, 'You're serious, aren't you?'" Fears gave him another shot. In the next preseason game Abramowicz started, caught seven passes in the first half, and made the team.
Abramowicz became an All-Pro wideout. In the 1973 opener his streak of consecutive games with a reception (it would eventually reach 105) was in danger as the Saints were being pounded by Atlanta. Only after Abramowicz made a catch late in the 62--7 loss did Tulane Stadium empty.
Until 1996 the Saints' practice facility was a rickety building with sheet-metal walls; one field was threadbare artificial turf and another was natural grass on a reclaimed swamp. "Your feet would sink in six inches just walking out there," says Bobby Hebert, 49, who played quarterback for the Saints from 1985 to '92 and won more games (49) than any other passer in franchise history. At various training camps, mosquitoes descended upon players in a daily swarm.
The drafting of Southern folk hero Archie Manning in 1971 was supposed to rescue the Saints, but instead Manning endured 11 seasons in which the team's best record was 8--8; he had seven head coaches in that span. Manning's most painful year—the team's as well—was in 1980, when the Saints followed a promising 8--8 season with a 1--15 flameout. That's when fans were first encouraged by New Orleans sportscaster Buddy (Buddy D) Diliberto to wear bags over their heads and call their team the 'Aints. "That didn't bother me," says Archie. "It wasn't 10,000 bags out there, it was about 10." What did bother him was when his oldest son, Cooper, asked his mother for permission to boo along with the rest of the fans.
That season was further stained by later revelations that the team had been a nest of cocaine use, as chronicled by defensive tackle Don Reese in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in June 1982. "It was bad," says Manning about the '80 team. "At the time I didn't know there was cocaine. After the season was over, when you sit down and talk about things, you realized some of that was going on. Fights in the locker room, bad fights. It was the worst side of football you'll ever see."
The Saints had been terrible for 18 years when Mecom sold the team in 1985 (for $70 million, a nice return in the original franchise price of $8.4 million) to local auto dealer Tom Benson, who hired former Vikings and Bears executive Jim Finks to run the club. Finks in turn hired Jim Mora of the USFL's Baltimore Stars as coach. Mora used draft picks, USFL alumni and Saints already in place to form a solid team built on defense. "They called us the Dome Patrol," says former linebacker Pat Swilling, who lives in New Orleans and is a commercial real estate developer. "There was a real intimidating attitude to our defense."
Led by Swilling and fellow linebackers Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Rickey Jackson (who is among the 15 finalists on this year's Hall of Fame ballot, and would be the first player inducted on the basis of his Saints career), New Orleans finished in the top five in the NFL in total defense three times from 1987 to '92. Four times they made the playoffs but never won. Finks died of lung cancer in 1994, six years before the Saints' first postseason victory. They would wait another six for their next, when Payton and Brees arrived, post-Katrina, in 2006.