Start with a story. It might not be a true story, at least not all of it. But it's a good story, and through the years it has evolved into a rollicking tale that football players of a certain age who wore the uniform of the New Orleans Saints tell with great zeal. It is the kind of story you hear about struggling franchises with oddball characters, and to those old players it's not really important that some details have become twisted over time, because the tale represents something larger. If it didn't happen exactly like this, it sure as hell could have.
The year was 1977, Season 11 in the then short, futile history of the expansion Saints. They had won 36 games under five different coaches in the previous 10 years, and now they were preparing to play the last of six exhibition games, this one against the Houston Oilers in the two-year-old Louisiana Superdome. The Saints needed a kick returner, so they'd signed one off waivers and brought him in for the game. As the story goes, the guy arrived in the company of a large tropical bird. "The bird was sitting on his shoulder while he was getting dressed and waiting to get taped," says Tom Myers, a starting safety for the Saints from 1972 to '81. When the time came to take the field the new player carefully placed the bird in the top section of his locker and closed the door.
During the game the player muffed a punt, and afterward he was cut. He moved to retrieve the bird from his locker, but upon opening the door he found that the creature had expired, its feet pointing to the ceiling. "It croaked while we were playing," says Dan (Chief) Simmons, the Saints' longtime equipment manager, who had joined the club four years earlier and is now the longest-tenured, and possibly most beloved, employee in the Saints' organization.
It's a bittersweet metaphor. A comically bad team, constantly shuttling players through its roster in search of competence. A quirky individual who not only fails to make the team but also leaves behind a symbol of his, and everyone else's, failure. Says Myers, "It epitomized how things always seemed to go from bad to worse."
On Sunday, at the end of their 43rd year of existence, the Saints will play the Colts in the Super Bowl. Only two cities, Detroit and Cleveland, have had NFL teams longer than New Orleans and have failed to reach the Super Bowl. A victory would be the consummate moment for a franchise that is like few others in the NFL, one that has been beset by failure—just nine winning seasons in their history, five of them crammed in from 1987 to '92, and only four playoff victories—yet is unconditionally beloved in its native city.
"They loved me in New Orleans because I played well," says Rickey Jackson, a six-time Pro Bowl linebacker who dressed for the Saints from 1981 to '93 and still lives in the city. "But the thing about Saints fans is, they loved the guys who didn't play well too. Saints football is the heart and soul of the city."
As post-Katrina New Orleans has rallied behind the Drew Brees--Sean Payton team of the past four seasons, the media have chronicled the conga line of vehicles that forms outside Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, welcoming the Saints back into the city's embrace after every road trip. But that's nothing new. "In the last game of the 1967 season we beat the Redskins up in Washington," says Bill Becknell, 60, a New Orleans lawyer who was a ball boy on that first team and would eventually become the Saints' general counsel. "I looked out the window of the plane and there were thousands of fans out there; they just ran out onto the tarmac to the greet the plane."
Stan Brock, a right tackle, played 13 years for New Orleans, then was cut before the 1993 season. He went on to play three more seasons in the NFL and started in Super Bowl XXIX for the San Diego Chargers. "I would give up everything that took place after I left, including playing in the Super Bowl, to have finished my career in New Orleans," says Brock. "I hunted and fished all over the state of Louisiana, and I met people who are my friends today. It's just cool to be a Saint."
They were born on Nov. 1, 1966, and named for the jazz song When the Saints Go Marching In. Their owner was John Mecom Jr., 27, who was given control of the team by his wealthy oilman father. "I was probably a little too young," says Mecom, now 70 and retired. "A lot of the players were older than I was."
The very first play in Saints' history, on Sept. 17, 1967, was John Gilliam's 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Rams. Mecom's front office had imagined that the starting quarterback would be Gary Cuozzo, John Unitas's former backup for whom New Orleans had traded the No. 1 overall draft pick to Baltimore. Instead, the starter that game, and for most of the first four seasons, was the rambunctious onetime 49er Bill Kilmer. He became the off-the-field leader of a rabble-rousing band of veterans who would go directly from practice to a nearby bar called Chateau Ray. Kilmer's sidekicks included former Colts linebacker Steve (Stoney) Stonebreaker and former Bears defensive end Doug Atkins, a 6'8", 257-pound man-mountain who was 37 years old and still good for a long night in any saloon. "Cantankerous and tough as a boot," Danny Abramowicz, a rookie wide receiver in the Saints' first season, says of Atkins. "He was a guy you didn't want to be around when he got a few pops in him."