THE FIRST SAINTS GAME
You won’t believe this story. I didn’t believe it either. But it’s true…at least as far as I can prove it to myself. It’s hard to swallow because it reads like one of the most famous lies ever told in New Orleans.
So if you’ll indulge me, here’s my little tale.
So there I was, minding my own business, as my older brother Don starts every funny story he tells. I was catching an early morning egg and grits at La Pines Café in Slidell when it all started to unfold. I remember the orange juice to be especially satisfying, but that’s a juicy detail I should have left alone. As I sat there, my eye wandered past the other patrons to the decorations on the wall, since, as you know eating alone develops a bored mind.
And there, framed in a little gold ornamented frame was a faded photocopy of a New Orleans Saints game ticket. Saints vs. Rams. Cool.
I grew up in southern Mississippi, near McComb, and I loved watching football on TV with my dad. Actually, my whole family loved watching football - anywhere we could find it, especially my younger brother, Ken, who was the only one of us who actually became an athlete.
We were Ole Miss fans. No, let me get this straight…we were Archie Manning fans. As a matter of fact, just about every kid my age in the whole state was an Archie Manning fan, except for one friend. He wore maroon and white on the schoolyard. That was because he had a brother going to Mississippi State. I don’t remember the details. We didn’t ostracize him or anything. He was cool. He just didn’t wear red, white and blue like everyone else. I guess you have to respect that kind of boldness.
So back to the ticket. It caught my eye because it was from a Rams game. I remember my dad taking our family to a Saints/Rams game when I was young. We were all there except for Ken, who was only three years old at the time. In our family, you had to be four to do the big boy stuff. I was a pre-teen, towheaded fella as most recall.
Being a small-town kid, I remember how big New Orleans looked to me. I remember my dad parking the car on the neutral ground on what I now know was Claiborne Ave. it was a long walk to that massive stadium on Tulane’s campus, bigger than anything I had ever seen. I was overwhelmed.
As we approached with tickets in hand, a man stepped out from the shadows and blocked our path. “Hold please,” I think he said. His actual words are lost to history, but they saved me from being squashed by the largest men I had ever seen. They were the Rams! I was in awe. While I wasn’t a Rams fan, they were the first professional athletes I had ever seen. Holy cow, they were gigantic!
They were in full uniform, walking in single file from their locker room, or bus, or wherever they were coming from, and into the stadium. My eyes bulged. I knew only one Ram by name, and there it was: three-inch letters emblazoned on his back, right above the number 84. Jack Snow!!!! I couldn’t believe it. Double holy cow!
I don’t remember anything else about the game -- the crowds, the scoring or anything else, except that it was a great day for our family.
But as I looked at the framed ticket on the wall, I grew sentimental and thought about my dad, who died over 28 years ago, and my mom who passed just last year. I thought about how much they both loved football and how they loved that I grew up to work the sidelines of professional games as a photojournalist. How we all loved hearing, “When the saints go marching in,” both in church on at the games. What would dad have thought to know that I would one day be on the field shooting for the Times-Picayune when the Saints won the Super Bowl in Miami -- that I was so close to the action that my cameras got soaked from the Gatorade that was poured on Coach Sean Payton?
Before paying my bill, I walked over for a closer look. It was dated 1967 and read: “New Orleans Saints vs. Los Angeles Rams – Tulane Stadium, Sunday Sept 17, 1:30 P.M. No refund.” The total ticket price was $6.00 after applicable taxes.
Then it dawned on me. This framed ticket wasn’t just any game. This ticket was framed on the wall for a singular reason. It was the first Saints game ever!
Could it be, that I was at the first Saints game -- the game that half the population of New Orleans claims to have attended even though the stadium only held 80,985?
I pulled out my laptop. I cross-referenced the Saint’s season schedules from 1964 to 1975 - the years that Jack Snow played for the Rams.
I drew up a spreadsheet with the possibilities, including the years, my ages, Jack Snow’s career years, the Saints’ years, the schedules, the dates, scores and even attendance. The years that came closest to my possible age were 67, 68 or 69. In 69, the Saints played in LA. In 68, they did not play each other. That left only 1967 as a viable possibility.
I checked it again and again. How did I not know this? I called my brother, Don. After all, who else would I call? Who else would care? Who else would believe it? We laughed and remembered the few details we could. How we went to church that morning before the game at Carrollton Church of Christ then drove over to the stadium for the 1:30 kickoff and parking on the grass.
We talked about how we were too young, or clueless to understand the significance of the day, but at the same time, we remember how big a deal it was for dad, how he wanted us there.
Then Don said what I was thinking. This was so much like dad to do this - to love it all, to have us there, and never, ever talk about it. I can still see his smile and the twinkle in his eyes. That’s the way he was. We all miss him.
So that’s my little story. And, happy 50th anniversary to the New Orleans Saints. I was there, with my dad, mom and brother when John Gilliam ran the opening kickoff back 94 yards for a touchdown to usher in new era for the city, although I don’t remember that part.
We were in that number when the Saints went marching in.
Yeah, I know. I don’t believe it either.