Aug 9, 201012:00 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde: Dave Dixon and the Making of the Saints
Dave Dixon still broke out in a laugh every time he told the story that happened 44 years ago. Dixon, who died this past weekend at 87, was as spry as ever until the end and had every reason to be proud during his last year. For all the hero worship and accolades showered on men dressed in black and gold, there was no greater star than Dixon, the antiques dealer turned civic activist. Without his tenacity all those years ago there would be no Superdome; without the Dome, New Orleans would have never been given an NFL team. Without Dixon, this city would be a mere a “who dat” whenever the topic turned to professional football.
Dixon has plenty stories to tell on the way to his favorite one. There was the time, for instance, he had to convince the NFL lords that New Orleans was interested in pro football. With the support of George Halas, the then-owner of the Chicago Bears, a rare preseason double header, featuring four NFL teams, was played at Tulane stadium. One problem, though, was that Louisiana law still required public gathering places to be segregated by race, but the NFL would not permit that, and the Tulane Board, which allowed use of the stadium, was also anxious to see the law ignored.
An announcement was made publicly that tickets would be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. To a surprised black population, that translated into being able to sit wherever they wanted. There was no problem at all from the racially mixed seating, Dixon recalled, but then a heavy rain drove all the fans into the dry areas beneath the stands. Dixon remembered hearing a great uproar from the compact, rain-drenched crowd. He hurried to the area, fearing racial tension. Instead, he found a party. Everybody was just eating and drinking and having a good time, Dixon said, and then when the rain stopped, they went back to the game. “I was also worried about the teams,” Dixon remembered, but “Halas told me, ‘Dave, the Chicago Bears will stay here until 4 a.m. if they need to.’”
In 1966 New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise. Passage of the federal civil rights laws had, in effect, opened the South. A year earlier Atlanta had been given a team. New Orleans won because of its enthusiasm and its charm –– but mostly because of the help that the NFL got from the state’s then-powerful congressional delegation. The league needed help fending off anti-trust laws as it sought a merger with the rival American Football League. None of that would have happened, though, without the maneuvering of Dixon.
When Commissioner Pete Rozelle called to tell Dixon that the NFL was coming to New Orleans, it was Dixon who suggested that the announcement be made on Nov. 1, All Saints Day. At the time the team did not have a name –– or an owner –– but Dixon pushed hard for the name Saints. Why? “Because I knew it would be free publicity every time the song was played.”
A local law firm urged one of its Houston clients to apply for ownership. Eventually the league accepted the application of the oil-rich Mecom family to own the team. Papa Mecom put his 28-year-old son, John, in charge. Dixon would admit that at first he did not like young John Mecom because of his playboy image, but it was the new owner who would have the final say-so over the team’s identity.
And that would become Dixon’s favorite story: Mecom began to have second thoughts about the name. One evening a Mecom aide had dinner with Dixon to explain that his boss was concerned that the name might seem sacrilegious. Dixon always recalled the moment as though it happened yesterday: Philip Hannan, the archbishop of New Orleans, happened to be in the restaurant. Dixon apologetically interrupted the archbishop and posed the question: Would calling the team “Saints” be sacrilegious? “No,” the bishop answered. “Besides, I have a premonition that this team is going to need all the help it can get.”
At that moment, as though baptized by the bishop, the New Orleans Saints came into being. Hannan was right: The team would have some tough times, though it has always been blessed by the vision of Dave Dixon.
Despite the bishop’s prediction, there would also be a moment of glory, and the greatest joy is that Dave Dixon got to witness it. His life was a celebration of what can happen with vision and determination.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival- Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 895-2266)
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