Jan 18, 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 breaks out in a laugh every time he tells the story that happened 44 years ago. Dixon has plenty of reasons to smile these days. For all the hero worship and accolades showered on men dressed in black and gold, at some point there needs to be an ovation for Dixon. 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.
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 teams, was arranged to be played at Tulane University. One problem, though, was that Louisiana law still required public gathering places to be segregated by race, but the NFL would not allow that, and the Tulane Board, which granted use of the stadium, was also anxious to see the law ignored.
So an event was staged for which the announcement was made publicly that tickets would be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. To a surprised black population, that translated into them being able to sit wherever they wanted. There was no problem at all from the mixed seating, Dixon recalls, but then a heavy rain drove all the fans into the dry areas beneath the stands. Dixon remembers hearing a great uproar from the compact rain-drenched crowd. Fearing that racial tensions would fray, he hurried to the area. Instead, he found a party. Everybody was just eating and drinking and having a good time, Dixon says. When the rain stopped, they went back to the game. “I was also worried about the teams,” Dixon remembers, 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 to begin playing in ‘67. 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, its charm and mostly because of the help that its then-powerful congressional delegation could give in fending off antitrust laws as the league sought to expand its reach. None of that would have happened, though, without the maneuvering of Dixon, who first had to deliver a promise for a domed stadium before getting the franchise. 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, of that year. 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 customers 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 admits that at first he did not like young John Mecom because of his playboy image, but it was he who would have the final say-so over the team’s identity.
And that leads to 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 recalls the moment as though it happened yesterday. Philip Hannan, still new to the job as 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 has had some tough times in pursuit of glory, but it has always been blessed by the vision of Dave Dixon.
We pray there is a statue of limitations on the bishop’s premonition and that there is something special in the team’s future, only one game away.
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 email@example.com or (504) 895-2266.
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