DAVE DIXON AND THE MAKING OF THE SAINTS
Arthur Nead illustration
Dave Dixon still breaks out in a laugh every time he tells the story that happened 42 years ago. Dixon, now 86 and as spry as ever, 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 – 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 National Football League team. Without Dixon this city would be a mere a “who dat” whenever the topic is professional football.
Dixon has plenty of 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 pre-season double header was played at Tulane stadium. One problem was that Louisiana law still required public gathering places to be segregated by race, but the NFL wouldn’t 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-serve 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 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. 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 says; then 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. 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 didn’t 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. Poppa Mecom put his 28-year-old son, John, in charge.
Dixon admits that at first he didn’t like young John Mecom because of his playboy image, but it was the new owner who would have the final say over the team’s identity.
And that leads to Dixon’s favorite story: the younger 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, the Archbishop of New Orleans, happened to be in the restaurant. Dixon apologetically interrupted the archbishop and posed the question.
Would calling the team “The 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 in pursuit of glory, though it has always been blessed by the vision of Dave Dixon.
We pray, however, that there’s a statute of limitations on the bishop’s premonition and that there’s something very special in the team’s near future.