Errol Laborde, illustration by Arthur NeadIt was one hour before kickoff to the Saints game at the Superdome and lunch, as prepared in the plush club lounge, offered some savory choices. I was tempted to go for the barbecued brisket plate but I had that at the previous game rather than my second choice of sautéed scallops. This day I went for the grilled chicken panini with a side of crab cakes. As I sat comfortably at a table looking at the pre-game show on a wide screen TV while a jazz band played in the background, I lapsed for a moment, as through the screen had provided a tunnel into the past. The game that’s played on the field is still pretty much the same but the experience that used to be was as though in a different league.
During the team’s first years of existence and before moving to the Superdome (1967-‘74), home games were played at Tulane Stadium. The facility was built in ‘26 before people commonly drove automobiles so although it seated 80,000 people, it hardly had any parking spaces at all. Tailgating back then meant being stuck in traffic while looking for a quasi-legal parking spot on some distant block. Many neighborhood families made a second income by selling parking spaces in front of their houses (which, of course, belonged to the city) or on their lawns: To hell with the crepe myrtles. After finding a parking place there was still a trek to the stadium and then up the winding ramps to your seat.
Because of the parking, people would arrive early at the games. In those days kickoff was at 1 p.m. and the desired time to be in your seat was around 11 a.m. That way you could be sure you parked within the same time zone plus you had the bonus of seeing the players do their pre-game warm-ups. Back then that was exciting, because the only professional football players that most of us had seen were on small black and white TV screens. Now they were live, big and prancing about in color. Most of all they were our players.
Sitting for two hours in the sun waiting for a game to start did cause some anxiety. I remember being there with my uncle, who at noon suddenly shouted out to no one in particular, “come on, let’s get this game started, I’ve been here an hour already!” The NFL stood firm.
There were no plush lounges to retreat to. No one had ever heard of Panini and a person was being mighty fancy if he bought a hot dog or anything that was seasoned with yellow mustard.
Beer sold well because when the three-hour game was factored in with the pre-game wait, folks got pretty wilted. The good side was that Saints fans had the best tans in the NFL.
Not much about the early days was better than the current experience except for one thing – the halftime shows. The Saints hired a guy who had worked for Disneyland to stage the sort of extravaganzas that kept people in their seats during intermission even when they really were feeling the consequence of their beer drinking. One day there were ostrich races featuring the big birds pulling chariots. Because it was an outdoor stadium, all sorts of things could fall from the sky – such as skydivers – or ascended – such as giant balloons. The big shows were curtailed after the Battle of New Orleans was staged on the field and one reenactor had his hand too close to the barrel of a cannon which, even though it was only firing blanks, still had enough force to earn him a purple heart. Some of the ostriches had more wins that the Saints. However, there were some good moments in the old stadium. On the very first kickoff of the very first game a Saints wide receiver named John Gilliam fielded the ball and then ran past a herd of marauding Rams for 94 yards for a touchdown. Imagine that, the team hadn’t been playing for a minute yet and was already ahead 7-0.
Then there was that day in 1970 when place kicker Tom Dempsey trotted on the field to try a desperation field goal. The Saints were trailing the Detroit Lions 16-17 with only a few seconds left. Not even Andy Jackson’s victory over General Pakenham would be remembered with such fondness as Dempsey’s missile pierced the humid New Orleans air traveling farther than any football ever had, falling over the goal 63-yards away from the point where it had been kicked. The crowd went from numbness to uncontrollable cheering. Hoisted on shoulders, Dempsey was taken away from the field.
“May I take this away from you, sir?” My trance was broken by a waiter eager to remove the remains of my panini. Just as well, kickoff was only 15 minutes away so it was time to go to my seat. The temperature in the dome that day was in the 70s, as it was throughout the game. Maybe next time a warm bowl of crawfish etouffee would be nice.