Saints In the Sun
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
An uncle was sitting in the stands at Tulane Stadium. It was a hot fall Sunday afternoon. He glanced at his watch which showed, “Noon,” and then yelled, “Let’s get started; I’ve been sitting here an hour already!” Those of us around him giggled at the futility as the heat intensified. That was the way it was in the early days of the Saints franchise, and we were all crazy enough to endure it.
From 1967 through ’74 when the Superdome opened, the Saints played in the mammoth Tulane facility. The stadium seated 80,000 people, which made it a good home for the Sugar Bowl; the problem was that most of it was built in an era (the ’20s) before automobiles were so dominant. There simply was not enough parking. That hadn’t been a problem until the Saints started playing there. The team filled the stadium for practically every game, so parking overflowed into the streets of Uptown New Orleans.
In those days the early games started at 1 p.m. on Sundays, rather than noon. But finding a parking place within manageable walking distance required getting in the vicinity prior to 11 a.m. For the people of Uptown, a cottage industry arose as they sold parking spots on their lawn and in their driveways. (Some kids even marketed the public street, which, of course, they didn’t own. Customers generally regarded their investment as protection money.)
Walking from the parking spot to the stadium was a hike followed by climbing the winding ramps into the stadium – the cheaper the seat the longer the climb. (Blessed were the poor for they acquired a great aerial view of the city skyline.)
So it was that many fans sat in the stands, on wooded benches, for nearly two hours before the game even started. There would be moments of spectacle, such as when the Saints trotted on the field to briefly warm up. Not yet in their shoulder pads, they seemed like young gladiators; their performance on the field made flawless because their opponent was still in the dressing room. We all marveled.
By the opening kickoff we were all in a frenzy, although we were not only hot but also crowded, as elbows, like pistons, seemed to move from every direction.
Games actually lasted a little longer back then, partially because of more time being allowed for halftime shows, which were more entertaining (including once an ostrich race) than they are now. Halftime was the last glow before the dismal reality of their having to be a loser.
By the time the game ended we had been in the stands for about five and a half hours, and usually disappointed, though anxious to return again.
There was one time though when, despite the time served in the stand, no one wanted to leave: Nov. 8, 1970. Going into the final seconds of the game the Saints, whose season was so bad the coach had been fired during the week, were losing to the Detroit Lions 17 to 16. In desperation, place kicker Tom Dempsey was sent to the field to try an impossible field goal from the Saint’s 37-yard line. For this to be successful, the ball would have to travel 63 yards – further than any field goal had ever travelled. Dempsey, who was born with a birth defect so that the kicking surface of his foot was flat rather than pointed, faced the ball, ran up to it and then, with his leg as a mighty pendulum, launched the sphere in a flight that NASA might have detected had it had satellites. The referees’ arms shot into the air. Saints won!
Eighty thousand baked and jammed people jumped and cheered, but they couldn’t move. They were stunned as though frozen in time as they watched the jubilation on the field.
It may have been more than an hour before spectators completed the trek back to their automobiles. Nothing that the Saints would do could top that ending for drama, unless the team would one day win the Super Bowl. That moment unbelievable outcomes suddenly seemed more possible.