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New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

this is a discussion within the Saints Community Forum; New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL BY Hank Gola DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER Saturday, January 30th 2010, 5:13 PM Graythen/Getty Drew Brees leads the New Orleans Saints into Super Bowl XLIV next Sunday ...

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Old 02-01-2010, 06:59 AM   #1
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New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

BY Hank Gola
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Saturday, January 30th 2010, 5:13 PM

Graythen/Getty
Drew Brees leads the New Orleans Saints into Super Bowl XLIV next Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts in Miami.




It took 43 seasons, but the Saints have reached the promised land.

The franchise, born of expansion and cheered on by some of the most forlorn yet faithful fans in all of sports, can win its first Super Bowl a week from today. The Saints didn't have a .500 season until 1978 or a winning season until 1987. They were the first victims of the expansionist 0-25 Bucs and the expansionist 0-9 Browns and they didn't win a playoff game until 2000. What they have in lieu of Vince Lombardi Trophies, however, is as colorful a history as any franchise.

"What you've got to understand is that this city appreciates crazy. This city is crazy," says Angus Lynn, longtime columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "It's a city that has so much fun despite all the misery, despite Katrina. All these people have to do is hear a brass band coming down the street and their spirits are picked up immediately."

It's been happening for 43 seasons. Here's a rundown of some of the madcap moments:

TALK ABOUT A DOWNER

Naturally, you'd expect some great pre-game and halftime entertainment from party city. Before the Saints' first-ever game at Tulane Stadium in 1967, they were supposed to launch a balloon with legendary trumpeter Al Hirt playing, "Up, Up and Away" to symbolize the birth of the franchise.

The balloon, however, never made it to "Up" because a worker mistakenly put a hole in it. "I went through 10 choruses and that son of a gun still hadn't been pumped up," Hirt told the Times-Picayune. "I almost got a hernia." It was prophetic, to say the least.

MECOM'S MISFITS

The Saints' first roster was stocked with players plucked from other teams in the expansion draft. Not great for winning football games. Pretty good for tearing up Bourbon St.

That inaugural 3-11 team was led by players such as Billy (Furnace Face) Kilmer, Steve (Stoney) Stonebreaker, Monty (Dr. Strangebrain) Stickles and Roy (Capt. Weirdo) Schmidt. According to Jeff Duncan's book, "Tales from the Saints Sideline," Doug Atkins, a hulking 6-8, 270-pound defensive end, would drink shots of martinis out of a hurricane glass.

"Mecom's Misfits" were named after 27-year-old owner John Mecom. Stonebreaker called them, "Boys Town on cleats."

GO DOWN MOSES

It wasn't exactly a bright spot in Charlton Heston's career on the Silver Screen when he starred in "Number One" as Cat Catlan, an aging quarterback who had taken to the bottle. Catlan supposedly had led the Saints to the Super Bowl championship two years earlier; that's how unrealistic the movie was

In any case, Heston visited the Saints practices to bone up on how to throw a football. The grizzled Kilmer, who had made a career out of throwing wounded ducks, schooled him. Heston was no Ben Hur. He was so unathletic, in fact, he couldn't get the ball 10 yards down the field. During filming, he broke three ribs.

READY, AIM ...

It was All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 1970, and the Saints were in the middle of losing a game, 30-17, to the Rams. The halftime show at Tulane Stadium featured a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans. A cannon backfired, blowing three fingers off one of the pseudo-soldiers.

The next day, head coach Tom Fears was fired. Trainer Warren Ariail called it, "the greatest injustice since the Rape of Nanking." Ask the guy who lost his fingers how he felt about it.

IT'S LONG ENOUGH, IT'S ...

A week after the cannon fiasco, the greatest heretofore shot in Saints history was fired: Tom Dempsey's record 63-yard field goal. Fans listening to the radio broadcast never heard it. A swarm of bees descended on the station's transmitter just as the ball was snapped and all listeners heard was a giant buzz as the ball cleared the uprights.

CURSED!

They started to excavate the future Superdome site in 1971 and got more than they bargained for. A little digging turned up some human bones, then caskets. The Saints' new home was being erected on the site of the old Girod Street Cemetery, which contained the victims of the yellow fever epidemic of the 1850s and was deconsecrated in 1957. A voodoo priestess warned, "It's not good to plop a sports facility on the remains of one's ancestors."

FOOTBALL, MOON ... YOU KNOW, SAME THING

In 1972, the Saints named a retired astronaut, Dick Gordon, to assume many of the duties of fired GM Vic Schwenk. "I didn't know how to go to the moon before I became an astronaut, either, but I sure learned how," Gordon explained. The Saints didn't improve that season. Second-year QB Archie Manning was sacked 43 times.

POLLY WANT A BEIGNET?

Archie Manning tells the story of a punt returner cut by the Raiders and signed by the Saints for a preseason game. He showed up along with a colorful parrot.

"It just sat on his shoulder," Manning told NFL Films. "So we get dressed and everyone's asking him, ‘Where are you going to put that bird?' He says he'll just put him on the top shelf of the locker and he'll just stay there." Two punts came Parrot Man's way and he muffed them both. The parrot fared even worse."So we come back into the locker room after the game," Manning said, "and that bird was dead as a doornail ... just laid out in the locker."

MATRICULATING

The Saints hired legendary Chiefs coach Hank Stram in 1976 and fired him the next year after totaling seven wins. Some say his tenure with the Saints kept him out of the Hall of Fame for 25 years. The Saints, under new coach Dick Nolan and behind Manning's Pro Bowl season, enjoyed their best-yet season, 7-9, in 1978 and their first non-losing season, 8-8, in '78.

PLAYING FOOTSIE WITH THE DRAFT

The Saints' draft history includes some whoppers, although they did get Manning right in 1971. For instance, the first two picks of their first draft ever, Leslie Kelley and Bo Burris, never started a game. Maybe that's why they would trade away three of their first four top picks. But 1979 stands out.

The Saints thought they saw the next Ray Guy and Jan Stenerud combined in a barefooted All-American kicker/punter from Texas named Russell Erxleben. Mecom wanted a Texas kid on the team so he persuaded Nolan to make Erxleben the 11th pick of the 1979 draft, two picks ahead of future Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow. It is still the highest a kicker has ever gone.

The opening game of the 1979 season went into overtime against the Falcons. Back in punt formation, Erxleben had the snap go over his head. He scrambled back toward the goal line on his bare foot, picked up the ball…and shot-putted it into the chest of the Falcons' James Mayberry, who scored the winning touchdown. In the following season opener, Erxleben missed a short field goal in overtime and the Saints fell to the 49ers, who had won just two games the previous year. That started the Saints on a 14-game losing streak.

Erxleben, nicknamed "Thunderfoot" at Texas, was cast as "Blunderfoot" or "Oops-Leben" with the Saints. He spent most of his six-year career as a punter and finished with the Lions. He was convicted of securities fraud in 2000 and released from federal prison in 2005.

In a few years, they'll be another Erxleben up for the draft. His son, Ryan, just completed an impressive freshman season as the punter for Texas Tech.

EENIE, MEENIE, MINIE, GEORGE

The Saints followed up on Erxleben two years later when they held the draft's first pick and took South Carolina running back George Rogers over Lawrence Taylor to the eternal gratitude of Giants fans everywhere. Head coach Bum Phillips, father of Wade, explained why: "You can run away from Lawrence Taylor but George Rogers will run over you."

Several years later, Taylor, playing with a harness, had one of the signature games of his career, running down the Saints offense in New Orleans.

AIN'T THAT A SHAME



Feig/AP
It's not always easy being a Saints fan.

Buddy Diliberto earned a Purple Heart in Korea as a reporter for Stars and Stripes after being wounded when officers ordered weapons fired for sound effects in an interview and the Chinese shot back. By 1980, he was already a legendary sportscaster and talk show host back home in the Big Easy. When the Saints started spiraling toward a 1-15 season, "Buddy D" urged fans to wear paper bags over their heads at the Superdome and the Aints were born.

"When you go to Heaven after you die, tell St. Peter you're a Saints fan," Diliberto explained. "He'll say, 'C'mon in, I don't care what else you done, you suffered enough.'" Bags on the head is now a common practice for frustrated fans of losers everywhere.

It's a shame Diliberto isn't around to enjoy this one. He died five years ago, short of his promise to wear a dress and parade down Bourbon St. when the Saints finally made it to the Super Bowl. It's a vow his successor, former Saints QB Bobby Hebert, is keeping. Saints fans regularly make a pilgrimage to Buddy D's gravesite, where they toast the team's success, and a picture of Diliberto has been hung at Lee Circle.

J-E-T-S

The Saints acquired former Jets quarterback Richard Todd in 1984. It was a double case of bad karma. He threw 19 interceptions against 11 touchdown passes in a 7-9 season.

AT LAST

The Saints, under Jim Mora, won their last nine games of the strike-torn 1987 season to finish with their first winning record, 12-3, but were drummed out of their first-ever playoff game by the Vikings, 44-10, at a sold-out Superdome.

FAT TUESDAY, BAD SUNDAY

Quarterback John Fourcade made the Saints roster after impressing them with the replacement team of 1987. In '89, he replaced Hebert for a magical three-game stretch to close out the season and became the toast of the town, so much so that he was grand marshal of a bunch of Mardi Gras parades. He actually hurt his arm throwing beads and dubloons. He told management he was hurt throwing footballs in the offseason. With Hebert holding out, Fourcade began the 1990 season as the starter, went 1-3, and never saw much of the field or Mardi Gras floats again.

THE CURSE, REDUX

The Saints reached the playoffs with high hopes in 1992. After all, they had won seven of their first nine games that year and were favored to win their first postseason game ever. They blew a 20-7 lead and lost to the Eagles at home in the first round. "Is this the Louisiana voodoo curse?" wondered cornerback Vince Buck.

He'd have to wait another 18 years to find out for sure.

SAY WHAT?

Mora resigned on Oct., 20, 1996, a day after declaring, "We Suck," following a 19-7 loss to the Panthers. The coach who brought the Saints to respectability exited without much. The Mike Ditka error began the following season.

OOPS

Desperate for a quarterback, the Saints traded away first-, second- and third-round picks for Cowboys backup Steve Walsh. A prominent coach once said of the weak-armed Walsh's passes that you could read the commissioner's signature on the football as they went by.

DA TRADE

ESPN Magazine/AP
Mike Ditka trades away team's entire draft to grab Texas running back Ricky Williams.

In 1999, Ditka traded away all six of the team's draft choices plus his first and third rounders the next year to the Redskins for the fifth pick overall, Texas running back Ricky Williams. Ridiculed for giving away the franchise's future, Ditka posed with Williams, dressed in a wedding gown, for an ESPN Magazine cover.

Ditka was fired after a 3-13 season in 1999. Williams was traded to the Dolphins for two first-round picks in 2002.

KATRINA AND BACK

A year earlier, owner Tom Benson was threatening a move to Los Angeles if he didn't get a new stadium but what happened on Aug. 29, 2005, changed everything. Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and forced the Saints out of town for the season. In a way, however, the team, like the town, was reborn in the wake of the disaster. Four years later, New Orleans is in the Super Bowl.

New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

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Old 02-01-2010, 07:12 AM   #2
 
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Re: New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

Didn't know that ... the Superdome is built over a former graveyard. Are there poltergeists still amidst the bleachers?
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Old 02-01-2010, 07:21 AM   #3
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Re: New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

You didn't know it was on a graveyard? How long you been in Austin?
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Old 02-01-2010, 11:27 AM   #4
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Re: New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

Wow. We have come a looooong way. That's certainly a colorful past. I remember most of it....
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Old 02-01-2010, 12:56 PM   #5
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Re: New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

Had some bad years - understatement. To Sunday. GEAUX SAINTS
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Old 02-01-2010, 01:08 PM   #6
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Re: New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

I've been a Saints fan for most of our history(since 73). It has been a painful experience. I am from the Pennsylvania and grew up in Steeler Country, So being a Saints fan was tough. But I can't imagine being a fan of any other team. Archie Manning was and still is my hero. Being a Saint probably cost him the Hall of Fame. Our history is colorful and sometimes painful but i wouldn't trade it for 50 Super Bowls. Im proud to be listed with the best fans in the world and Proud to be a Saints fan. Win or Lose sunday I will always and forever be a Saints fan. GEAUX SAINTS!!!!!!!!!!!!
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Old 02-01-2010, 01:12 PM   #7
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Re: New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

looks like the angels whopped up on the demons and left town
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Old 02-01-2010, 05:19 PM   #8
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Re: New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

I'm too young to remember the Bag headed Aints, but I've seen plenty of pictures. My dad was one of the many season ticket holders who showed up with a bag on his head. The pictures were sad to look at a few years ago, but now, we can all have the last laugh.

WE'RE IN THE SUPER BOWL! WHO DAT!
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Old 02-03-2010, 12:51 AM   #9
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Re: New Orleans Saints' long strange journey from laughingstock to toast of the NFL

I remember just about everything in that article...it brought back a lot of memories. Thanks for sharing!!!
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