It was Sept. 17, 1967.
As a precocious 11-year-old, I was a sports fanatic. That may explain how I ended up in the profession I have been blessed to part of in my hometown.
My late father was gracious to buy season tickets to New Orleans Saints games. There we were on a sunny, very warm Sunday afternoon at Tulane Stadium with the powerful Los Angeles Rams in town.
John Gilliam returned Bruce Gossett’s opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. The Saints had gone 5-1 in the preseason. It was not improper to think that a budding power was emerging in the NFL.
Of course, that does not happen with expansion teams and it did not happen with that team.
The Saints won three games for Tom Fears but it really did not matter to fans, who were deeply appreciative of the players, coaches and to just have an NFL team.
19 former players and coaches returned to their roots this past weekend to visit New Orleans as guests of the New Orleans Saints as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the franchise. It was fitting that the opponent was none other than the Los Angeles Rams.
At the Saints Hall of Fame Museum just under three hours from game time, the originals reminisced while viewing pictures of themselves, videos of the plays they made and checking out artifacts of days gone by. It was special.
“Isn’t that something?” Gilliam said. “We have this reunion and the Saints are playing the Rams. Seeing myself run in those highlights reminds me of my youth. I was fast. It was fun. What a way to start a new franchise! You don’t really realize how special it is when you are experiencing it.”
Gilliam was joined by a host of his teammates, including Walt “Flea” Roberts, who doubled as a national guardsman while playing for the Saints. Roberts returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, returned a fumble 27 yards for a score and caught a 49-yard touchdown pass from Gary Cuozzo to lead the Saints to a 31-24 victory at Tulane Stadium for the first win in franchise history. Roberts had missed the previous game with Pittsburgh, a 14-10 loss, to serve guard duty at Grambling State.
“I had to complete my service and the Saints and NFL allowed me to do so,” Roberts said. “It was so frustrating missing that Pittsburgh game. I wanted to make up for it. You don’t mind being busy when you are young. Those were special times. We had lost our first seven games. We were close in some. It was great to have a big game and for us to get that first wins. Our fans deserved it.”
Charlie Brown was a running back and punt return specialist on the first Saints team. In 1968, he returned the first punt for a touchdown in franchise history, going 53 yards for a score against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a brilliant effort, ranked as the eighth best return in NFL history by NFL Films. It was the final game of the season. The Saints won 24-14.
“Seeing the pictures and being with the guys brings back so many memories,” Brown said. “We were the first team ever here and it was special for the people in the city. They treated us great.”
Billy Kilmer was not supposed to be the starter at quarterback. Gary Cuozzo was acquired to handle that duty but it was Kilmer who was the opening day starter for Fears against the Rams in 1967 and was an early inductee into the Saints Hall of Fame in 1990. To this day, I remember vividly how a fan behind my father, my brother and I was yelling, “we want Cul-oz-zo” over and over again in an obvious reference to Cuozzo.
“New Orleans is a special place and it is always great to return here,” Kilmer said. “If you cannot have fun in New Orleans, you cannot have fun anywhere. I wish we would have won more games but playing for the Saints in the beginning was a great time for us.”
Jake Kupp was a mobile, solid guard for the first Saints team and he played excellent football for the Saints for nine seasons, earning an induction into the Saints Hall of Fame in 1992.
“It is always nice to come back and see your bust and to see all of the team pictures but it is most exciting to see so many teammates in one place,” Kupp said. “I was here for the first year at Tulane Stadium and I finished here with the first year in the Superdome. Both were special.”
Danny Abramowicz was a 17th-round draft pick, an afterthought out of Xavier University (Ohio). The story is legendary. Fears tried to cut him but Abramowicz would not leave. He stayed, caught 50 passes in his rookie season for 721 yards and five touchdowns. By 1969, Abramowicz won the NFL receiving title with 73 catches for 1,015 yards and seven touchdowns. Abramowicz went on to serve as offensive coordinator of the Saints under Mike Ditka from 1997-99. Abramowicz was an inaugural inductee into the Saints Hall of Fame in 1967.
“I just had so much determination and desire to play in the NFL that I was not going to let anyone take it away from me,” Abramowicz said. “It was a magical, special experience to play for the Saints and to be part of that first team. The fans were rocking and so were the stands. You could feel it and here it. I want to thank the Saints for making this possible. These are great men here.”
Other original New Orleans Saints at the museum and attending the game included linebacker Jackie Burkett, linebacker and special teams star Bill Cody, defensive tackle Lou Cordileone, tight end Kent Kramer, punter Tom McNeill, tackle Ray Rismiller, cornerback George Rose, tackle Bill Sandeman, fullback Jim Taylor, defensive tackle Mike Tilleman and defensive back George Youngblood. Former Saints defensive line coach Ed Khayat was also on hand.
“It was wild here,” Khayat said. “We were treated so special. It is sad that some of our folks could not be here like Coach Fears, Dave Whitsell and Doug Atkins. To this day, Atkins was the best defensive lineman I ever coached and I think he was the best defensive end in NFL history.”
Defensive ends Jim Garcia and Brian Schweda also attended events over the course of the weekend.
As the group of 17 made their way through memory lane in the museum, they stopped to see themselves in team pictures, Abramowicz enjoyed showing everyone his original Saints contract and Taylor smiled at his pictures and being part of the Saints in the Pro Football Hall of Fame exhibit. I asked Rismiller, who was known as “The Singing Saint,” if he had a tune for me. He smiled and sang a bar of “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
Most notably, the entire group paused to sit on bleachers from Tulane Stadium in the museum to watch the 1967 and 1968 highlight films. When plays were made by one of the attendees, there were cheers, clapping and even howls with names being shouted out. In one case, there were tears welling in the eyes of one of the former players.
“Old days, good times I remember.” The lyric of the Chicago song were stuck in my mind’s eye and found their way out of mouth in humming fashion as I watched it unfold. The old days for the new franchise for New Orleans were indeed special–for an 11-year-old and his family, for a hodgepodge of players, young and old, for a 27-year-old owner in John Mecom and for a fan base that would become one of the best in all of professional sports.
“This is the time to remember, ’cause it will not last forever.” The lyric of the Billy Joel song popped into my head and out of my mouth as well as Saints Director of Photography and Saints Hall of Fame board member Michael C. Hebert walked around taking pictures of the legends whose smiles were unmistakable and whose time in 1967 and on this day in New Orleans instantly became unforgettable.