Recent storms and resulting power outages prompted a mini-vacation of sorts to New Orleans, not that I need a good excuse to head that way.
My Sunday morning walk took me by Tulane’s Yulman Stadium, where Southern Miss somehow beat the suddenly mighty Green Wave last season and where the Ole Miss Rebels will play Tulane on Sept. 9 at 2:30 p.m.
Trust me on this: You will not need a sweater or sleeves of any sort that afternoon. I suppose there could be a hotter, more humid place on earth than New Orleans currently, although I cannot imagine it.
My sun-broiled walk took me down Willow Street right by where grand, old Tulane Stadium used to stand in all its rusting glory. Yulman Stadium, a neat, modern 30,000-seat facility sits in what would be the afternoon shadow of the old Tulane Stadium, which hosted 38 Sugar Bowls and three of the first nine Super Bowls. Some of my grandest football memories took place in that old, iron and steel monstrosity which literally shook every time the New Orleans Saints scored a touchdown — which, come to think of it, never seemed quite often enough.
Please bear with me, a few memories:
- This was Sept. 17, 1967. I was 14, brother Bobby was 13. Our dad surprised us that Sunday morning in Hattiesburg when he loaded us up in that blue Dodge Monaco and told us we were going to watch the brand new New Orleans professional football team, the Saints, play the Los Angeles Rams. The traffic was awful, and we parked all the way across Claiborne Avenue. We had no tickets, so Dad scalped three as we neared the stadium. Turns out, we were in the north end zone. Turns out, that was the place to be. Funny, my second most vivid memory of that day is of the beer vendors, with kegs on their backs trudging up and down those stadium steps, hawking draught beer and sweating through every fiber of their clothing. I don’t know how much they were paid, but I know it wasn’t enough. Unlike those hapless Saints, they earned their keep. Older readers probably have already guessed my more vivid memory of that day. The Rams kicked the opening kickoff away from the end zone where we sat. Far in the distance, rookie running back John Gilliam caught the ball at his own six-yard line and headed toward us. And he just kept coming and coming, growing larger and larger. When the wide-eyed Gilliam crossed the goal line for the first touchdown on the first play in Saints history, we could see his jaws trembling from the effort. Boy, we thought, this is going to be easy. Boy, it turns out, it was anything but…
- This was Sept. 19, 1971. By then, I was writing sports for my hometown newspaper, and the Saints were opening their fifth season, again against the Los Angeles Rams. Despite four years of abject failure, there was new enthusiasm. The Saints had a new quarterback, a redhead from Mississippi named Elisha Archibald Manning III, Archie. Trouble was, the Saints still lacked competent people to block for him. The Rams of that vintage featured a defensive line of man-eaters known as The Fearsome Foursome, led by Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones. I remember thinking they might literally kill the rookie quarterback. But Archie scrambled away from them enough to keep the Saints in the game. The Saints, down 20-17, were driving toward the north end zone with seconds to play. With the time for one play and the ball on the one-yard line, they called timeout. Archie went to the sidelines to talk to Saints coach J.D. Roberts. They talked at length until the referee came over to break it up. Years later, Archie would tell me he never got a play call from Roberts. So he went back to the huddle and called what he figured John Vaught would have called at Ole Miss. Archie kept the ball around the left end and barely scored the winning touchdown before getting hammered one last time by the Rams.
- I have saved the best for last. This was Nov. 8, 1970. The Saints were suffering through another miserable season. They had just fired their first head coach, Tom Fears, and hired Roberts away from a semi-pro team in Virginia. Nobody else from my newspaper even wanted to go that day, so I took one for the team. My daddy, perhaps feeling sorry for his oldest, rode shotgun. It was a humid, gray day. The Detroit Lions, led by the great defensive tackle Alex Karras, were the opponent. It was a forgettable game until the ending. The Lions, a much superior team, seemed barely interested. The Saints somehow stayed in the game, until, again, there was time for just one play, the Lions holding a 17-16 lead. The Saints had the ball at their own 44. Remember, this was back when the goal posts were on the goal line. Roberts sent out the Saints placekicker, Tom Dempsey, who was far wider at his equator than any other part of his body. More to the point, he had half of a right foot. He was going to try a 63-yard field goal. Dad and I laughed. We were not alone. A couple nights later, Karras would tell Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show that he was laughing too hard to rush the kick. The ball was placed down at the Saints’ 37-yard line, which seemed like it might as well have been 50 miles away in Thibodeaux. But Dempsey swung his thick right leg and the ball exploded toward the goal posts 189 feet away. It crossed about a foot over the cross bar. At first, there was a split second of silence while people tried to comprehend what had just happened. And then grand old Tulane Stadium exploded. I remember people dancing down Willow Street. I remember people hugging strangers. I remember Dad saying, “Son, we can go on back to Hattiesburg or we can head to the Quarter. There’s gonna be a party.” We chose the latter. Of course we did.
So I thought about all that and more on my Sunday walk down Willow Street. I thought about 80,000 people stomping and screaming and holding up a game for 19 minutes because they disagreed with the officials. I thought about beer-bellied Billy Kilmer, a perfectly competent quarterback, getting booed unmercifully while he took his weekly beatings with the Saints. I thought about Kansas City taking apart Minnesota in Super Bowl IV with dapper Hank Stram striding up and down the sidelines. (Joe DiMaggio sat one row in front of us that day and my mama never took her eyes off him.)
I thought about how Tulane Stadium was condemned on the same day the Louisiana Superdome opened in 1975. And I remembered how, four years later, workers took it down, section by section, selling all that metal for scrap.
Gone, but never forgotten.