On September 17, 1967, my father, brother and I joined 80,876 other spectators in the bleachers of ancient Tulane Stadium to watch the New Orleans Saints play their first-ever regular season game. My dad had purchased us season tickets to seats in the stadium's south end zone for the Saints inaugural season.
The Saints began their life as a pro football team on an impressive note... running back John Gilliam returned the opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown. But the Saints went on to lose that game to the Los Angeles Rams. They wouldn't win their first game that year until November 5th when they beat the Philadelphia Eagles. The Saints finished that first year with a 3-11 record.
In addition to John Gilliam, some of the other players whom I recall from that first and only season we had Saints season tickets were Billy Kilmer who started as quarterback, Danny Abramowicz who played wide receiver, and big Doug Atkins at defensive end. On the wall of the bedroom I shared with my brother, I had their pictures (which I'd clipped from The Times Picayune) taped on the wall of the bedroom alongside my Saints pennant.
My dad's company transferred him that next year so we moved away from New Orleans, but I always felt a special kinship with the Saints. For a big chunk of their 40+ year franchise history the Saints were not very good, in fact... some years they were awful. However, they were the first professional football team I'd ever seen play in person, and I'd done so alongside my dad and brother... so it was like a first love that had jilted you, and that you never quite got over.
Now, 43 years after their first-ever season in Tulane Stadium, the Saints win the NFC championship in the Superdome and are headed to the Super Bowl. My father's been dead for several years, but I thought of him this past Sunday night as I watched ESPN replay game highlights... and appreciated all over again the great gift that those Saints season tickets had been to me and my brother.
And thank you, John Gilliam, wherever you are, for providing 80,879 of us with that electrifying kickoff return all those years ago... as it surely was a sign of things to come!