In sunny, windswept Tulane Stadium last Sunday, 80,636 hyperexcited New Orleanians howled, stomped, booed and occasionally cheered through 2½ hours of what may be the country's best variety show. They saw a huge hot-air balloon, a thousand pigeons, five thousand red-and-white toy balloons and the Baltimore Colts go into orbit; and the only sour note was that their beloved Saints couldn't get off the ground and lost by a score of 30-10.
Not that losing is a unique experience. This was the fifth straight defeat for the Saints, giving them a perfect record—0 and 5. Usually, when a team gets off to so miserable a start, the fans stay home and watch TV, but not in New Orleans. Although it booed the Saints lustily now and again, it was an astonishingly good-natured crowd.
In part this may have been due to the harum-scarum, hell-for-leather game the Saints play. They go at it with fervor and a kind of contagious abandon, and when they trailed off the field at the end of the afternoon the crowd gave them a great big hand.
Unfortunately, the Saints caught the Colts bounding back from a disappointing month and John Unitas at his impeccable best: he completed 20 of 28 passes for 319 yards and three touchdowns. Although New Orleans Quarterback Billy Kilmer was no slouch himself, hitting 20 of 35 for 219 yards, whatever small chance the Saints had to win was nullified by dropped passes, fumbles, interceptions and untimely penalties. Nonetheless, the impression was that, given enough time, the Saints will someday go marching in.
Among other misfortunes, the team had to do without the strong moral support of Owner John Mecom Jr. on the sideline during the first half. Mecom went into a local hospital last Friday in preparation for an operation for diverticulitis. He made it to the game, but his doctors insisted he watch from the press box. They wasted their breath. With the Saints trailing 16-0 at the half, Mecom went down on the field, taking his customary position on the sideline. And the Saints did better with Little John on their level—they scored 10 points and held the Colts to 14.
New Orleanians are not new to adversity or to unusual behavior by their leaders. In 1967, for instance, when the Saints were awarded their NFL franchise, Mayor Victor Hugo Schiro, a Joe Kuharich-type magician with words, said, "After an exhaustive investigation the league decided that New Orleans was indeed a big-league city, that its leadership was Johnny Unitas-ish."
It may be that Mayor Schiro wasn't voicing a majority opinion. In one Mardi Gras parade a New Orleans voter cast a decidedly negative ballot against Schiro—he threw a bag of manure at him. The mayor leaped nimbly out of the way, letting the Mardi Gras queen, who was sitting next to him on the reviewing stand, take a direct hit. "It was hilarious," said the mayor later.
New Orleanians are also, obviously, passionate. They have taken the Saints to their hearts much as New Yorkers embraced the Mets during their pre-world championship days. But theirs is not the uncritical love New York lavished on the Mets. When the Saints are having a bad day, which, being young and relatively unskilled, they do more often than not, the fans are apt to boo them and, more concretely, to bombard officials with empty beer cans or whatever other missiles come to hand. No one has yet pinked Mecom, who at 30 is the youngest owner in the NFL, although he normally presents a handsome target, prowling the sideline, exhorting his heroes, somewhat to the dismay of the other owners and to the displeasure of Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Mecom, who is as big as most of his football players (6'3", 215 pounds) and who briefly played for Oklahoma before an injury ended his career, has an almost irrefutable answer to requests that he retire to the press box or to a seat in the stands. "If I had wanted a seat in the stands," he says, "I could have bought one each Sunday for $6. I own the club and I want to be where the action is."
In the Saints' maiden season Mecom got so close to the action that he was bawled out by Rozelle. The Saints were playing the Giants in Yankee Stadium when a free-for-all broke out among the players. In the course of battle a group of Giants fell upon Doug Atkins, the Saints' 39-year-old defensive end, and Mecom rushed onto the field to help his fallen player. Freeman White, then in his second year with the Giants, took a swipe at Mecom with his helmet—a sign of immaturity, since veterans keep their helmets on their heads when a fight breaks out. Mecom dodged the swing and hit White in the belly with a right hook, dropping him. The officials rushed in and succeeded in breaking up the melee and escorted Mecom—who may have the dubious honor of being the only owner in NFL history to score a one-punch victory over an opposing player—off the field. When Mecom's departure was shown on instant replay, his figure was thoughtfully circled with light to make sure the fans recognized him.
Despite the fact that Rozelle disciplined him, Mecom persists in remaining on the sidelines, but he has learned his manners. "I've never heard him second-guess the coaches or get in a beef with the officials," says George Owen, Mecom's representative with the players and his right-hand man. "He is a perfect gentleman on the sidelines."
Whether it is because of Mecom's deep personal involvement with his players or because of the morale-building ability of Head Coach Tom Fears, the Saints, despite their losing record, are a close-knit, ebullient group. One day last week, as they prepared for their game with Baltimore on the practice field Mecom built for them, they were loose and confident and spending a good bit of time kidding Doug Atkins about his dog. This animal was tied at the edge of the field, where he was sleeping. In the dressing room after practice Atkins handled him gently, showing a friend a series of deep slashes on the dog's neck.
"His name's Rebel," said Atkins. "He's a pit bull and a hell of a fighter. Matched him with a Doberman last night and the Doberman gave him fits for four or five minutes, but ol' Rebel never quit. Why, he can fight at full speed for 35, 40 minutes and he finally wore that Doberman right down. Got him down and probably would have killed him, but ol' Rebel ain't got any teeth. Had to gum the Doberman until he quit."
Rebel walked into a corner, moving gingerly, as if he were aching, and then flopped down. He's a good-looking black-and-white creature, gentle and friendly with humans.
"His muscles are sore," Atkins said. "Just like me on Monday after a ball game. Takes a while to get rid of the aches and pains."
"He don't know quit," another player said. "Makes no difference how big the other dog is, ol' Rebel just keeps goin'. And Doug don't make no easy matches for him, either. You'd figure he'd match him with a cocker spaniel or something once in a while, just for a breather, but he never does. He don't get any more easy contests than we do."
The fans in New Orleans, although they continue to come out in surprising numbers to watch the Saints, don't understand that the club can't be expected to win consistently, since it is usually in tougher contests than Rebel's. It is, after all, an expansion team with the flaws inherent in expansion teams, accentuated by a dearth of first draft choices.
Mecom traded a first draft pick for Green Bay's Jim Taylor in 1967, then was assessed a 1969 first draft choice and forced to give San Francisco the Saints' 1968 first draft pick, Tackle Kevin Hardy, for signing End Dave Parks after he had played out his option with the 49ers. As a result Fears has had to try to put together a representative team with veterans obtained in the expansion draft and draft choices selected after the cream of the college crop had been skimmed, and he has done a fine job with the material.
Fears is a tall, balding man who wears a gold watch with a black face, a reward for playing with the 1951 Los Angeles Ram championship team. He got a gold ring with a diamond as an assistant coach for the Packers during the Vince Lombardi championship era. So far, all the Saints have given him are a slightly harried expression and a somewhat doubtful view of the future.
"I know how it is," he said one night before the Baltimore game. "When a team is losing, the coach goes. That's pro football, but I hope I get time to bring this team on. They are real tough competitors. I've never seen this group quit."
Last Friday, several radio stations reported that Fears had been fired, prompting Mecom to issue a denial from his hospital bed. "I'm the owner and Fears is the coach, and I think he's a good one," he said. Mecom had been watching a housewife-oriented variety show on a color television set and seemed happy to be able to talk football. "I've made some mistakes as an owner and I guess I'll make some more," he continued. "But I stick by my people. I know Tom needs time."
After the game Mecom returned to the hospital. He has a million-dollar home in Houston and a pied-√†-terre in New Orleans over the Saints" offices on St. Charles Avenue. This apartment is a modest affair of six bedrooms, a kitchen equipped to feed an army and a living room the size of a basketball court.
Mecom will miss the next two or three Saint games, and by the time he is released from the hospital his club may have won one. After all, four of their five losses have been to top contenders. Unfortunately, the Saints are in much the same shape as Rebel. They have unlimited courage and enthusiasm, but not enough teeth.
John Mecom Jr., at 30 the youngest NFL owner, stands in the splendor of his New Orleans apartment. He says he's sticking with Coach Tom Fears.