Longtime New Orleans Saints followers weren't surprised last
April when their team decided to trade eight draft picks,
including two first-rounders, for the chance to select Ricky
Williams. Such audacious moves have been a trademark of the
organization since 1967, when the expansion Saints sent their
No. 1 pick to the Baltimore Colts for Gary Cuozzo, a quiet,
26-year-old dental student who had spent his previous four years
as Johnny Unitas's backup. In exchange for Cuozzo the Colts got
center Bill Curry and the first pick of the draft, which they
used to select Michigan State defensive end Bubba Smith. The
Saints clearly got the worse deal: Curry and Smith went on to
Pro Bowl careers and helped Baltimore reach two Super Bowls.
Nevertheless Cuozzo's arrival in New Orleans was cause for
tremendous optimism. The former Virginia star had been hoping
for a chance to prove himself as an NFL starter. "After the '66
season I asked Unitas [who was 34 at the time] if he planned on
playing much longer," Cuozzo says. "Unitas said, 'I'll play as
long as I can,' so I asked to be traded." SI put Cuozzo on the
cover with former Green Bay Packers running back Jim Taylor, who
had joined the Saints as a free agent. "There was a lot of
attention on Gary," says Taylor, 63, who now lives in Baton
Rouge with his wife, Helen. "The fans expected a lot."
Cuozzo started the first 13 games, throwing for 1,562 yards and
seven touchdowns with 12 interceptions, before losing his job to
Billy Kilmer. Nevertheless, Cuozzo didn't face the scorn that
the locals heaped on the infamous Aints of the early '80s.
"There were no fans with sacks on their heads," says Cuozzo, 58.
"The games had a Mardi Gras atmosphere."
The party ended after the season when Cuozzo was traded to the
Minnesota Vikings, with whom he spent four seasons before being
shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972. Upon his retirement
in '73, Cuozzo and his wife, Peggy, returned to Gary's hometown,
Middletown, N.J., and he opened an orthodontics practice in
nearby Lincroft. The Cuozzos' life took a ghastly turn in 1990
when one of their four children, 22-year-old Gary Jr., was
murdered in Miami while trying to buy narcotics. While
continuing his practice Cuozzo lectured teens on the dangers of
drugs and stepped up his involvement with the Fellowship of
Christian Athletes, serving as national chairman from 1995 until
Cuozzo is looking forward to seeing Williams perform in the Big
Easy this fall. "A lot of pressure will be on Ricky, for sure,"
Cuozzo says. "Only time will tell." --Richard Deutsch
COLOR PHOTO: BOB GOMEL (COVER)
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON
The arrival of Cuozzo, a quiet dental student and ex-Unitas
backup, sent hopes soaring in New Orleans.