I was not quite nine-years-old.
We played hooky from church that day, my Dad and I, swapping an organ/choir rendition of “Just As I Am” for a jazz band’s repeated playing of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Skipping church was almost unheard of in my family. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime, special circumstance. My Dad had come home the previous week with tickets to see the Browns play the Saints. A real, actual, NFL, professional, tackle football game. And everybody knows, pro teams play on Sunday.
The Cleveland Browns were the stuff of NFL legend. They were named after their first coach, Paul Brown. (Good thing the newly-formed New Orleans franchise wasn’t named after its first coach—his name was Tom Fears.) THE Cleveland Browns, with future Hall of Fame players like Paul Warfield and Leroy Kelley, were actually coming to New Orleans to play the Saints in just their third game ever. And we had tickets.
The 35+ mile trip to Tulane Stadium that morning seemed to take all day. Across the unending I-10 bridge spanning Lake Ponchartrain (all five miles of it). Across the Industrial Canal, past Gentilly, into the heart of the Crescent City. I don’t remember us parking our car or walking to the gate. Those memories are long gone.
What I do remember is that when we stepped out of the shadowy bowels of Tulane Stadium into the actual seating area, I lost the capacity to speak.
October 1, 1967, is the first day in my life I recall being overcome with awe.
I’d never been inside such an enormous place. I’d never felt so small.
It was a picture postcard fall day—I remember that. Temperature in the low 60s, the most brilliant blue skies I’d ever seen. I remember thinking how can grass be so green and perfect?
I sat speechless as I watched the stadium fill with 80,000+ boisterous fans. I didn’t know that many people were in the whole world. I remember thinking all of Slidell could easily fit in that one end zone section—and maybe everybody from Lacombe too?
I saw colors I’d never seen (or at least noticed) before. I heard a million sounds, fans being fans (booing, cheering, saying words that would have earned me a mouth full of Ivory soap), vendors shouting continuously. I remember smelling beer and hot dogs and (as we left the stadium later) vomit. For four hours I was in sensory over-load.
I remember I got popcorn during the pre-game warm-ups and when I ate the last few kernels, my Dad showed me how to punch the bottom out of the container and make a megaphone. I cheered till I lost my voice. When the Saints’ star running back, Jim Taylor, found the end zone in the second quarter to tie the game at seven, the roar of 80,000 people both stunned and thrilled me. And I was part of it. And my Dad was right beside me.
I remember the marching band at halftime. Receivers streaking across the field to make impossible, diving catches. The whole event was sheer spectacle. The entire day was magical. I was in awe. It was awesome.
Oh, and the final score? That detail is very nearly irrelevant. The Saints got pounded 42-7. “We” got clobbered, humiliated, creamed.
And it was easily one of the best days of my life.
And that is how I became a Saints fan.