I guess each one of us has a New Orleans Saints story, something that sticks with us for whatever reason. I have a few of my own and I’d like to share them with you because, well, they are a little different.
In 1970, I graduated from LSU in journalism and immediately went back home to live with my parents. Given that I had just spent four excruciatingly difficult years drinking and partying, putting off learning as much as possible, and drinking some more, I thought it only fair that my parents put me up for as long as possible. After all, I was their only son, I was lazy, and it felt right. My mother and father, however, took a more conservative stance, more n how can I say this by making use of my advanced composition course n a more dogmatic, dictatorial, Mussolini-esque, approach. They told me this: Get a job or get out.
To say that this exit was unexpected would be a lie. I had expected it; I just hoped it wouldn’t arrive so soon. It was only a month and a half after all, and I was just settling into my digs. The real problem, however, is that I was afraid to be a reporter. I simply didn’t have the confidence to write something that everyone would read, dissect, then burn. But I knew one thing: going against my dad was not an option. So I applied to the New Orleans States-Item sports department. Art Burke was editor and, to my great chagrin, he hired me.
Suddenly I was working with the likes of Peter Finney, the best sportswriter in the state n some said the nation n and I was clueless. Then I was told that among my other freshman duties, I would cover the New Orleans Saints football team at home, which meant I would cover all the home games and write the game stories. I was also told that I would go to one away game, but that I could forget about New York or San Francisco, because those destinations were reserved for the real writers like Finney. Well, I thought that was the best deal in the history of journalism, and I was doubly excited that I’d get to go to Los Angeles to cover the Rams-Saints game in the Coliseum.
So here I was, 22 years old and flying on a jet with the Saints to Los Angeles. I stayed in the Wilshire Hotel, went to Malibu, then covered the Saints’ losing effort. After the game I got the necessary interviews, then emerged from the locker room before any of the players. Hundred of kids were waiting and upon seeing a relatively small guy in a coat, figured he must be a quarterback or a cornerback. I was mobbed and before I could tell the excited throng who I was, I decided to take a different tack.
I began signing autographs. Now this may sound shallow and disingenuous of me, but in my defense I will say that I did sign my own name. Course, sooner rather than later after a few of the kids read my signature, someone yelled, “He’s no player,” and my moment of fame dissipated as fast as a paycheck in an ex-wife’s hand.
Years later and long after I left the newspaper, I was returning from New Jersey following a job interview. It was a late flight and the plane was almost empty. Only two of us were in the back of the plane, so I got up and asked the other passenger if he minded a little company. He said he enjoyed it and we sat and talked a couple of hours. He was about my height, 5-foot 9-inch, but built a heck of a lot sturdier than me. He told me he was flying into New Orleans for a tryout with the Saints. Said that Jim Mora was willing to give him a shot.
As I listened, it was obvious he was nervous about the try-out, that he wasn’t sure what to expect, and was wondering if he had what it took to be a professional in the National Football League. I told him I had covered the Saints years before and we had a wonderful conversation. He was extremely intelligent, had a terrific personality, but frankly, seemed much too small to make it in the big boy’s league.
At the end of the flight, I wished him well, not knowing he would become one of the all-time greatest Saints players as well as my favorite Saint of all time. That’s how I met late, great Sam Mills.