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When New Orleans Turned Pro, The History Of The New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Goes ProFrank Dixon was a sophomore at Jesuit High School in 1966 when his father Dave, the incurable optimist and visionary, got the word from NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle: After years of showcasing the Crescent City as a potentially powerhouse pro football market, Dave Dixon and the equally powerful Louisiana Congressional delegation had delivered on their decade-long quest to acquire an NFL expansion franchise for New Orleans.

And now, the announcement was set, for Nov. 1, 1966 – All Saints Day – in a city where Catholicism, St. Louis Cathedral and football are embroidered into one seamless garment.

Frank Dixon was supposed to be at Jesuit for an All Saints Day Mass for the student body, followed by early dismissal, but leaning on his family’s salesmanship genes, he convinced his father to let him attend the NFL press conference at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue.

“I was dressed in my Jesuit uniform,” recalled Frank, a commercial and residential realtor for Dorian Bennett Sotheby’s International Realty in New Orleans. “My mom (Mary) was the only woman in the room, and I was the only teenager. We stood in the back of the room with my dad.”

There were at least two ironies attached to the historic announcement: French actor Maurice Chevalier, in town for a press conference at the same time, got the better room, regaling reporters in the elegant Henry Stern suite on the 11th floor while the NFL settled for the Patio Room; and Dave Dixon, the founding father of the Saints, stood against the back wall, watching like a proud poppa, while NFL executives and politicians took the bows.

Jim Kensil, an NFL executive, introduced Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs. Then Tulane University President Herbert Longenecker, who made available 80,000-seat Tulane Stadium as a venue for the NFL franchise, called up Sen. Russell Long. Then it was New Orleans City Councilman Moon Landrieu, Mayor Vic Schiro and Gov. John McKeithen, followed by Rozelle.

At 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 1, 1966, Rozelle finally cut to the chase: “Professional football has voted a franchise to the state of Louisiana, the city of New Orleans.”

Getting to that moment in history was a classic case of Dixon’s perseverance, coupled with a large dose of political “persuasion.”

In the fall of 1961, Dixon sold his plywood company and moved his family to Paris for several months, desiring his children to get a taste of Europe. The Atlantic did not deter Dixon from working the phones and writing letters seeking to get New Orleans a foot in the door for a future pro football franchise, whether it was in the NFL or AFL.

“I can remember my dad sitting in the bedroom writing letters to Rozelle and (AFL commissioner) Joe Foss,” Frank said. “Once every six weeks, he flew to New York to explain why New Orleans needed a franchise and how great it would be.”

In January 1962, while the Dixon family was skiing in Austria, Dixon got a call from Lamar Hunt, owner of the AFL Dallas Texans, who told him the Oakland Raiders might be for sale. Dixon left the Austrian slopes to fly to Oakland.

“He had a handshake deal for $236,000 for them to become the New Orleans Raiders in the fall of 1962,” Frank Dixon said.

When that deal eventually fell through due to the Raiders’ refusal to sell, Dixon turned his sights to making New Orleans an attractive venue for NFL preseason games. In succeeding years, the crowds grew from 50,000 to 60,000 to 70,000.

“The last two (exhibition) games were the largest crowds ever for an NFL exhibition game,” Frank Dixon said.

A monsoon interrupted one of the final exhibitions for two hours, and Rozelle suggested to Dixon that New Orleans ought to look into the possibility of following Houston’s lead by building another domed stadium.

“That’s how this Superdome idea happened,” Frank Dixon said.

But, first, New Orleans needed an NFL franchise, and Dave Dixon knew how to convince politicians to buy into his dream. With the AFL and NFL cannibalizing each other by holding separate drafts and bidding up the price of top players, the NFL was looking to end the cutthroat war through a merger and a common draft.

In 1966, the NFL announced plans for a merger, but the NFL needed Congressional action to exempt the merger from antitrust laws. That’s when Long, the U.S. Senate’s Democratic whip, and Boggs, the House’s acting majority leader, became the driving forces to finally obtain the NFL franchise for New Orleans.

With a Congressional recess looming, Long and Boggs got the antitrust bill attached to a larger piece of legislation that circumvented any attempts by Congressman Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn, a strong proponent of antitrust legislation, to block it.

That maneuvering did not come without some 11th-hour histrionics.

“What the NFL needed was an antitrust exemption,” said author Cokie Roberts, the daughter of Hale and Lindy Boggs. “Daddy was on the Ways and Means Committee for the House, and Long was on the Senate Finance Committee, which are the two committees that deal with antitrust. They worked out a deal to push through the (NFL’s) antitrust request if the new expansion team would come to New Orleans.”

Before the final vote, Rozelle was at the Capitol and ran into Boggs. “Rozelle said something along the lines of, ‘We hope … it might be … in New Orleans,’” Roberts said. “My memory is they were already halfway across the Capitol rotunda on their way to the vote, and they just stopped cold. My dad said, ‘Wait a minute. No team in New Orleans, no deal.’”

The deal got done.

Roberts remembers her father having a passionate interest in making sure New Orleans got a team. At the Thanksgiving Day family meal in 1965, he was ready to offer grace and reached into his pocket for the Irish blessing he had written out.

“It was Pete Rozelle’s phone number,” Roberts said.

When New Orleans was welcomed into the NFL on Nov. 1, 1966, there was no disagreement on what the franchise would be called – it had to be the Saints.

Dixon approached New Orleans Archbishop Philip M. Hannan to ask what he thought of the idea – and whether the name Saints might be considered sacrilegious. Hannan immediately calmed Dixon’s fears.

“Not at all,” the archbishop said. “But I have to remind you, from the viewpoint of the church, most of the saints were martyrs.”

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