A story so fun and interesting even non-football fans can appreciate it.
Prior to the 1967 NFL season, the state of Louisiana did not have a football team. That the city of New Orleans was granted a team was due, in large part, to local sports entrepreneur Dave Dixon, who had petitioned for a permanent team to be assigned to the city with 5 years of exhibition games — which regularly sold out the 80,000 seat Tulane stadium.
At the time the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL) were in the process of merging, pending congressional approval. What originated as the brainchild of Dixon was brought to life in a backroom deal between Congressman Hale Boggs, Senator Russell Long, and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, which effectively finalized the merger between the AFL and the NFL — and thus the New Orleans Saints were born.
Honoring a Catholic heritage
For those readers who are unfamiliar with the NFL, it should be noted that many of the team names reflect the cities they call home. Pittsburgh, heart of the steel industry, hosts the Steelers; the San Fransisco 49ers are named after the 1849 gold rush, which saw many fortune seekers migrate West; the meat packing industry up in Wisconsin led to the Green Bay Packers.
In New Orleans there was a strong oil industry, but far greater than that was the Catholic culture. The Catholic Church had held a firm presence in “The Big Easy” since before it was officially a city. The festivals held each year for Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) and St. Patrick’s day dominate the city, and the pageantry draws spectators from around the world.
The oil industry was not left out, however, as the team colors of the Saints (black and gold) were chosen to represent this interest by the first majority shareholder John Meachum, a successful oil man.
The Saints came marching in
“When the Saints Come Marching In” has long been the anthem of New Orleans. Considered the birthplace of Jazz, New Orleans has its own unmistakable musical style, and “When the Saints Come Marching In” is easily its most recognizable tune. When famed jazz trumpeter Al Hirt joined the team as one of the primary shareholders, his rendition of the song became the team’s official anthem, which fans gladly flocked behind. Even today the stands can be heard singing the old hymn.
The Al Hirt recording of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” featured above, displays a true mastery of the art form. About halfway through Hirt starts a call-and-response with the trombone and clarinet, which heats up until they play the melodic line while alternating instruments each note. This is a lot harder to do than it sounds, and it is completely characteristic of the New Orleans style of jazz, which is effervescent and fun.
The team arrived on All Saints Day
After the dealings were done and Congress approved the merger, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle traveled to New Orleans to announce that they would be the home of the newest expansion team. Although the decision was made more than a week prior to the announcement, Dixon convinced Rozelle to wait for the upcoming Catholic holiday to go public. Thus, the proclamation took place on November 1, which made the team birthday All Saints Day.
The bishop approved
Out of respect for the large Catholic community in New Orleans, the team’s management consulted then-Archbishop Philip Hannan of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to make sure the name would not seem offensive or sacrilegious. The archbishop saw no problem with it; in fact, he liked the idea so much that he offered to write the team a prayer. One line of the team’s prayer reads:
“… Our Heavenly Father, who has instructed us that the ‘saints by faith conquered kingdoms … and overcame lions,’ grant our Saints an increase of faith and strength so that they will not only overcome the Lions but also the Bears, the Rams, the Giants, and even those awesome people in Green Bay … .”
Some sources also claim that the archbishop mused that the name was good because this new team would need all the help they could get. Fans would agree with this sentiment after their first game could not be saved by an opening kickoff return for a touchdown. Indeed it would take the better part of 20 years for the New Orleans Saints to become the competitive team we know today.