Some of you can vividly recall the first time the New Orleans Saints took the field in a 1967 exhibition game against the Los Angeles Rams (Aug. 2, 1967) and the regular season opener at home, also against the Rams.
Some interesting names doted the Saints starting lineup, players that laid the foundation in some ways.
Many of the players were in the twilight of their careers but somehow squeezed enough paste out of the tube to lift the spirits of Black and Gold fans every time the team stepped onto the field.
Owner John Mecom Jr. purchased the franchise when he was 26 years old for $7.5 million. He sold it to Tom Benson for $70.2 million. The Saints are now, according to Forbes, valued at more than $1 billion.
Along the team’s winding road, Mecom could have made much more money though. He was offered $110 million by interested parties in Jacksonville for 49 percent ownership, allowing Mecom to remain majority boss. They guaranteed 10 seasons of sellouts. Mecom rejected the offer.
That allowed the Saints to stay in the Crescent City, building dreams and even a Super Bowl champion. But it all started in 1967.
Here is how they lined up that first season:
TE Kent Kramer (6-4, 230), a former Minnesota Golden Gopher who came in expansion ,grabbed 20 passes for 207 yards and two scores. His backup Jim Hester, a 14th round pick from North Carolina, would grow into a much more productive player.
RT Jerry Jones (6-4, 260), the second round pick of Atlanta Falcons in 1966 draft, found a spot with Saints after being released. He spent a pair of seasons with New Orleans. And no, he’s not THAT Jerry Jones.
RG Del Williams (6-2, 240), the Saints’ third round pick in ’67 out of Florida State, spent seven seasons in New Orleans. He died at age 39 in 1984 from a muscular disease.
C Joe Wendryhoski, an expansion draft success story after playing for Rams and Bears, was the Saints’ offensive team captain in ’67. At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, Joe was more crafty than gifted. He passed away Nov. 5, 2008.
LG Roy Schmidt (6-3, 248), a 1965 draft pick of Packers, was picked up by the Saints and lasted two years here.
LT Ray Rismiller (6-4, 250) was called the Singing Saint since he performed in clubs around town as a side job. He stayed three seasons with Saints after arriving in expansion draft from Eagles. Rismiller played college ball at Georgia.
Flanker Ray Poage (6-4, 208), a former University of Texas fullback converted to tight end in NFL, spent time with Vikings and Eagles prior to Saints. He made 24 catches for 380 yards in 1967.
SE Danny Abramowicz (6-1, 195), the 17th round longshot out of Xavier University, spent seven seasons with the Saints. His highlight campaign was ’69 when he totaled 73 catches for 1,015 yards in a 14-game season.
QB Gary Cuozzo arrived in trade with Baltimore Colts but was eventually beaten out for the starting job by Billy Kilmer. Cuozzo did toss for 1,562 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Kilmer threw for 1,341 yards, six touchdowns and 11 picks. Ole Furnace face added 142 rushing yards and a touchdown as a foot soldier.
RB Ernie Wheelwright (6-3, 235), a battering ram out of Southern Illinois. Another player that the Saints, was picked up off the rock pile after being cut by Atlanta. He ran for 198 yards in ’67. He passed away May 1, 2001 at age 61 from cancer.
RB Don McCall arrived as a fifth round pick in the ’67 draft out of USC. He would go onto assume the starting spot in 1968. His twoyear stint with the Saints would produce 637 yards and four touchdowns.
FB and future Hall of Famer inductee Jim Taylor came aboard at the tail end of his career, costing the Saints a No. 1 draft choice that Green Bay used to pick Fred Carr in a later draft. The 6-foot, 225-pounder was blood and thunder runner who added 390 yards and two touchdowns in his only season in a New Orleans uniform. The LSU product retired the following year.
KR John Gilliam was the 52nd overall player picked in 1967 draft. The South Carolina State product took the franchise’s opening kickoff back 94 yards in the season opener against the Rams.
We switch to the defense, which was fronted by a huge line for that era.
LDE Doug Atkins, a 6-foot-8, 285-pound former Tennessee Vol, spent three of his 17 NFL seasons in the Big Easy. He was 37 years young when he arrived, yet still had enough gas in his tank to contribute. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
LDT Mike Tilleman (6-7, 272) was acquired in the expansion draft from the Vikings after Minnesota took him in 12th round of the 1965 NFL Draft.
RDT Lou Cordileone (6-7, 280) formed an interesting tandem with Tilleman. Power forwards in the trenches.
RDE Brian Schweda (6-3, 250), a former Kansas Jayhawk, came in the expansion draft from Bears. He would share his spot with Jim Garcia, a former New York Giant.
LB Steve Stonebreaker (6-3 223), an expansion draft gem who came to town from Baltimore, spent two years with Minnesota and three with the Colts before he became the enforcer in New Orleans during his two years in uniform.
LB Fred Whittingham (6-1, 240), a plugger from Cal Poly, came via the expansion draft from Philadelphia.
LB Jackie Burkett (6-4, 230), another expansion arrival from the Colts, had an All-American career at Auburn.
CB Dave Whitsell was a good football player, hauling in 10 interceptions in 1967 to become an All-Pro. He was a nine-year veteran when he came aboard from the Chicago Bears and proved he could still play at a high level during three years in New Orleans.
CB John Douglas (6-1, 195), a fifth round pick in 1967 out of Texas Southern, played in 36 games spread over three seasons with Saints.
Safety Jimmy Heidel (6-1, 185), an ex-Ole Miss quarterback from Yazoo City, Mississippi, came from the St. Louis Cardinals in the expansion draft.
Safety Olbert “Little O” Logan (5’10, 180) out of Trinity College came from the Cowboys in the expansion draft. He only spent one campaign with Black and Gold. Logan succumbed to colon cancer Jan. 21, 2003.
The rest of the regulars included kicker Charlie Durkee, punter Tom McNeill and return specialists Gilliam and Flea Roberts.
Tom Fears, a legend as an NFL wide receiver and eventual Hall of Famer, was the head coach.
The team achieved three wins that inaugural season, 31-24 over the Eagles (Nov. 5), 27-24 against the Falcons (Nov. 26) and a 30-14 victory over the Redskins (Dec. 17).
In a sign of things to come for New Orleans over the club’s first two decades of existence, their 1967 first-round pick was Les Kelley (26th overall), a non factor during his entire Saints career, which lasted three seasons. The 6-foot-3, 233 pound running back from Alabama was eventually shifted to linebacker in efforts to extend his career. It didn’t work.
Not much worked for the Saints until the latter half of the 1980’s, but it’s worth remembering those humble beginnings.
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