Before there were Saints, Raiders and Chiefs almost moved to New Orleans

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Tulane Stadium

What if I told you that New Orleans pro football faithful came oh-so-close to cheering for their team in Super Bowl I or II? Would you think that I’ve lost my mind?

Well, how do the New Orleans Raiders or New Orleans Chiefs sound? Still think I’m crazy?

In 1963, the Oakland Raiders almost became tenants in old Tulane Stadium. And if that didn’t take place, New Orleans came within a whisker of cheering for the New Orleans Chiefs. Let me back track a bit, so this will all make sense.

On August 18, 1962, the Houston Oilers and Boston Patriots squared off in an exhibition contest at Tad Gormley Stadium. It was well attended by 31,000 fans, the largest ever American Football League preseason game crowd. Keep in mind 7,000 additional were turned away due to capacity restrictions.

It was the very first taste of professional football in the Crescent City, sending out a message loud and clear to the pro football world that New Orleans was ready to have a team of its own.

In 1961, New Orleans mayor “Chep” Morrison was ready to focus on trying to secure a Major League Baseball franchise for the city, on the heels of Houston’s landing the Colt .45s (soon to become the Astros). Morrison assembled an enthusiastic group pf 20 local businessmen to help fulfill this dream and get New Orleans on the major professional sports map.

One of those businessmen was an aggressive entrepreneur named Dave Dixon, who convinced the committee that there was no stadium in place for MLB while a venue which could house professional football was ready to take in a franchise.

Understanding the requirements to be an NFL city, Dixon reached out to the local African-American community, including a meeting with prominent black leaders like future mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial and Avery Alexander. The NFL had a written rule that all games will be desegregated, with no partiality to race, color or creed. Dixon offered to work closely with the black community to ensure they would be treated fairly.

But the AFL provided the faster opportunity for New Orleans to have a team.

In 1962, it appeared as though the Oakland Raiders were seeking greener pastures. Then-owner F. Wayne Valley’s team had just endured a 1-13 mark, playing in old Frank Youell Field where the Raiders averaged just 10,984 fans per home game.

“We were skiing in Austria,” recalls Dixon’s son Frank about a family vacation in his pre-teen days. “Dad received a phone call. The caller tells him that the Oakland Raiders are for sale. They had just finished 1-13 and weren’t drawing. He flew back to Oakland and, with a handshake agreement, accepted an offer to purchase the team for $236,000. Dad had a group of 8-9 guys who would pool their money and sign the paperwork.”

The Silver and Black was void of marquee stars but had prominent players like future Hall of Fame center Jim Otto, running back Clem Daniels and former LSU quarterback M.C. Reynolds. Despite a down 1962 campaign, the Raiders would play in the World Championship II (later named the Super Bowl) five seasons later in January 1968. Oakland eventually captured wins in three Super Bowls (XI, XV and XVIII).

“The mayor of Oakland got wind of what was going on and convinced F. Wayne Valley to sell to a local group,” Dixon recalled. Valley gave in to the mayor’s request, keeping the team on the west coast and hired a 33-year old by the name of Al Davis to serve as the team’s head coach and general manager. The rest is pro football history.

John Mecom, Pete Rozelle, Dave Dixon
L to R: The first New Orleans Saints owner John W, Mecom, NFl commissioner Pete Rozelle and Dave Dixon in 1966.

Dave Dixon was disappointed, but not deterred.

In 1963, his phone rang again. This time it was an offer from the Dallas Texans owner Lamar Hunt, the legendary promoter and developer who was the principal founder of the AFL and would later have a hand in founding World Championship Tennis and Major League Soccer.

“Hunt … struck up a relationship with mom (Mary Shea Dixon) and dad,” continued Frank. “He was very interested in moving the Dallas Texans to New Orleans, but did not want his (plans) made public. He was adamant about that.”

Dave Dixon had forged a relationship with a very impressive local by the name of Joseph Merrick Jones, who had spent time as president at Tulane and had served as assistant secretary for Public Affairs in the U.S. State Department. Familiar with Dixon’s plight in 1962 with trying to land a pro franchise for New Orleans, Jones knew that Tulane Stadium would be the ideal venue to house a team. He also understood what roadblocks Dixon might encounter and professed his support.

At that time, the Tulane administration was totally opposed to bringing pro football to the Sugar Bowl’s home stadium, preferring to reserve it for amateur football only. It would take some persuasion to seal the deal. Joseph Merrick Jones had enough clout.

But timing and fate intervened. On March 11, 1963, prior to Lamar Hunt sealing the deal, Jones’ Metairie home was engulfed in flames. In efforts to rescue his wife, he tragically did not survive the fire.

Hunt and Dixon met following the ’63 football season, and the final destination for the Chiefs was between New Orleans and Kansas City. Hunt had great respect for Dixon.

Darwin Fenner had replaced Jones as the new Tulane Chairman of the Board. He did not possess Jones’ persuasiveness with the Board, who had high demands for information and input in the proces. Hunt wanted, essentially, a blank check agreement. Dave Dixon was between a rock and a hard place.

Tulane select committee chairman Lester Lautenschlaeger, a former Green Wave star player, was more interested in getting a franchise from the more established NFL rather than an AFL relocation. That thinking would eventually greatly influence Dixon concerning the uncertain future of the AFL.

Morrison resigned his mayor’s post to become Ambassador to the Organization of American States. Morrison’s influence, had he been in New Orleans at that time, would have certainly influenced the Tulane committee and Hunt to solidify a deal.

Hunt and his franchise were off to Kansas City where his Chiefs would play in two of the first four Super Bowls, falling to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I and capturing victory in Super Bowl IV in New Orleans against the Minnesota Vikings.

The NFL became Dixon’s primary focus.

Within a short time, Dixon scrambled to put together an NFL preseason doubleheader at Tulane Stadium after the board agreed to it. On September 7, 1963, the Dallas Cowboys faced the Detroit Lions in the opener and the Chicago Bears took on the Baltimore Colts in the nightcap. The event attracted 57,000 paying fans.

The games represented another major step for the city.

Southern cities had not promoted desegregation at their sporting events. “On the Saturday morning that tickets were available, the first person approaching the trailer to buy his tickets was a black gentleman,” explained Frank Dixon. “He wanted to buy his tickets at the 50-yard line. He was told that he could sit wherever he wanted. After he paid his money and the tickets were in his hands, he sat down on the curb, looked at his tickets and literally cried, understanding the magnitude of what had just happened.”

The Crescent City played host to subsequent NFL preseason games prior to the arrival of the Saints. On August 8, 1964, 63,000 witnessed the Packers against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Sadly, the cause lost another staunch pioneer two months prior to the Packers-Cardinals game. On May 22, 1964, Morrison and his 11-year old son both died in a plane crash in Victoria, Mexico.

Dixon understood the need to keep bringing in fans for exhibitions to aid his cause. Local announcer Al Wester, the voice of Notre Dame football in those days, helped. There were concerns that the heavy rains that poured down for the Bears- Colts game at the doubleheader the year before may reappear. Dixon informed Wester that he needed to pre-record a commercial saying that it would be “clearing and cooler by game time” even those the proclamation was taped weeks prior to game time for Packers-Cardinals.

“We went to the Packers’ hotel where Green Bay was staying,” said Frank Dixon about the morning of the contest. “It was raining hard when we arrived to visit coach (Vince) Lombardi. We went to assure him everything would be fine. Lombardi looked at us and said ‘I heard a weather report. It’s going to be clear and cooler.’ He had heard Al Wester’s commercial recorded weeks earlier.”

Dixon’s weather ‘prediction’ was accurate. The game went off without a hitch.

I recall soaking in the Packers practice at Tulane Stadium on the Friday afternoon before the scheduled game that Saturday evening. I was in awe watching my heroes that I had only seen previously on TV. Legends like Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung and Vince Lombardi were right before my eyes in person. I remember thinking that I could sit here and watch practice forever, never knowing that I would be watching the New Orleans Saints three years later.

The Cardinals made a return visit the following year to square off with the Colts in 1965. The next year brought two more preseason games to the Big Easy (Vikings-Lions and Eagles-Colts).

New Orleans lost a tremendous ambassador for sports and the region as a whole when Dave Dixon passed away on August 8, 2010. We recognize and honor him for all the great causes that he spearheaded for the city, plus a few things that he almost did.

Somehow I feel that the New Orleans Saints are the perfect team for this area. It was formed as an expansion team with castoffs, misfits and under-appreciated overachievers. But the organization was constructed brick-by-brick with a solid foundation in the community despite the lack of success the first two decades.

The Saints are the team that most resembles the community and its ardent fans. Success doesn’t always come easy in the Big Easy but we sure do appreciate and celebrate it when it does come.

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