The New Orleans Saints, like all teams, have had a number of significant moments throughout their history. Some will cause fans to remember where they were at that exact moment in time. A moment that may have even brought a tear or two of joy to their eye at the very time of said occurrence. Other moments are the ones that cause you to get to know your local TV repairman a little bit better.
Today, we recount one of those moments.
The date was September 17, 1967.
The city of New Orleans had just been awarded a professional football franchise the year before, and they were preparing to play the Los Angeles Rams in the first regular season opener in team history. The Rams were led by second-year coach George Allen (a future Hall of Fame inductee). Tulane Stadium, which was home to the Saints until 1974, was filled with 80,879 people to watch their brand new team play. The Rams were going to come after the new franchise with legendary players such as quarterback Roman Gabriel and running back Dick Bass, among many others, that afternoon. Saints fans were confident that their team would be able to counter with veteran all-stars such as quarterback Billy Kilmer, and future Hall of Famers in running back Jim Taylor and defensive end Doug Atkins.
John Gilliam was a rookie from little South Carolina State in 1967. He was perhaps even a bit in awe of the football legends around him. As a second round pick by the expansion Saints in the 1967 draft, the lightening fast wideout would get an opportunity to play immediately. Although fellow rookie Danny Abramowicz would wind up being the Saints primary receiver, Gilliam would play a complimentary role in the New Orleans passing game for their first two seasons. Gilliam would go on to have a very good 12-year career in the NFL that would also include 2 Super Bowl appearances and 4 Pro Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings. On September 17, 1967, however, Gilliam was preparing to play his first official professional football game.
Gilliam was positioned to the left of Walter "Flea" Roberts, as the two lined up to field the Rams opening kickoff. The Los Angeles kick tumbled end over end, just short of the Saints 5-yard line. Roberts moved over to field the kick, but Gilliam held his ground, taking control of the ball even as his veteran teammate nearly ran into him. John Gilliam was going to be the first man to touch the football in New Orleans Saints history.
Gilliam fielded the ball, and took off straight up the middle between the hashmarks. Encountering his first Ram defender just before the New Orleans 20, Gilliam cut slightly to his left and burst into the open field. Amazingly, it appeared as if a sea of defenders had parted for the young returner. At the New Orleans 30-yd. line, a Rams defender dove at the legs of Gilliam, but he easily ran through the tackle attempt. Gilliam then outran another Los Angeles defender to midfield, there was now not a soul between himself, and the gold-colored New Orleans end zone.
The very first play in New Orleans Saints history was now in the books as a 94-yard kickoff return touchdown by rookie John Gilliam!
The Saints could not hold off the mighty Rams that day, and lost the game 27-13. Los Angeles went on to an 11-1-2 record in 1967, losing in the conference championship game to the eventual world champion Green Bay Packers. The Saints, on the other hand, would finish their inaugural season just 3-11. They would have to wait until Week 8 of that season before they would earn their first win in team history.
In that moment, on September 17, 1967 however, Saints fans felt invincible. John Gilliam's first ever professional play, in his team's first ever game, remains one of the triumphs in New Orleans Saints history.