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The Football Game That Changed New Orleans

Nola Beez, News Feature, Jay Lake Posted: Jan 27, 2010

January 16, 2010 is enshrined in New Orleans pro football history, and in this town, pro football affects a lot more than morale.

On January 16, 2010, the Saints became NFC Champions and contender for the Superbowl.
On January 16, 2010, the Saints won a game that left the city positively giddy. That night obscure linemen got standing ovations at restaurants chosen for post-game meals; middle-aged white men exchanged fist bumps with Black teenagers in parking lots, Hispanics and Asians earnestly engaged in accented evaluations of team prospects for next week.

But the significance of the game may actually be overshadowed by a game that didn't happen in New Orleans.

On January 16, 1965, the fledgling American Football League played its all-star game in Houston instead of New Orleans.

After a lot of groundwork, the game was scheduled to be played at Tulane Stadium on January 11. It was an open secret that New Orleans was being considered for a franchise in the five-year-old league.

But when African-American players arrived in New Orleans, they were greeted with racial insults in restaurants, barred from night clubs in the French Quarter, and even had difficulty getting taxis. Such was the racial climate after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. There were 31 Black players who had made the 58 member all-star team, and they were outraged.

They didn't call the mayor, or even call for a protest march. Instead, they called a meeting at their hotel and, on January 10, they voted not to play in the game. With Ernie Ladd, the 6'9" tackle from Grambling, and running back Cookie Gilchrist of the Buffalo Bills as their main spokesmen, they stood fast in the face of pleas from both white and Black "leaders" who wanted them to reconsider. Ladd later recalled that Jack Kemp, the Buffalo quarterback, was the only white player to stand with them from the beginning.

But Ladd also gave credit to AFL owners Lamar Hunt (Chiefs), Bud Adams (Oilers), Sonny Werblin (Jets), and Barron Hilton (Chargers) for "...taking a stand and helping us make pro football" history.

On January 11, the AFL Commissioner announced that the game would be played on January 16 in Houston. The Black players had engineered a successful boycott of an entire city.

It is said that Dave Dixon, who had worked hard to bring the game to New Orleans, remained determined to demonstrate that the city was ready for integrated professional sports. He and Pete Rozelle came up with a plan to send Buddy Young, one of the first black stars in pro football, on an "inspection tour."

When Young arrived in New Orleans, Dixon called the owner of Antoine's and asked to have dinner with Young not in a private room as custom would dictate, but "...right in the middle of the restaurant." They did, and in 1967 (with a boost from Congressman Hale Boggs), our Saints were born.

Pro football has become a huge business. According to a study by UNO chancellor Tim Ryan, the Saints were expected to have an economic impact of almost $628 million in 2008. And that was before this year's dream season when every corner store and street vendor has sold Saints paraphernalia.

In hindsight, one may legitimately wonder whether the 1965 AFL owners saw the light or just felt the economic heat. No matter. The courageous and career-threatening stand by the Black athletes showed us the changes that can be realized when economic consequences are attached to social injustice.

Race and class attitudes continue to produce barriers to economic progress in New Orleans.

January 16, 1965 has faded from our football memory. In time, January 16, 2010 will fade as well, but let us hope that the recognition of unity which that day produced can lead to new resolve among men of vision to eliminate the consequences of those attitudes.

Jay Lake is a writer for The Louisiana Weekly.

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