The New Orleans Saints face the Los Angeles Rams on this week’s NFL schedule, so this week for our Throwback Thursday feature we’ll travel back to opening day of the 1967 season, when the Rams took on New Orleans in the Saints’ very first game in the history of their franchise. NFL owners weren’t very kind to expansion franchises in those days, allowing them to only stock their teams with aging veterans and castoffs through an expansion draft, although they were allotted extra picks in the college draft. Coached by Hall of Famer Tom Fears, New Orleans went for a big name in the expansion draft when they plucked star running back Paul Hornung from the powerhouse Green Bay Packers, but the move backfired as a spinal cord injury forced Hornung to retire before ever playing a game for the Saints. Their roster was dotted with past-their-prime players like Billy Kilmer, Jim Taylor, Ernie Wheelwright, Doug Atkins and Jackie Burkett.
Fans in the Crescent City found reason to be optimistic after the Saints finished 5-1 in the preseason, and when rookie John Gilliam returned the opening kickoff in the opener against the Rams 94 yards for a touchdown, there was outright jubilation. One fan supposedly jumped up and yelled “this is going to be the greatest football team in history!” when Gilliam reached the end zone. Reality set in eventually, however, and Ram quarterback Roman Gabriel ran 2 yards for a score and threw a TD pass to Les Josephson, while Dick Bass ran for another touchdown as the Rams prevailed 27-13. The Saints finished the ’67 season with a 3-11 record, finishing last in the Capitol Division but playing competitive football in nearly every game. Some bright spots came out of that inaugural season for the new franchise, as defensive back Dave Whitsell came up with 10 interceptions to lead the league and set a team record that still stands to this day, earning him a Pro Bowl berth. Also, a young rookie receiver named Danny Abramowicz emerged as a rising star, one who would continue his excellent play for seven years with the Saints, becoming one of only a few bright lights to shine during a dismal losing stretch that would last over 20 years.
John Gilliam returns opening kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown