At this rate, John Gilliam will have heard from almost every single resident of New Orleans — every fanatic football fan from Breaux Bride to Biloxi — by the time the Saints take the field next week for Super Bowl XLIV.
“They keep showing the play on TV in New Orleans,” Gilliam said. “They showed it all week before the NFC Championship game and they’ll probably show it all week before the Super Bowl, too.”
The traditionally pathetic, historically sad-sack Saints have reached the big game for the first time.
No one would have guessed the quest would take 42 seasons when Gilliam, an S.C. State graduate with Charleston ties, started a Mardi Gras celebration all by himself during the opening kickoff at the Saints’ very first regular-season game. The rookie wide receiver ran 94 yards for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams before a sellout crowd of 80,879 at Tulane Stadium.
It was the big tease in The Big Easy. The Saints went on to lose the game, 27-13, and had losing seasons every year until 1987.
But, wow, what a start.
“It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Gilliam said this week from his Atlanta home. “It just doesn’t get any better than that. It was my first year, a first-year team, we won the coin toss and it was the first play.”
Gilliam, 64, readily recalls the details of a bright, sunny Sunday.
The Saints wore white, the Rams dark blue. Gilliam caught the ball at the 6 and dashed almost straight up the middle of the field. Only one Ram, Claude Crabb near the Saints’ 30-yard line, appears to touch Gilliam before he reaches an end zone done up in shiny Saints gold at least 15 yards ahead of the nearest pursuer (see youtube.com for a video clip).
The crowd anticipation for the kickoff was thicker than an Emeril Lagasse etouffee.
“I was a rookie and I was so nervous,” Gilliam said. “I was just happy to be in the NFL. Coming from a small, black college, the largest crowd I had ever played before was about 10,000.”
And truth be told …
“I was praying they didn’t kick the ball to me. I didn’t want to do anything wrong. I’d made the team and I wanted to make sure and get off to a good start. But the Lord blessed me with the kick. I saw a couple key blocks open up and I hit the hole. The next thing I realized, I was out in the open and it was just me and the kicker.”
Gilliam, a Greenwood native who owns an Atlanta lawn maintenance business, went on to last 11 seasons in the NFL and played in four Pro Bowls. He is best known for helping the Minnesota Vikings reach Super Bowls VIII and IX.
Charleston was the scene of two of Gilliam’s most memorable days. He was married here in 1966 to the former Fannie Harley, a Burke High School graduate and an Atlanta attorney. They have four children.
“College sweethearts,” Gilliam said. “Can you believe it’s been 43 years?”
The first-year Saints played the Miami Dolphins in an NFL/AFL preseason game at The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium on Sept. 2, 1967. Gilliam caught a touchdown pass in New Orleans’ 20-17 victory.
“I was playing before a lot of my friends and a lot of my wife’s family,” Gilliam said. “Everyone from S.C. State came down. It was truly an exciting moment.”
S.C. State fans probably were not surprised by Gilliam’s big Saints splash.
He belongs among the Bulldogs’ football elite in a group including Marion Motley, Deacon Jones, Harry Carson and Donnie Shell and also excelled in track. Gilliam competed against Florida A&M’s “World’s Fastest Human” Bob Hayes, later a Dallas Cowboys wide receiver.
“We would run against Bob Hayes at the S.C. State Relays, Florida A&M Relays, Tuskegee Relays and Atlanta Relays,” Gilliam said. “But the rest of us all ran for second place against Bob Hayes. If you finished second against him, you were a winner.”
New Orleans picked Gilliam in the second round of the 1967 draft. He also played for the Cardinals, Vikings, Falcons and Bears but returned to the Saints to finish his career in 1977. Those Saints, not surprisingly, went 3-11.
Now Gilliam has been reunited with the winning Saints.
He is thrilled for New Orleans players and fans.
“They deserve it,” Gilliam said. “It’s been 42 years since that kickoff happened, my rookie year. They’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. People have called them ‘The Aints.’ There was Katrina. I’m just happy for them.”
Gilliam has been asked to appear in a Mardi Gras parade after the Super Bowl. Saints quarterback Drew Brees also will take part. The plan is for Gilliam to ride in a 1967 car, commemorating the year he jump-started the new franchise.
But what about the football?
“I should have kept it,” Gilliam said with a laugh. “But I threw it way up in the stands. I was just so happy.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at email@example.com.
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