Laying the Aints to rest

After over 40 years of waiting for a Super Bowl team -- and suffering through some painful seasons -- Saints fans can finally celebrate making it to Super Sunday. John David Mercer/US Presswire

MIAMI -- How far have the New Orleans Saints come as an organization?

From their first season in 1967 to the paper-sack-wearing Aints days, the franchise has endured a lot to win their first NFC championship and finally reach the Super Bowl.

"It didn't take us but 43 years to figure it out," said Archie Manning, a local icon who quarterbacked the Aints and still resides in New Orleans.

To get an idea of how much pride Saints alumni are feeling in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIV, I asked Danny Abramowicz, Conrad Dobler, Henry Childs, Bobby Hebert and Manning to share their memories of some not-so-pleasant days.

Abramowicz (an original Saint -- drafted in the 17th round -- and Pro Bowl receiver and later a Saints broadcaster): "I can remember running out on the field the first day, opening game at Tulane Stadium in front of 85,000 people. We ran the kickoff back for a touchdown, and it went downhill."

Hebert (a Baton Rouge, La., native and Saints quarterback from 1985 through 1992): "It was always 'Wait 'til next year.' They didn't have a winning record their first 20 years."

Abramowicz: "We were involved with one of the biggest fights of all time [Oct. 8, 1967 against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium]. All the fans were pouring out onto the field. We had a guy on our team named Doug Atkins, who really was a freak of size. The last pass to me in the game against the Giants was a Hail Mary-type thing, and it was incomplete. I look up the field, and they had Doug pinned down and were beating him with helmets.

“I thought 'Well, I better get out of there.'

“In Yankee Stadium, you had to go through dugouts. I looked back one last time to see what was going on and missed the top step. My head hit the top of the dugout. I had to go back to the locker room and sit down in a chair. Guys were coming in with their shirts torn, and they were bleeding. A lot of silly stuff happened in those times."

Manning: "You never get used to losing. The Saints can tell you, the Colts can tell you, when you win those games, the next Sunday comes around too quick. It's such a great feeling. The atmosphere is so good. But when you lose, that next Sunday almost won't get there."

Abramowicz: "People came to our games for the halftime shows. We had Al Hirt, Pete Fountain. There were some great times, but an awful lot of bad times, a lot of butt-whippings."

Abramowicz: "The lowest time in the franchise for me was in 1973. We opened the season, and everyone's fired up. Everyone thinks we're going to the Super Bowl on opening day. If you don't feel that way, then get the hell out of the game.

“We opened against the Atlanta Falcons, and that was our big rivalry at the time. They beat us that opening game, 62-7, just whipping the you-know-what out of us. This wasn't the Dallas Cowboys. This was the Atlanta Falcons. That was, in my time, the lowest.”

Manning (drafted second overall by the Saints in 1971): "We didn't see the brightest side of it during those years, but it's where I played."

Childs (a Saints tight end from 1974 through 1980): "Archie got beat up a lot prior to that. He was constantly running for his life. It was like musical chairs with the offensive line. There was no cohesiveness. That happened for the first five years I was there.

“You'd see different players coming in, and they'd be out of there the next day. There was one kid that came in and he was supposed to be at the game that day and never made it because he said he couldn't find the Superdome. It was all kinds of crazy stuff going on."

Manning: "I never really wanted to know that number [of sacks]. It's probably not a record, but I have a pretty good average going. It was around 40 or 50 [a season], and a lot of times it was my fault."

Dobler (a three-time Pro Bowl guard for the St. Louis Cardinals before joining the Saints in 1978): "When I went to the Saints, they had never won more than five games. When I was there we went 7-9 and 8-8. The first .500 season they ever had and you would have thought they won the Super Bowl."

Childs: "In my seven years I had about five or six different head coaches in that period of time. You look up and think 'We're fixing to take off,' and then -- boom! -- all of the sudden here comes another change. Finally, we did get some stability. They brought in Hank Stram. He brought in a lot of organization, but it still was so hard."

Dobler: "We ended up leading the league in lowest amount of sacks those two years. Then they traded me to Buffalo. I had my worst knee injury with the Bills, and they became the Aints at 1-15."

Manning: "The worst year was 1980. That was the year we thought we were going to be pretty good. We won a couple years before. It just fell apart. We lost about the first 11 or 12. Cooper and Peyton were going to the games. They're 4 and 6. So they're old enough to go, and they're enjoying it. They liked going to the games. Olivia's pregnant with Eli. I'm having one of those days and about the fourth quarter Cooper asked Olivia could he and Peyton boo, also. She was kind of looking for a reason to quit going because she was getting big with Eli, and she said 'That's it. I'm going to check on out for 1980.' That year was tough.”

Dobler: "My wife was in nursing school at the time in New Orleans. [The fans would] get drunked up and go to the games with the bags on their heads. I said 'You're lucky you didn't do that when I was out there because I'd have been pissed.’"

Childs: "Seems like we were kicking a field goal and the goal post would move and hit the upright. Somebody would throw a Hail Mary."

Abramowicz: "That was a very difficult time. When I finished playing, I did the broadcasts for the Saints for five or six years. That was when all that 'Aints' was going on. It was so difficult to broadcast and be positive during the game. It was just total frustration. It was funny to people outside, but I don't think it was funny to Saints fans. It was a very low time.”

Childs: "The fans had grown tired of all the coaching changes and the ticket prices going up. They were getting tired. We were putting an inferior product on the field and not winning games. I was disappointed that they had bags on their heads, but I understood, too. It was mind-boggling to everybody.”

Hebert: "When they were really losing, when they were bad, bad, I was off at college. I'd have been 20 years old, so I was playing when the Saints were 1-15. ... What I remember was in 1987, the team hadn't had a winning season in 20 years, and I was a part of that. We won nine games in a row, and the team had never won more than eight.”

Abramowicz: "The humiliation, the jokes, the laughingstock ... That whole area down there in New Orleans, they're a very proud people. You saw them rally back from Hurricane Katrina. So people making jokes about them on 'Saturday Night Live,' that really hurt.

“This is changing that, hopefully. The finishing touch would be to win the Super Bowl. Then people would think of that when they think about the Saints and not fans with bags on their heads.”

Manning: "My wife and I always had a dream that Ole Miss would get back to the Sugar Bowl -- they hadn't yet, but I still hope they will in my lifetime -- and the Saints get to the Super Bowl. They're here. Somebody asked me how they did it. Well, it didn't take us but 43 years to figure it out.”

Childs: "I'm just elated that I'm a Saint, and they've reached that top. Hopefully I laid a foundation for others. Hopefully, everybody learned."