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Way Back When: When the Saints came marching in


When most pro football fans settle back to watch a game, there is the assumption that the two teams have always been there.

But we know that not to be the case. Most Denver Broncos fans are aware of the fact that the Broncos began play as members of the American Football League in 1960.

This week's opponent, the New Orleans Saints, are a classic example of big-time sports meeting big-time politics face to face.

Denver is ranked the 19th-largest city in the United States by population, but in terms of comparison, New Orleans is ranked just No. 50, trailing the likes of Tulsa, Oklahoma (number 47), and Arlington, Texas (number 49).

So even though civic officials in New Orleans spent much of the 1960s pleading their case for membership into the National Football League, those letters and telephone calls were met by deaf ears. But the NFL and AFL were in a very costly war over players salaries, and both sides knew it could not continue financially.

The 1960s were a period of incredible growth for pro football, with a Harris survey in 1965 indicating for the first time that sports fans chose professional football as their favorite sport, overtaking baseball for the first time in October of that year.

In 1966, the battle between the AFL and NFL reached a new high point, as the leagues spent at that time a staggering $7 million (in 1966 money) to sign all their draft choices.

On June 8, 1966, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle announced the merger agreement, under the terms that the two leagues would combine to form one league with 24 teams. It would then expand to 26 teams in 1968 and to 28 by 1970 or not much long after that.

Official regular season play as this new singular league would begin in 1970 when the two leagues officially merge to form one league and two conferences, the American and National Football Conferences.

But there was one very huge fly in the ointment, that being politics involving the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.

Russell Long, once described by the Wall Street Journal as "the fourth branch of government," was a U.S. Senator from Louisiana for nearly four decades. The son of the famous and infamous Huey "The Kingfish" Long, a legend in Louisiana and American politics and a power broker of the highest order — and it was like father like son in terms of political power and its use.

Because of his seniority, Russell Long advanced to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, a position he held from 1966 through 1981, and he had been a strong advocate of an NFL team in New Orleans. Long also served as the majority whip of the Senate from 1965 to 1969.

As it would happen, something very technical and seemingly insignificant to the average sports fan was that the AFL-NFL merger had to be approved by Congress.  Among many voices that spoke out was that of Long.

I remember reading of the events in the daily newspapers, as Rozelle called for immediate telephone conference calls among NFL owners, explaining the financial and political peril their new league faced.

It might have been the fastest expansion decision ever made by the NFL.

On Oct. 21, 1966, Congress approved the AFL-NFL merger, passing legislation exempting the agreement itself from from antitrust action. Shortly afterward, on Nov. 1, New Orleans was awarded an NFL franchise to begin play in 1967.

New Orleans of course has very close ties to Catholicism because of its founding under French colonialism, and Nov. 1 is regarded by the Catholic Church as All Saints' Day. That, and the very famous popular song, "When the Saints Come Marching In," led to the team immediately being named as the Saints.

The Saints actually may be the only pro sports team that was awarded by the league before it even had an owner. It wasn't until a little over a month after the announcement that the team had its first majority owner, John Mecom Jr.

Things can move really fast when they have to.

I remember one time mentioning to late Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser the difficulty of getting something done (in this case, trading for John Elway), and Mr. Kaiser responded, "Nonsense, Jim. Anything can be bought and sold in America."

Mr. Kaiser was right then, and had been proven so many times before, including that time when the city of New Orleans jumped from also-ran status to membership in the National Football League within a five-month period in 1966.

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