In the late 1970s, angry defensive lineman Don Reese was complaining that some of the Saints veterans weren't doing their jobs. Teammate Derland Moore took offense, words were exchanged, and a fight broke out. "Suddenly I'm watching the kind of fight they must have had in those Wild West saloons," Saints' trainer Dean Kleinschmidt remembers. "This one in an NFL locker room -- no helmets, no pads, just bare knuckles. And plenty of rage." Moore recalls, "I've never punched anyone harder in my life. I was punching him so hard in the face his head cocked back and hit the cinderblock wall. He just got up and shook it off."
This story, told by The Times-Picayune's Saints beat reporter, Jeff Duncan, in Tales From the Saints Sideline (Sports Publishing), offers a look into the side of football that rarely makes it into the papers. Perhaps because the Saints' history lacks magical, successful manifestations like the Super Bowl-era Steelers, Cowboys and 49ers teams, Duncan's book looks at the true characters from the team's past, and while there are some rough stories like that one, there are also a lot of laughs.
To illustrate coach Jim Haslett's legendary temper, Duncan tells the story of Haslett lighting into an official before he'd had a chance to do anything wrong, swearing at him and yelling at him that he sucked. Eventually, the official came over and reminded Haslett, "You know, I did referee the Super Bowl last year," an honor reserved for the best officials in football.
As Duncan tells it, bordering on out of control seems to have been a characteristic of Saints players and management almost from the outset. In the early days, the lure of Bourbon Street attracted many of the players. Quarterback Billy Kilmer (1967-70) earned the nickname "Furnace Face" with the red cheeks that followed his drinking, while others, including running back Chuck Muncie (1976-80), used drugs. Duncan reports, "Muncie remembers free-basing cocaine during training camp with Reese when the straight-laced [Archie] Manning popped in." They bluffed their way out of the spot, Muncie recalls, by telling Manning they were cooking soul food.
Sports books like North Dallas Forty and Ball Four challenged the squeaky-clean image of professional sports teams, and set the standard for sports books. Had Tales From the Saints Sideline been written before them, it would have been a tamer book, but now even a fan book like this one (and others in the series, which look at the histories of most teams in the NFL) airs more of the team's dirty laundry than you might expect. Duncan's moderate, reportorial voice downplays moments that could seem scandalous in other hands.
Former Coach Hank Stram (1976-77), for instance, kept a rookie on the roster until the final cut, then let him go once there was little chance of him getting picked up with another team. His reason? The player had accidentally knocked Stram's toupee loose, and Stram wanted to protect what he thought was his secret. It would be easy to tell this story to emphasize Stram's small-mindedness or the effect on the player's career, but Duncan's dispassionate storytelling lets the reader do with that story what he or she will.
The book is not, however, a tell-all or a book that trashes the team. More than anything else, it tells fans about the players they care or cared about. It goes back to players such as Doug Atkins and Steve Stonebreaker, through to stars such as Bobby Hebert, Rickey Jackson and on to Joe Horn and Deuce McAllister.
Duncan fits the characters into their moment, giving a sense of the team at the time. As crazy as the early years were, his depiction of the Mike Ditka years (1997-1999) sounds like complete chaos, with Ditka essentially out of control. From fights with Eric Allen to announcing to the league the price he'd pay for Ricky Williams to betting defensive coordinator Zaven Yaralian during a game that the Saints' defense couldn't stop Oakland's Tim Brown on a crossing route, Ditka is almost pitiable in his inability to control his impulses.
Duncan is able to address some rumors such as those surrounding the departures of Willie Roaf and Kyle Turley, but others remain unanswered. He writes about how upset owner Tom Benson was when then-General Manager Randy Mueller met with the Atlanta Falcons during the week before the 2001 Super Bowl and how he took Mueller turning down a contract extension as disloyalty. Still, he writes, "Mueller's firing remains a great mystery. Benson has refused to discuss the matter other than in peripheral terms." In the end, Jeff Duncan has effectively captured the nuttiness that has kept Saints fans coming back for more. Like Saints' fandom itself, Tales From the Saints Sideline is good-natured, a little rowdy, and constantly surprising.