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Barry Hirstius

The Wild and Crazy Days of Saints Training Camps From the Past

One of the very first Training Camps ever for the New Orleans Saints, started off with a "bang". Literally.

It was July of 1969, and the team was conducting its 3rd training camp in franchise history at California Western University, just outside of San Diego.

It was also the final season in a Saints uniform for 39-year old former Chicago Bears All-Pro and Hall of Fame legend Doug Atkins, a "man's man" who literally struck fear into the hearts of both his opponents and teammates alike. 

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

At 6-foot-8, 280 pounds, Atkins was a virtual "giant" back in the days long before weight-lifting, strict training regimens and performance-enhancing supplements became a standard of what's now become the modern day NFL.

By the time Atkins was taken by the Saints in the 1967 NFL expansion draft, he was already considered an "old man" at age 37. Atkins also by this time was playing on two bad ankles, two surgically-repaired / blown out knees and a pain-wracked body.

And yet, even in his declining years, he still played well enough to earn 2nd team all-league honors at age 38 following the 1968 season — a true testament to his legendary toughness.

And as the opening of 1969 Training Camp arrived, Atkins was not exactly in the mood for anything that he deemed as foolish.

"Doug had a way of making people apprehensive," said Warren Ariail, the Saints' trainer in 1968-69 in an interview with the Associated Press' NFL writer Mary Foster. "He was so big and so strong and when he wanted to do something, he just did it."

Foster says that Atkins ran roughshod through training camp when he was off the field — accompanied by his pit bull "Rebel" — through local bar rooms, and pretty much over anyone who dared to get in his way.

Photo courtesy of the NFL Hall of Fame

As it turned out: Atkins also carried a gun when he wasn't in uniform — and was not afraid to use it.

Foster notes that Atkins arrived for Training Camp at Cal Western each summer starting from the inaugural 1967 season to that summer of 1969, packing two .44-caliber Magnums, several derringers and a shotgun.

One more than one occasion, witnesses say that he fired his shotgun at Navy destroyers cruising off the coast, as he claimed that rival Los Angeles Rams head coach George Allen was spying on the Saints team just offshore from aboard the ships.

So it came as a surprise to absolutely no one that on a hot Summer of '69 night at the Cal Western campus with the Saints about a week into Camp, Atkins decided that he had enough of some some noisy rookies in the room above him — and took his gun, aimed it outside of his dormitory window, and then fired a shot into the overhang outside of their window.

"I needed my sleep," Atkins said. "I was old. I came in at curfew and needed to rest up. They wanted to keep that music playing so I just quieted them down."

If you think that story about Atkins was 'wild', then perhaps nothing was more unbelievable than the Saints Training Camp some 11 years later, in the Summer of 1980 at Vero Beach, Florida.

Then-Saints head coach Dick Nolan oversaw one of the most prolific periods in Saints history, as the Saints offense with QB Archie Manning, RB's Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, WR Wes Chandler, and TE Henry Childs led the way for one of the NFL's top offenses of that Era.

He was the very first Saints head coach in the team's entire history to win seven, and then eight games in a single season; going 7–9 in 1978 and 8–8 (narrowly missing the Playoffs) in 1979.

But then the infamous 1980 season arrived, and unbeknownst to Nolan, nearly half of his entire team had become addicted to crack cocaine when they were introduced to the drug at Training Camp in Vero Beach, FL by Muncie and teammate defensive end Don Reese — who were "free-basing"/ cooking up the drug on a hot-plate in their dorm rooms.

Photo courtesy of George Gojkovich, Getty Images

Muncie had been began dabbling with the drug originally back in his native state of California, but then he quickly became enamored with the revelation of its effects on users who were turning it from a powdered substance into a hardened state (a "rock") to make the drug possible to smoke.

Muncie's interest in "free-basing" was then heightened even further, after he heard about the infamous incident involving legendary comedian and actor Richard Pryor; who accidentally set himself on fire as he was free-basing the drug, while crazed out of his mind from its effects after an all-night smoking binge. 

One of the unintentional results of the Richard Pryor Incident was that it glamorized the act of "free-basing", and because there was now a new and more POWERFUL way to "get high" — soon powdered cocaine addicts everywhere were trying to learn the methodology of exactly how to free-base.

Comedian / actor Richard Pryor in 1980 (Photo courtesy of The Associated Press)

One of those individuals was Muncie.

After arriving for Camp at Vero Beach just a few weeks after the infamous Richard Pryor Incident, Muncie enlisted the aid of Reese to help him find dealers to supply the drug daily to them, and they began utilizing the alternative method of "free-basing" (cooking the drug in its powdered form with a mixture of water and baking soda in a pot on top of a heat source) right there in their dormitory rooms.

In an interview just a few years ago after Muncie's death at the age of 60 back in 2013, Archie Manning revealed that he thought Muncie and Reese had hot-plates in their rooms during that summer to cook "soul food".

Photo courtesy of United Press International

As you would expect, a team full of "crack heads" / drug addicts did not perform up to the best of their abilities, and by the time Nolan and then-GM Steve Rosenbloom finally got a handle on the problem and traded Muncie to San Diego following the team's 4th straight loss to open the 1980 regular season, it was already too late.

The team spiraled into a horrific tailspin that saw them lose 8 more consecutive games (0-12); and when the team's fans began wearing paper bags on their heads, it wasn't long after that Nolan was eventually fired following an embarrassing defeat to the L.A. Rams at home on Monday Night Football in Week #12.

The Saints would go on to finish 1-15 and became known nationally as "The Aint's" — and now 37 years later the derogatory term remains still as the top insult that fans of opposing teams use to ridicule Saints fans of this generation.

Photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

Ironically, it was the results of that 1980 season that subsequently brought a new head coach onto the scene for New Orleans, during the team's very next Training Camp at Vero Beach in the summer of 1981.

But unlike the gunshots or the illicit drug use of previous Training Camps before, this time the only thing 'wild and crazy' about Camp was a combination of beer, fried chicken, and country music.

In an interview with Tom Danyluk for his fantastic book about life in the NFL during the 1970's and early 1980's titled "The Super 70's", Archie Manning said this about the very first Training Camp under new head coach Bum Phillips, who had been hired by his close friend and then-Saints owner John Mecom, Jr. — after Phillips was fired by the Houston Oilers following the 1980 season.

Asked if Bum Phillips had a more "loose" atmosphere and laid-back approach to Training Camp than previous Saints head coaches, Manning said:

"(Laughing) Well, they weren't as tough as some of the ones that I had been before. It was almost like a country club atmosphere in some respects. Things were pretty loose."

Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated

"I don't think Bum thought very much of Training Camps, probably because he didn't want to wear his team out before the season got started. A lot of folks would stop by at the end of the day. We'd finish up our 9:00 P.M.  meeting, and then people that we used to refer to as the FOB — Friends of Bum — would show up to the facility."

"Most of them were country music stars. He'd hand out the t-shirts and shorts and jerseys and such, and then by 9:30 they'd get to 'picking and grinning' (performing their music live for the players and staff)."

"It was almost like a nightly hoe-down. There wasn't too many nights that didn't finish up the day with 'picking and grinning".

Phillips would also establish other traditions such as eating fried chicken and drinking beer after every Thursday practices. It was a family atmosphere, and a far cry from the drug-addicted shell of a team left over from the previous season.

But as it turned out, Phillips unintentionally would eventually get a small taste of the 'wild side' of Training Camp himself, after a series of events that began when he traded Manning to the Houston Oilers during Week #2 of the 1982 season to the Houston Oilers.

Phillips got rid of Manning because he had originally decided to turn over the Saints QB reins to his chosen heir apparent to Manning — 1981 NFL Supplemental Draft #1 pick (from the University of Illinois) Dave Wilson.

But then, Wilson unexpectedly blew out his knee in the 1st 1982 Pre-Season game; and it left Phillips with Manning as his starting QB anyway;  which then prompted Phillips to make what some considered to be a desperation move: when he lured 36-year old former Oakland Raiders and Houston Oilers QB Kenny "The Snake" Stabler out of retirement.

Photo courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

After Manning struggled badly in the Saints' season-opening loss to St. Louis, he was pulled from the game and replaced by Stabler — permanently. Two days later, Manning was a Houston Oiler.

The NFL players would then go in strike, cancelling most of the remaining 1982 season. The strike lasted 57 days, reducing the 1982 season from a 16-game schedule per team to an abbreviated nine game schedule. The Saints would finish (4-5), just narrowly missing a Playoff berth.

As Training Camp of 1983 arrived at Vero Beach, so too did the Saints' now 37-year old QB Ken Stabler.

Well known by NFL fans for his cool and calm demeanor on the field, Stabler had also become legendary for his off-the-field exploits, and his partying ways didn't always sit well with Phillips; who wanted Stabler to embrace the starting QB role with a bit more seriousness — and become the "leader" of a very young team that at that time had an average age of 3.5 years of NFL experience under their belts.

But Stabler never intended to be a "leader", and he certainly wasn't looking forward to Training Camp in the summer of 1983.

As Stabler himself would write in his autobiography "Snake": The Legendary Life of Ken Stabler: "The monotony of [training] camp was so oppressive that without the diversions of whiskey and women, those of us who were wired for activity and no more than six hours sleep a night, might have gone berserk.".

Photo courtesy of James Drake, Sports Illustrated

Stabler reported to Camp in excellent physical shape, and likely no doubt in part because the Saints organization had shipped him a stationary bike to his off-season home in Gulf Shores, Alabama; complete with a fan, so he could stay cool.

However, Phillips then gave Stabler many of the practices off because he wanted to preserve Stabler's health for the upcoming 1983 season; and told reporters that back-up Dave Wilson would receive most of the snaps for the remainder of Camp with the 1st team under center.

For Stabler, that meant one thing in particular:

PARTY TIME.

The Saints training facility at Dodgertown in Vero Beach had an eight-foot-high fence around it and a security guard at the main gate, so players didn't sneak out after curfew.

Around 10:30 p.m. under the cover of darkness, the 37-year old Stabler scaled his way up and over the wall and crawled through the bushes for a night out on the town.

So much for being the team "leader".

Photo courtesy of David Madison, Getty Images

The Saints Training Camps of yesteryear were if nothing else, unforgettable for a variety of reasons.

And with Training Camp just a few more weeks away from now, we can only hope that they have an "unforgettable time" this time around for much different reasons........

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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