As we do every year in honor of Memorial Day, we look back at former Saints players from team history that unfortunately have passed away and died in recent years; and this year’s particular tribute highlights one of the most famous (or in this case, one of the more infamous) players to wear the Black & Gold in the entire 53-year history of the franchise: former 1976 #1 Draft pick, University of California All-American and All-Pro RB Chuck Muncie.
Referring to Muncie as a “tortured soul” is probably an understatement; especially since his well-documented personal demons that included a severe addiction to the drug that out on the streets eventually became known as “crack cocaine”; derailed the unlimited potential of his professional career that could have placed him among some of the greatest NFL RB’s of all-time.
Sadly however, that never turned out to be the case.
Muncie’s path to New Orleans and eventual Saints infamy originally began out on the West Coast in Northern California in the year 1972, when he was offered a football scholarship to attend Cal; even though he previously had been a basketball star in high school in his native hometown of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh.
Muncie became the catalyst for Cal’s NCAA-leading offense as a senior during the 1975 Season; which propelled the Golden Bears to the co-championship of the PAC-8 (now known as the PAC-12). Additionally, he became the first Golden Bear to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Muncie set then-school single-season records for rushing yards (1,460), all-purpose yards (1,871), and rushing TD’s (13).
He was voted as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy behind two-time winner Archie Griffin of Ohio State; and even though Muncie actually out-rushed and out-scored Griffin (who finished that same season with 1,357 yards and 4 touchdowns). Griffin won the award essentially because the Buckeyes were undefeated (11–0) and ranked #1 in the nation back at the time.
Nevertheless: Muncie finished his college career at Cal with then-school career records for rushing yards (3,052), rushing touchdowns (32), 100-yard rushing games (15) and all-purpose yards (4,194), making him one of the most coveted players by NFL scouts leading up to the 1976 NFL Draft.
But unknown to his closest family and friends, Muncie had began using “powdered” cocaine; when he and several players from Cal, UCLA, and USC were originally introduced to the drug after they had been invited to attend a few wild parties that had been hosted by a variety of (unnamed) Hollywood stars and executives.
It was allegedly at one of those parties where Muncie and a few friends saw the drug for the first time being introduced in its free-based form; as it eventually would became a full-fledged epidemic (known by the slang term “crack cocaine”) upon the drug subculture of that era.
So if you do the math: Muncie had already been using and became addicted to the drug before being drafted by the Saints — who then-brand new Saints head coach Hank Stram selected with the #3 overall pick.
Before he ever set foot on an NFL field however, the weight and pressure of stardom proved to be burdensome for Muncie; who ended up being teamed up with fellow rookie RB and Saints’ 2nd round pick Tony Galbreath from the University of Missouri, to form the RB duo / tandem that famously became known and labeled by Stram himself as “Thunder and Lightning” (Muncie was the “lightning”).
In his rookie season in 1976, Muncie appeared in 12 games and started 11 of them, rushing for 659 yards and 2 TD’s. He followed that up with 14 games played and another 11 starts in 1977, as he rushed for 811 yards and 6 TD’s; but thanks to a HUMILIATING LOSS by the Saints to the winless expansion team the (0-26) Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Stram was fired by then-Saints owner John Mecom, Jr.
Around the NFL later that day and for at least a few weeks after, the Saints became the laughingstock of the entire NFL, and deservedly so.
And as you might expect: they were certainly going to be consequences, as a direct result of this very public and utter humiliation, that had cast a pall over the entire franchise.
In the book on his legendary head coaching career titled “They’re Playing My Game”, Stram told the book’s author Lou Sahadi that he was subjected to a disingenuous process by Saints management following the end of the 1977 season, that would eventually lead to his dismissal.
On Christmas Day 1977, Saints owner John Mecom called Stram at his home and told him that he still believed in Stram’s potential to eventually make the then-10 year old Saints franchise a “winning” organization. Although Stram was happy to hear from Mecom and get the “vote of confidence”, he was very uneasy.
Then in early January of 1978, Stram got a call from Bud Holmes — Mecom’s legal attorney for all personal and team-related matters — who asked Stram to meet him at his New Orleans office to discuss the team and the organization’s current status.
But when Stram left that meeting, he was even more puzzled than when he first got there, after he was told that Mecom wouldn’t be attending the meeting as he originally was led to believe.
Just a few days later, Stram got a call from Eddie Jones, the Saints executive Vice President of team operations, who asked Stram to come down to the Saints executive front offices, then located in downtown New Orleans near Lee Circle off of St, Charles Avenue.
However, Stram KNEW that things weren’t right and that something was about to go down; when he walked into Jones’ office to find Holmes — sitting in a chair next to the other empty chair which was directly in front of Jones’ desk — right there waiting for him, too.
“John wants to make a change”, Jones announced matter-of-factly.
“You mean regarding me”, Stram snapped back.
“Yes. You can do whatever you want. Resign or say that you were fired. That’s final.”, Jones said stoically.
“Where is John? Why isn’t he here?”, Stram wanted to know.
“You know how John is. He’s not going to do anything like this, himself”.
Stram was in total disbelief.
He had been fired as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, without even the courtesy of a phone call from the man who was not only his boss, but who was allegedly and supposed to be a very good and dear friend on a personal basis.
Stram’s dismissal was a key moment at that particular time not only for the Saints franchise, but probably more so to Muncie; who now didn’t have the “father figure” / stern disciplinarian that he NEEDED to give him advice and guidance, and who had believed in him as a person character-wise.
Mecom and the Saints subsequently hired one of Stram’s assistants, linebackers coach Dick Nolan; who earlier that decade had led the San Francisco 49ers to back-to-back NFC West Division Championships, to succeed Stram for the 1978 Season.
Somewhat surprisingly and unexpectedly. Nolan ended up overseeing one of the most prolific periods in Saints history, as the Saints offense with Muncie and Galbreath, QB Archie Manning, 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.
It was during that same 1979 Season where Muncie had his BEST YEAR EVER in a Saints uniform, as he rushed for a then-franchise record 1,198 yards and 11 rushing TD’s.
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 portable hot-plate.
It was right around that same time that Muncie 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.
Fast forward to Training Camp in the Summer of 1980, and after arriving for Camp at Vero Beach, FL just a few weeks after the infamous Richard Pryor Incident out in Hollywood, the 5th-year veteran Muncie enlisted the aid of Reese to help him find dealers to supply the drug daily to them, and incredibly 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 adjacent dormitory rooms at the Vero Beach Training Complex.
In an interview just a few years ago after Muncie’s death in 2013, Archie Manning revealed that he thought Muncie and Reese had hot-plates in their rooms during that summer to cook “soul food”.
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 39 years later the derogatory term remains still as the top insult that fans of opposing teams use to ridicule Saints fans of this current generation.
Ironically, it was the results of that 1980 season that subsequently brought a new era and head coach (former Houston Oilers head-coaching legend Bum Phillips) onto the scene for New Orleans, in the early winter of 1981.
Meanwhile, Muncie eventually went on to enjoy a 2nd wave of NFL success with the Chargers, and ultimately he ended up tallying more than 6,700 yards rushing and scored a grand total of 74 TD’s in nine NFL seasons with the two teams combined; twice topping 1,000 yards in a season.
Reese himself even told Sports Illustrated in 1982 that the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Muncie — a three-time Pro Bowl selection — had to be a “superman” to continue performing at such a high level despite his addiction.
But Muncie told Los Angeles Times writer Jerry Crowe a few years before his death at age 60 back in the year 2013; that he wasn’t the only NFL player at that time who had been addicted or abusing cocaine.
“I’ll never name names,” he said, “but it wasn’t like what I was doing was rare in the NFL or the NBA or major league baseball back then. It was a very prominent thing in sports at the time. I happened to get caught.”
It was, he said at that time, the best thing that ever happened to him.
“If you don’t stop,” said Muncie — who before he passed away was in full recovery and had finally got clean and sober for the first time in nearly 20 years — “you’re going to lose everything and end up dead, homeless or in prison for the rest of your life.”
After becoming a single Grandfather of two whose marriage collapsed during his hard-partying days, Muncie happily was able to get his life “back on track”, and it was believed by his family and friends that he was finally at peace with himself and his new lifestyle; and was in a good place emotionally.
But clearly the effects of abusing the drug took its toll, and his death appeared to be heart-related, as often is the case with those who abuse or become addicted to the drug. Had it not been for his drug abuse, Muncie might have even wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
He was THAT GOOD of a player at the RB position. But as he noted with a slight tinge of regret to Crowe in that interview before his death: “I had a pretty good career.”
Unfortunately, he will always be remembered as more of a “tortured soul”, than anything else.
Such were the life and times, of the most “infamous” RB ever to wear the Black & Gold uniform, in the New Orleans Saints’ entire 53-year team history…..