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THE SOUND OF THUNDER: A Look Back at Legendary Saints RB Tony Galbreath

“Thunder and Lightning”. For older fans of the New Orleans Saints, it’s a term that conjures up one of the more memorable and unforgettable periods in the franchise’s 53-year history.

That famous term was coined by then-brand new Saints head coach and former Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl-winning head coach (Super Bowl IV in 1970) Hank Stram; who after taking control of the team after he was lured out of retirement by then-Saints owner John Mecom Jr. prior to the 1976 NFL Season, was describing to the local New Orleans media the respective talents and abilities of his two top picks of the Black and Gold in the 1976 NFL Draft:

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Halfback and 1st Round pick Chuck Muncie from the University of California (who was the “Lightning”), and fullback / RB and 2nd Round pick Tony Galbreath from the University of Missouri (who was the “Thunder”).

The runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1975, Muncie was drafted with the number #3 overall selection; and then in the very next round with the #32 overall pick, Stram smartly paired Muncie with Galbreath to form a 1-2 “punch” of an RB tandem in the same backfield to put along with a (finally) healthy Archie Manning at quarterback — and collectively, the Saints had suddenly formed what would go on to become one of the most feared offensive backfields in the entire NFL during the late 1970’s.

After Stram was unceremoniously fired just after 2 seasons, new Saints head coach Dick Nolan decided to continue building on Stram’s concept of adding firepower to the Saints offense. He expanded the passing game, brought in with the additions at tight end of sure-handed Henry Childs and the selection of fleet-footed University of Florida All-American WR Wes Chandler with their top draft pick in 1978. 

For those younger Saints fans under the age of 40 who have only seen video clips of Galbreath, the 6-foot-1, 230 pound Fulton, Missouri native was a very good player. He was a big reason why Missouri famously went into Birmingham. Alabama and defeated a very-heavily favored and top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide team led by then-legendary head coach “Bear” Bryant on a season-opening Monday night contest in 1975.

Galbreath was an All-Big Eight running back for the Tigers in 1974 as a junior, and then was elected team captain for the 1975 season as a senior; and he still to this very day ranks among the Tigers’ all-time leading rushers, despite the fact that he played just two years of football after transferring from Indian Hill (Iowa) Junior College.

A big man who had great feet and moves and who was a superb one-cut runner and receiver out of the backfield, Galbreath made an immediate impact as a rookie; rushing for 570 yards and 7 touchdowns in the 1976 Season (which ranked him as the NFL’s 6th leading receiver as a rookie).

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

His biggest accomplishment as a rookie that season occurred in a road game at Kansas City; when Stram led his new team, the Saints, to Kansas City to face his old team, the Chiefs. Galbreath rambled for 146 yards on 14 carries and two touchdowns, including a career-best 74 yard run. He added five catches and returned four kickoffs for a 23.5 yard average as the Saints won 27-17, in what was an emotional first-ever victory as Saints head coach for Stram.

Galbreath then continued his steady play over the next three seasons, rushing for at least 600 yards, with 173 receptions to go with it, including 74 catches in the Saints’ 1978 Season — which ranked 2nd overall among all players in the entire NFL that year and earned Galbreath national acclaim as one of the League’s most versatile players (as a comparison for younger Saints fans: think of a physically bigger but somewhat slower version of current Saints superstar RB Alvin Kamara).

Galbreath’s ultimate highlight moment as a member of the Black and Gold came during that very same 1978 Season; when the Saints traveled out to Los Angeles to face the division-leading (and heavily-favored) Los Angeles Rams team at the famous L.A. Coliseum  on the day of October 22nd, 1978; a day that any Saints fan over the age of 50, still remembers like it was yesterday.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

It was the Saints’ first win at the Coliseum after nine consecutive losses. The victory also marked the LATEST POINT at any time in Saints franchise history (the 8th game of their 11th season), that the Saints had a .500 or better record, which stood at (4-4) after their monumental upset over the heavily favored (7-0) Rams, who were undefeated and an easy 7-point favorite at home.

Up until that day, the Rams had literally OWNED the series between the two teams, with the Rams holding a then 13-4 advantage — with all four of the Saints wins coming at New Orleans (3 at Tulane Stadium, and 1 at the Superdome the season before in 1977).

The Rams dominated the old version of the NFC West Division in those days, which was before the onset of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty under the legendary duo of head coach Bill Walsh and QB Joe Montana that began with the 1981 season.

The NFC West in the late 1970’s still was the Rams’ domain, but little did they realize on this fateful day that for the first time ever in the Saints’ own franchise history; the team wearing Black and Gold under 1st year head coach Dick Nolan and led by Manning, were ready to finally make some noise of their own.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

The (3-4) Saints defense easily gave its best performance of the season, as they held an opponent to 10 or fewer points for only the 14th time in their 10 and a half year history (147 total games played by that time), and needless to say — the first time ever at the Coliseum.

In a one-on-one interview for the fantastic book about the entire sport of Pro Football in the 1970’s era titled “The Super 70s” by author Tom Danyluk, Manning says the Saints defense on that day was a huge factor in allowing New Orleans to leave sunny L.A. and “Hollywood” with what at that time, might have been the most monumental victory ever for their angst-ridden franchise (which had never had a winning season).

“A rare kinda game for us”, Manning remembered.

“We didn’t win too many of those low-scoring, defensive struggles with ‘The Big Boys’. Or anyone else, for that matter”.

Manning told Danyluk that he considers the game from that day, as one of his personal Top 5 wins of all-time during his 12-year Saints career (1971-1982).

But on that unforgettable day for Manning and a entire generation of Saints fans, it was something that they actually had no idea would even happen. First of all, the Saints defense rose to the occasion, sacking Rams QB Pat Haden 4 times and made life COMPLETELY MISERABLE for him in the pocket.

Photo courtesy of The Los Angeles Times

Making matters worse for Haden and the Rams offense was that starting left tackle John Williams was practically being eaten alive by Saints defensive end Elois “Elo” Grooms, and got flagged an unbelievable 7 times for holding penalties, along with 2 false starts.

On the day: the Rams were penalized a whopping 13 times for 138 total yards.

The shaky play by the Rams O-Line was no doubt what led to their efficient offense’s issues with holding onto the football on an otherwise sunny Southern California day; as they fumbled the ball 3 different times, losing 2 of them.

On the day, the Rams turned the ball over a total of 6 DIFFERENT TIMES — with 2 more of them coming on Haden interceptions, both by Saints cornerback Ray Brown.

But yet, the Rams defense was still able to hold their own, and shut down the Saints offense as well  holding New Orleans’ high-powered offense featuring Muncie and Galbreath, to a meager 118 yards of total offense.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

As the game entered the 4th quarter tied up at 3-3 in what had been a “defensive battle for the ages” (and more typical of games in that Era), it became a matter of which team would blink first; and which team would make THE mistake that would determine the eventual outcome.

As fate would have it on this particular day, it was the Rams who “blinked”.

As the Rams faced a 4th down at the Saints 41-yard line with under 5 minutes to play and the game appearing to be headed for overtime, the Rams were reluctant to allow kicker Frank Corral attempt a 58-yard field goal, which was clearly out of his range anyway.

Los Angeles head coach Ray Malavasi instead decided to punt (or so everyone thought), and decided to attempt to pin the Saints deep inside of their own 10-yard line; as Rams punter Glen Walker stood at midfield and awaited the snap from center Rich Saul.

But as the ball hit his hands, Walker pulled up and attempted to throw a pass — where he then got DESTROYED by onrushing Saints special teams ace Rich Mauti — who hit Walker as he threw it in the direction of WR / KR Jackie Wallace, but instead was intercepted by Saints safety Eric Felton.

The Saints took over at their own 29-yard line, and despite the team’s offensive struggles, went on a methodical Manning-led drive that featured a clutch 3-down-and-10 reception by Henry Childs to keep the drive alive.

The Saints then proceeded to drive all the way down to the Rams 19-yard line with inside of 3 minutes to play, with a golden opportunity to take the lead and possibly even leave L.A. with a (4-4) record, and for the very first time EVER in franchise history: utter the phrase “Playoff contenders”.

As a nervous Coliseum home crowd looked on — waiting for the visiting Saints team to screw up as they had so many times before in their inglorious 10-year history up to that point — Manning and Galbreath were having absolutely none of it.

Despite his own struggles all afternoon that including a horrific stat line of 11 for 22 for 130 yards, Manning finally found the break he had been waiting for all game long.

Manning found Rams right outside linebacker Bob Brudzinski in one-on-one coverage on Galbreath, and no match for the fleet-footed Saints all-purpose back, Brudzinski blew the assignment and quickly lost track of Galbreath, who had floated out uncovered and alone into the left outside flat and awaited the pass from Manning.

Galbreath hauled in the pass and then quickly darted down the left sidelines for the eventual game-winning 19-yard TD reception, giving New Orleans the 10-3 lead with a little over 2 minutes to play that they would not relinquish.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

The Saints — yes, the New Orleans Saints that had been considered to be one of the NFL’s worst teams in those days — had upset the mighty and undefeated Rams in their own home stadium.

“Credit our defense for that win”, Manning told Danyluk.

“We didn’t give them a whole lot to work with”.

New Orleans was now tied for 2nd place with Atlanta in the NFC West Division behind the Rams; and for the first time ever even though it was only the midway point of a 16-game season (the first 16-game scheduled season in NFL history), the Saints and the “P-word” (Playoffs) became synonymous in the very same sentence.

Understandably so, back home in NOLA fans were ecstatic. 

For the first time ever, folks around the NFL and the entire sports world, finally had a reason to give the Saints some long-overdue praise.

And when the Saints beat the New York Giants at home the following week at the Superdome to raise their record to (5-4), the team’s first winning record during the regular season ever; a wave of euphoria washed over the Saint fan-base — long before it ever became known as it is today in 2019 as “The Who Dat Nation”.

As for Galbreath. his career in NOLA would last until the end of the infamous Saints (1-15) 1980 NFL Season (click HERE to read that jaw-dropping story from Saints history), that ultimately ended with Saints fans wearing paper bags over their heads at the games as a way to protest the franchise’s horrible and embarrassing performance that year.

Photo courtesy of The Times-Picayune

Despite only five years as a Saint, Galbreath was one of just three players during that period of time with 1700+ rushing yards and 1700+ receiving yards. Galbreath was, at the time, #2 in all-time rushing yards for the team. Galbreath was traded to the Minnesota Vikings the following year in 1981, where he played three years in Minneapolis, primarily as a pass-catching back and blocker.

Galbreath went to the New York Giants in 1984, essentially fulfilling the same role. He played four seasons with the Giants, including the 1986 season in which the Giants won the Super Bowl, as Galbreath was the team’s second leading receiver. He retired after the 1987 season as the most prolific pass-catching running back in NFL history.

When his career came to an end, Galbreath had 490 receptions, the most by a running back in the history of the NFL. Eventually. Galbreath was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 1991.

Photo courtesy of The San Francisco Chronicle

He was later inducted into both the University of Missouri Athletics Hall of Fame in 1995 and into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. He had the privilege of playing for 3 NFL head coaching legends: Stram, Bud Grant (with Minnesota), and Bill Parcells. Galbreath didn’t have the best NFL career by a RB, but he definitely had one of the most interesting.

And, for a brief moment in time, he was the all-time leader in receptions by a running back. He finished his 12-year NFL career with a grand total of 2,865 rushing yards, 2,221 receiving yards, 5,086 total yards overall, and 33 touchdowns. Perhaps more importantly than anything: Galbreath may have been THE most underrated running back of the entire 1970’s NFL era.

Perhaps he wasn’t an “elite” RB during that very same period of time such as a Tony Dorsett or a Walter Payton, and likely not by any stretch of the imagination, either. But he and Walter Payton are two of only 15 players in the entire 100 year history of the NFL with both 4,000 rushing yards and 4,000 receiving yards.

THAT was and still is an impressive accomplishment — for the legendary former Saints RB who became synonymous with the “sound of thunder”…..

 

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Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally 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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