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Here's to the first Who Dat

To hear Sharon Litwin interview Mark Cave about Dave Dixon on air at WWNO radio, click here.

Sharon Litwin (photo by Jason Kruppa)

Sharon Litwin (photo by Jason Kruppa)

For so many in our community, the real history of the making of the Saints is a long forgotten, if ever known, saga. Some of us who have been around a while, however, do remember. Even a sports novice like me. Yes, even I recall the one larger-than-life sports visionary who cajoled everyone -- locally, statewide and nationally -- to make his dream come true. And, on the eve of the Saints season, it seem appropriate to reminisce about Dave Dixon and his dream, all captured on tape as part of the oral history project at the Historic New Orleans Collection.

The HNOC started to seriously collect oral histories in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. By 2009, the Collection expanded its focus with a new project called New Orleans Life Story. And could there be a more obvious subject than Dave Dixon?

Mark Cave, senior curator and oral historian at HNOC, is a lifelong football fan. Growing up on a small farm in Ohio an hour away from his much-beloved, and much visited,  Football Hall of Fame, he knows a thing or two about the sport. So, in 2009, after the professional football entrepreneur, Dave Dixon, and his wife Mary contributed some objects to HNOC, this 19-year veteran of the Collection asked if he could interview Dixon for his new oral history project. Over the several sessions that produced more than 10 hours of recording, Mark came to respect the 86-year-old sports visionary who many original Who Dats think was never fully appreciated.

“I found him to be really charming,” Mark recalls. “He was such a nice, nice man…. always stopping the interview to have snacks… always concerned if I was hungry. He was such a conceptual thinker and kind of a dreamer. He just had that 'charmingness' to get his dreams into reality.”

Dave Dixon dreamed big; he was not only a leading proponent of a professional football team in New Orleans, but also a major promoter for a brand new sports venue. He believed that having both would really bring the community together.

It’s hard to remember, in this day and age, that all the activity to get the Saints here happened in the early days of integration, when many were still not in favor of mixed seating in the stands or black players on the team. But Dixon maneuvered his way through the racial politics, always believing football was good for the state. He never had any doubts about its acceptance in New Orleans. In one part of the 10-hour recordings, he recalls one pre-season, pre-Superdome game that affirmed his belief:

Dixon:  So anyway, we had this tremendous rainstorm. This was the thing that made me so very proud of New Orleans. I knew my New Orleans, and I knew that this is what the response would be, but even I got fainthearted at this. Even with that faith, I became fainthearted when this tremendous rain came and just washed everything away. The field is flooded. We had to stop playing. Lightning and all kinds of things; ladies sopping wet with all their famous hairdos and so forth, because they had really dressed up for this... they dressed up in the early days. Now they go in blue jeans, you know.

But anyway, so the whole stadium was empty. They were all down on their knees, all these thousands of people jammed into this situation under the stadium, and I thought, 'Oh, my god. There’s going to be a race riot underneath there...' When I left the field and the stands and went down, where I could first see the people, they were throwing rain balls at each other -- blacks and whites. I said, 'Man, that’s New Orleans.'

Cave:  What were they throwing?

Dixon:  Rain balls. They’d take a balloon or something and fill it with the rainwater, because there was about a foot and a half of water underneath the stadium -- down where people are walking around, water up to their ankles or something -- throwing these things at each other, and they’re having fun. I mean, it was a joyous event. And that was New Orleans. It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, as far as I was concerned. So that convinced me that New Orleans would be a smash hit in the NFL. I knew it already, to be honest with you. I knew that New Orleans was a great football town. I’ve never seen a better football town.

So, as we start a new season with high hopes for a ring on every finger, here’s to our Saints and here’s a great big thank you to the late Dave Dixon, truly the first Who Dat.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]