This is the 51st season of the New Orleans Saints but if you know the history you know that things were not always that exciting until Tom Benson purchased the team in 1985. The Saints would not make their first playoff game until 1987 and they wouldn’t win their first playoff game until 2000. Before all that, starting in 1967, there was A LOT of losing. That’s despite the excitement of the opening kickoff of the opening game, when kick returner John Gilliam took the Saints’ first ever return in franchise history for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams:
The Saints would go on to lose that game to the Rams 27-13 and would finish the season 3-11 under head coach Tom Fears. Despite the dismal start, though, those were good times. The Saints brought in a number of washed up big name players to sell seats and most fans were so excited to have an NFL team they were willing to tolerate the slow start. Those three wins, by the way, were against the Philadelphia Eagles (home), Atlanta Falcons (home) and Washington Redskins (away). Pretty cool that the Saints were able to beat the Falcons in their inaugural season.
While that team did have a number of recognizable names at that time, most of the players didn’t live up to their name. That is, except for Dave “Weasel” Whitsell. You can probably guess the guy got his nickname based on his defensive ball skills and ability to take the ball away from opponents. As bad as the Saints history was from 1967-1985, Whitsell did something so special that season that it still deserves to be celebrated to this day. In fact, his team record for interceptions in a season still holds 50 years later.
The benefit of being a new franchise in those days is you could poach established players from other teams. The Saints were able to acquire Whitsell, a cornerback, this way from the Chicago Bears. Originally from Shelby, Michigan (though he played college ball at Indiana) Whitsell was drafted by his hometown team Detroit Lions in the 24th round in 1958. He’d play 3 seasons with the Lions before joining the Bears for 6 more. He was a very solid and accomplished player with the Bears but he seemed to be fading by the time he joined the Saints in 1967 at 31 years of age. Most assumed the Saints acquired a ‘once good now decent’ player that might have a couple competent years left.
Instead, Whitsell had a season for the ages. He finished with 10 interceptions that year, leading the NFL that year, and returning two for touchdown. Only Dave Waymer and Darren Sharper have had 9 interceptions in a season for the Saints since, so that record still stands half a century later. It was remarkable given the fact that Whitsell had only had, at most, 6 interceptions in a season before in what was primarily a running league. Whitsell also returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown in the Saints’ first ever win against the Philadelphia Eagles. That game ended by a score of 31-24, so his score was the difference. It should be noted that Walter Roberts scored three touchdowns in that game, one on a kickoff return, one on a fumble return and one on a reception. WATCH AN AMAZING VIDEO RECAP OF THIS GAME HERE.
Whitsell was the only Saints player named to the Pro Bowl that season and thus he became the first player to ever represent the Saints in the Pro Bowl in 1967. Funny enough, that was the one and only Pro Bowl he would ever make. Whitsell would play two more seasons with the Saints (9 interceptions in those 2 seasons combined) before retiring after the 1969 season. He would find a career in real estate and remain in the area until he died of cancer in Kenner, LA in 1999 at the age of 63.
I would list Whitsell’s 1967 season as a top 3 defensive season performance in Saints history along with Pat Swilling in 1991 (17.0 sacks and NFL Defensive Player of the Year) and La’Roi Glover in 2000 (17.0 sacks and NFC Defensive Player of the Year).