‘We'll Build That Sucker’
Hua Hsu [ARCHIVE]
February 8, 2013
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Along the southern edge of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is a stretch of Girod Street that was recently renamed Dave Dixon Drive. It's a name that might baffle outsiders, especially once you enter the Superdome and notice it again on the Wall of Fame, alongside some of the legends who have called that building home: Pete Maravich of the New Orleans Jazz, quarterback Archie Manning and linebacker Rickey Jackson of the Saints, Grambling coach Eddie Robinson. The rest are there for being competitors; Dixon is there because of his intense, abiding obsession with his hometown. Virtually unknown outside of New Orleans, he was a local businessman whose respected name and masterful management of people and politics brought professional sports to New Orleans. In the process, Dixon — a behind-the-scenes founder of the Saints, shadow broker of the AFL-NFL merger, and the "Father" of the Superdome — changed the experience of modern sports for the rest of us as well.

Dixon was born in New Orleans in 1923 and attended Tulane University back when the Green Wave were a minor force in the emergent SEC. In his charmingly self-aggrandizing autobiography, Dixon recounts that the need for professional sports in New Orleans was born in 1949, when Tulane's board voted to deemphasize intercollegiate athletics, dooming his alma mater's once-mighty football team to a period of mediocrity. "A bit of the competitive joyous spirit seemed to have been squeezed out of our community," Dixon wrote. By the late 1950s, he began thinking seriously about the possibilities of helping bring a professional franchise to New Orleans to fill that void. Around this time, Mayor deLesseps Morrison was in the process of forming a commission to try to keep the Pelicans, a minor league baseball team, in town and possibly attract a major league team by building a stadium along Lake Pontchartrain. Dixon felt that there already existed a fan base for football, and lobbied Morrison accordingly. Morrison agreed and, in that somewhat disturbing, old-fashioned way things used to get done, appointed the inexperienced but enthusiastic Dixon head of the commission.

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Others had tried to bring pro football to New Orleans. Former Pelicans general manager Jack DeFee had staged NFL exhibitions in New Orleans as early as 1960. But Dixon's careful courtship of the NFL (and, for a brief spell, the AFL as well) proved more successful, in part because he recognized that Southern institutions could only ignore civil rights and racial equality at their own peril. In 1963, Dixon organized an exhibition doubleheader at Tulane Stadium that was "the first time in the history of the Old South" that tickets were sold on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone who wanted to attend. The game was a success, despite pouring rains.

Buoyed by the success of these exhibitions, Dixon thought the formation of the Saints — a name carefully cleared with the local archbishop — was a done deal. But they wouldn't become a reality until 1966, when NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle called Dixon in for a favor. The NFL-AFL merger was dying on the vine. An informal agreement was reached: If Dixon could convince House Majority Whip Hale Boggs of Louisiana to help ease the merger through Congress, New Orleans would get an NFL franchise. The antitrust exemption Rozelle sought was approved in October, and a month later — on All Saints Day — New Orleans joined the NFL, playing their home games at Tulane Stadium.

"The origin of the Louisiana Superdome really was with Walter O'Malley," Dixon once remarked, referring to the former owner of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. "That's where I got the idea from reading a story in The Sporting News." The famed theorist and futurist Buckminster Fuller had pitched the idea of a domed stadium in Brooklyn to O'Malley in the mid-1950s, and the idea stayed with Dixon. By the conclusion of the rain-soaked exhibition doubleheader in 1963, he was convinced that the Saints' permanent home would have to shield spectators from the elements. Dixon brought a model of the proposed Superdome (the alternative: "the Ultradome") to show Louisiana governor John McKeithen. "My God," McKeithen is alleged to have replied, "that would be the greatest building in the history of mankind! We'll build that sucker." Plans for the Saints' new stadium initially placed it on the outskirts of the city. But they settled on a more central location along Poydras Street, then flanked by railroad yards and a cemetery.

In the popular imagination, New Orleans architecture remains a quaint, wondrous jumble of multicultural histories, with its grand mansions, mazy cemeteries, French Quarter balconies, and meticulous, colonial accents. But no built structure has shaped New Orleans over the past decades quite so much as the...
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