By Ted Lewis, special to NewOrleansSaints.comThey’ve been blindsided by a celebrating Reggie Bush, starred in a beer commercial and even used by NFL Films to illustrate the futility of the franchise’s early years.
But mostly, the New Orleans Saints mascots of the past half-century – both real-life and costumed - have been there to put smiles on people’s faces – on and off the field.
“This is the greatest fun in the world,” said Henry Ballam, who has played Gumbo, the faux-furred direct descendent of that first St. Bernard who roamed the sidelines of Tulane Stadium from 1967-70 since 2005. “When I go to a hospital and see kids who want to know if they can take me home or it’s just being with fans at games, it’s all about making people happy.
“When somebody asks me to pose for a picture, I may be inside the costume, but I’m smiling, too.”
Or as Larry Dale, owner of Gumbo II, III and IV, the successors to the original Gumbo, puts it, “People loved those dogs.
“The last one we’d take to Children’s Hospital and kids would sit on her, but she didn’t care. And they all had a big time running on the field with the crowd cheering.
“A lot of times, that was about the high point of the game because there wasn’t much else to cheer about. Aucoin Hart used to give away a watch to the player of the game, and once Hap Glaudi gave it to Gumbo.”
Gumbo – the four-legged version, at least – was phased out in 1985 when the NFL went to a generic league-wide mascot identifiable by the team colors called “Huddles.”
That didn’t last long.
However, because of problems having a live canine mascot in the Superdome, instead of bringing back Gumbo, the first costumed portrayer debuted a few years later.
Gumbo was joined in 1997 by Fetch Monster, the kicking tee retrieving Australian shepherd who had previously entertained fans in Houston before the Oilers moved to Tennessee.
“She really loved the crowd noise,” said Michael Moriarty, who with his wife, Melina, owned Fetch Monster, real name Bleu. “It was unbelievable how much she enjoyed being Fetch Monster.
“Everywhere we went, she was a celebrity.”
In 2000 though, Gumbo and Fetch Monster were swept out the door along with the rest of the Mike Ditka regime, although his replacement, Mambo, described as a “demented-looking Muppet” never gained popularity, either.
Gumbo – with Ballam inside the costume – was brought back in 2005 and even though the team was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Ballam worked the “home” games in Baton Rouge and San Antonio that season.
In 2008, Sir Saint, a costumed version of the cartoon symbol of the team that had been around since the beginning, joined Gumbo on the field, giving the Saints two visible links to their earliest days.
“It’s a great job, because you do everything larger than life,” said Will Peavey, the only person to portray Sir Saint. “And when I do something silly that makes people laugh and brings them enjoyment, it’s terrific.”
That’s always been the idea.
The original Gumbo was a gift to the Saints in 1967 from the Louisiana Restaurant Association, thus the gastronomical name. Plus, it rhymed with Jumbo, the nickname of part-owner Al Hirt.
When a replacement was needed four years later, Dale, then a freshman at UNO, was approached about the availability of Marjana, a St. Bernard puppy he’d recently purchased to become Gumbo II.
“They offered me a parking place in Tulane Stadium, two field passes and two season tickets,” said Dale, now a member of the Jefferson Parish school board. “The Saints were pretty awful, so I usually couldn’t give away the tickets.”
So awful that when a cheerleader running onto the field ahead of Dale and Gumbo tripped on the turf, they fell on top of her.
That wound up on NFL Follies.
Unfortunately, Gumbo II died in after the 1974 season due to a stomach ailment. But Dale purchased another St. Bernard, this one named Cognac, who became Gumbo III during the Saints’ first season in the Superdome.
Being indoors proved to be more accommodating for a 100-pounds dog with a heavy coat and Gumbo III responded by being more lively on the sideline. Once in a game against Houston an Oilers linebacker didn’t take to her barking at him and took a swing at her, much to the displeasure of the crowd.
Gumbo III died in 1980 after a bad reaction following surgery. Gumbo IV (real name Haut Brion) lived for five years after the Saints had moved away from a live mascot.
Fetch Monster did fill the gap for a while.
Even though Fetch Monster was fired in part because Saints kicker Doug Brien didn’t like dog slobber on the tee, when she died in 2004, the team had a moment of silence preceded by shots of Bleu running on and off the field.
“My wife and I were both crying,” Moriarty said. “I don’t think we were the only ones.”
After the Mambo experiment, Gumbo was brought back in 2005.
Although Ballam has been the only person inside the suit since then, his outside appearance has changed, in part to make Gumbo look more fit and trim.
Similarly, Sir Saint has had some touching up, primarily to get his chin small enough for Peavey to hold his head up comfortably. Still, getting the eyes to line up correctly is a challenge, as is staying cool inside the padded suit.
“I’m glad we play indoors,” Peavey said.
Being on the field has given Gumbo and Sir Saint a close-up view of the Saints’ most memorable moments in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome over the last few years, including Garrett Hartley’s overtime field goal in the NFC championship game that sent the Saints to Super Bowl XLIV.
Ballam, er Gumbo, was celebrating like everyone else when he was accidently clipped on the side by Bush. The moment still lives on YouTube.
“I didn’t know what happened except that was I running around and then all of a sudden I was on the ground,” Ballam said. “But it was an amazing thing to be a part of.”
In addition to performing at games and other Saints-related functions, Sir Saint and Gumbo are available for birthday parties, weddings and the like.
They average more than 150 outside events a year.
“How cool is it to have Gumbo come to your birthday party?” Ballam said. “When I put on that costume, it’s like I forget everything and become a totally different person. It’s like being a superhero.”