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Where are they now? John Gilliam, New Orleans Saints receiver-returner

Posted Mar 17, 2014

He returned opening kickoff in franchise history for touchdown

This is the first in a series of stories catching up former New Orleans Saints players. We've recently added every roster in Saints history to NewOrleansSaints.com. You can check out the 1967 team roster here. The 1968 and '69 rosters are here and you can find 1970-present here. If you have a suggestion for a player we should feature, email doug.tatum@saints.nfl.com.

For perspective, consider that John Gilliam in 1967 did something for the history book, a feat that hasn’t since been duplicated and, perhaps, hadn’t been achieved before he did it.

The then-rookie receiver took the opening kickoff, in the first NFL game for his expansion franchise, and ran it back 94 yards for a touchdown.

Even now, the 68-year-old, who went to four Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls as a Minnesota Viking, possibly is as noted for that moment in his NFL career with the Saints as he is for anything else he did in the league. And, certainly, the memory remains a pleasant and vivid one for him.

“Best day of my life,” Gilliam said. “It didn’t get any better than that. You’re a rookie, first-year team, first kickoff, I received the ball, took it back 94 yards. That was a dream come true. I’d always wanted to play on that stage and for that to happen to me…

“I know it had to be a lot of luck. We had to win the toss, it was a first-year team, I was a rookie – (but) it’s going to be hard for someone to repeat that. The odds are not there. I was so happy, instead of me keeping the ball, I threw it in the stands.

“There are no words to explain the feeling at the time. I was happy, I was a Saint, I loved my team and I just wanted to win.”

Gilliam went on to do most of his winning with the Vikings. After two seasons, New Orleans traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals, and after three seasons in which he caught 139 passes for 2,786 yards and 17 touchdowns for the Cardinals, he went to Minnesota, where he added four more productive seasons (165 catches for 3,297 yards and 20 touchdowns), Pro Bowl selections from 1972-75 and appearances in Super Bowls VIII and IX.

But he said that he never got the Saints out of his system.

“It just didn’t work out for me in New Orleans,” he said. “I loved that city, I loved the Saints. I left Minnesota, I signed with Atlanta as a free agent. I played with them one year, then I came to New Orleans and signed a one-year contract so I could retire a Saint.”

These days, if you travel to Atlanta and cross paths with Gilliam, and have a good recollection of what he looked like as an NFL player, there’s a decent chance you still could recognize the former receiver, even though he last suited up for the Saints in 1977.

He said he weighs 186 pounds – after playing for 11 years at 187 or 188 pounds – and to this day, never has spent a night in a hospital due to health reasons.

“I’m in good health,” he said. “I’m in good shape. I left high school at 180 (pounds), I’ve never been over 195 pounds.

“I just stay active, I’m an active person. I exercise and I watch what I put in my body. If you’re going to put the best oil in your car, you need to put the best food in your body. I’ve always been that way. I eat a lot of fish, I eat a lot of vegetables, and I’m heavy on fruits and salads.”

After retirement from the NFL, Gilliam, who graduated from South Carolina State with a biology degree, owned a shoe store for 12 years, then owned two liquor stores for eight years and worked for an Atlanta radio station for two years.

“I’ve been living in Atlanta since the Saints traded me in 1968,” he said. “They traded me to the St. Louis Cardinals. I lived in New Orleans year-round the two years I was there; I used to live off St. Bernard Avenue, near Dillard University.

“When the Saints traded me to the Cardinals, I said, ‘This is about business, it’s not about rah-rah.’ So I decided I was going to treat it as business. I said I wanted my kids to grow up in Atlanta, and we moved and bought a house.”

However, Gilliam said he almost never made it to the NFL. Rather than a pro football career, he believed he’d use his degree to become a physical therapist.

“I had almost committed to a contract in Hawaii,” he said. “They were going to send me to school for two more years, but I got drafted.

“I didn’t think I was going to get drafted but I did, and I said, ‘I’m going to take advantage of this,’ and I never went back to school for those final two years.”

He didn’t go back to school, but he did author an unforgettable moment for the Saints’ history book.

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