When Pro Football Hall of Fame officials notify honorees about their induction, one of the first things they do is request personal artifacts to display in a locker exhibit at the museum in Canton, Ohio.
Sam Mills’ family immediately went to work. They dug into boxes of Sam’s personal belongings from his playing days in New Orleans and Carolina to see what they could find. In one of the boxes, they uncovered a one-of-a-kind item: black military fatigues with gold lettering. The nameplate over the chest: MILLS. The unit: N.O. SAINTS. Mills’ No. 51 was stitched on one front pocket. A gold patch of Louisiana was on the other.
“When we saw it, we knew immediately what it was,” said Marcus Mills, one of Sam’s three sons. “Who else has a big, black onesie jumpsuit sitting around?”
Marcus and his brothers, Andre and Sam III, where there on that day in 1988 when his father and Saints teammates Rickey Jackson, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling posed in the outfits for the iconic “Dome Patrol” poster on the apron of the Superdome.
The poster instantly became one of the most popular in the line produced by Seattle-based Costacos Brothers, and a must-have collector’s item for Saints fans. It remains an enduring symbol of the famed Dome Patrol teams of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a cherished piece of memorabilia from the first great era of Saints football.
“We said immediately, ‘Oh, that’s got to go (to the Hall of Fame),’ ” Marcus Mills said.
Today, the outfit is prominently displayed in Mills locker at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It hangs next to Mills’ All-Madden Team letter jacket, and below his Saints helmet and game ball from his first game with the Philadelphia Stars, a 13-7 win over the Denver Gold in 1983.
Thousands of football fans have viewed it since it went on display this spring. Thousands more will view it this weekend as Mills and the rest of the Class of 2022 are immortalized during the enshrinement ceremony Saturday at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
“That’s the coolest thing ever,” said John Costacos, the co-founder of Costacos Brothers. “We consider the Dome Patrol one of the best posters we ever did.”
Costacos’ poster business was still in its fledgling stages back then. Started in 1986 on a lark after Costacos graduated from the University of Washington, the business took off after their wildly successful “Mad Mac” poster of Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon.
The Dome Patrol outfit Sam Mills wore in the iconic 1988 poster hangs on display in his locker exhibit at the @ProFootballHOF. Safe to say it’s the only black, military fatigue on display from the 8 players, coaches and contributors who will be enshrined today. #NOLA pic.twitter.com/T6IIMLc11S
— Jeff Duncan (@JeffDuncan_) August 6, 2022
The Dome Patrol poster idea came about after Costacos met Mills at the 1987 Pro Bowl. The Saints and Mills were trending topics back then. The Saints had gone 12-3 that year to record their first winning season in franchise history. And Mills was one of a then-record six Saints to earn Pro Bowl invitations that winter.
“Clearly, if you were going to do something with the Saints at that time, it should have been about the linebackers,” Costacos said. “Everybody talked about their linebackers. Their linebackers were so good.”
Costacos and his brother Tock designed the Dome Patrol theme, and Mills, Jackson, Johnson and Swilling signed off on it. He hired Corky Trewin, the staff photographer for the Seattle Seahawks, to shoot the images and assigned one his most recent hires, Tom Rees, to oversee the project in New Orleans.
Rees was eager to please. The New Orleans trip was his first-ever out-of-town assignment and he desperately wanted to make a good impression on his new bosses, so he went the extra mile.
He bought the outfits at a local Army surplus store in Seattle. His mother sewed the patches and nameplates on the outfits. He procured four pairs of trendy shades from Gargoyles sunglasses and persuaded Saints owner Tom Benson to donate the use of a sand-colored Jeep from his dealership to use as a backdrop for the shoot.
The project took a couple of hours to complete. Rees said Mills was the only one of the foursome to don the black berets he brought to accessorize the outfits. He recalls several of the players’ children being on the set, making it a fun, family affair.
“Everybody was just so nice, and the players were just so happy to be there,” Rees said. “Sam was just a regular, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. He was just so humble and happy that I had given him a phone call to do the poster.”
The poster was wildly successful. Demand was so high, the poster went through five printings, a rarity for players from a relatively small market such as New Orleans.
“It turned out awesome,” Costacos said.
Rees, who works in the mortgage business today, said it remains the favorite poster he produced among the hundreds he worked on during his 12-year tenure at Costacos.
“Sam and those guys were so genuinely nice, and the poster itself, with that black and gold color, really stands out,” Rees said. “It’s a visually appealing poster.
“I remember the only advice we got from John was, ‘Make them look like bad asses.’ I think we achieved that.”
The Dome Patrol poster, like most from the Costacos Brothers line, is out of print. Undoubtedly, countless copies were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina floodwaters in 2005, making original copies even more difficult to find in New Orleans. But thanks to Mills’ famous onesie, the Dome Patrol legend is preserved in the hallowed halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I can’t wait to see Rickey and Pat’s faces when they see the locker,” Marcus said with a laugh.