No doubt, Saints are Mississippi's team
This past weekend, the Braves-Cardinals-and-just-who-is-Mississippi’s-Major League Baseball team website piece generated thousands of page views and much response. Not sure we solved anything, but it surely sparked lots of give and take.
We can’t have that same argument where professional football is concerned — not since New Orleans obtained a franchise in 1967.
The New Orleans Saints have long been Mississippi’s NFL team and not only because they are the closest in proximity. The Saints and Mississippi have a shared history.
The first Saint under contract? Paige Cothren, born in Natchez, played college ball at Ole Miss.
Most beloved Saint? Archie Manning, from Drew, and also Ole Miss. Arch never experienced a winning season with the Saints, but he was so good he was universally respected by opponents, played in Pro Bowls and was once the NFC’s offensive MVP. No doubt, Archie’s years with the Saints strengthened the bond between the Saints and the Magnolia State.
Saints all-time leading rusher? Why, Deuce McAllister, of course, from Lena and Ole Miss. All together now: D-E-E-E-U-U-U-C-E!
Best special teams player in Saints history? Fast Freddie McAfee from Philadelphia (the one in Mississippi) and Mississippi College. Fast Freddie still works for the Saints with a wide-range of responsibilities centered around helping players and their families improve their quality of life as well as invest in their futures. McAfee’s title is Director of Player Development.
And then there’s the fact that the Saints have trained both in Hattiesburg and Jackson over the course of their history. Sean Payton has said time and again that the road to the Saints’ Super Bowl championship really began on the practice fields at Millsaps College. The Saints surely left a lot of sweat there.
There are so many other ties, including the fact that Hamp Cook, another Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, was a long-time scout for the Saints and a man who served more coaches and general managers than he could count. Funny story: Hamp would always use Saints training room ice to ice down a case of beer when he headed out on the road. Archie and his backup, Bobby Scott, watched him do it several times and then decided to “surprise” him. Hamp reached his destination, reached in for a cold beer and found nothing but Gatorade.
“I knew Archie had something to do with it,” Cook says and he still laughs when he says it.
But, seriously, nothing brings folks closer together than the common enduring of hardship and heartbreak. The Saints and Mississippians have shared hardship and heartbreak. Witness: Hurricanes Camille and Katrina. Indeed, the Saints revival after Katrina helped the entire Gulf South region recover emotionally from that evil storm.
Many Mississippians follow Eli and the Giants and followed Brett and the Packers (and Jets and Vikings). We have and have had favorite “sons” — Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, D.D. Lewis, etc.) who play for many other teams. But the fact is many Mississippians live and die, emotionally, with the Saints. They are in our livings rooms every Sunday. They are, for better or worse and there was much of the latter in their early years, Mississippi’s pro football team.
One of my favorite Saints stories from the early days: One of the first Saints safeties was former Ole Miss quarterback Jimmy Heidel, later the head of the Mississippi Development Authority, a highly decorated economic developer, and a member of this Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors.
Heidel wore jersey No. 26 long before McAllister. He started for the Saints in their first season (1967) but then was cut before the 1968 season began.
“That’s the way it goes some days,” Heidel told newspapers after getting his release. “Some days you’re the windshield and some days you’re the bug.”
In those early days, the Saints were usually the bugs. But Mississippians grew to love them anyway. Still do.