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John DeShazier: Zach Strief created his own category with New Orleans Saints

Posted Mar 12, 2018

Veteran right tackles retires with emotional, funny press conference

There have been more productive New Orleans Saints, more beloved New Orleans Saints, more well-known New Orleans Saints.

But few have been more “New Orleans Saints” New Orleans Saint than offensive tackle Zach Strief, who announced his retirement Monday after 12 seasons with the franchise.

In a news conference that was equal parts emotional, comedic and revelatory, Strief retired with 158 regular-season games and 93 starts, a five-time offensive captain and seventh-round draft pick in 2006 who cajoled every ounce out of himself to become a 12-year veteran.

That total amounts to two more seasons than was Strief’s goal after he finally gained comfort in being an NFL player, and 12 more than he thought he would accumulate after his first few days of training camp at Milsaps College in Jackson, Miss., likely the most brutal, unrelentingly scorching preparation for a season that has been directed under Sean Payton, who was readying for his first year as a head coach.

“We’re about 15 days into that camp or so – first of all, that camp was very difficult, there was obviously weather issues – but more than anything, I was just getting beaten to death,” Strief said. “I was losing every play, that’s what it felt like anyway. And so, I got to a point where I said if I’m just going to be a camp body – I’m a pretty introspective person, I generally kind of feel like I have a good idea of what’s going on around me and my situation – I was like, I’m getting cut in three weeks. So, why not just stop now, before I subject myself to this much, just to get cut in three weeks and it’s for nothing.

“I called my Dad and I get on the phone and I said, ‘This is not for me. If this is what the NFL is, I don’t care what they’re paying me, I don’t want any part of it.’ ”

His father advised him to stick it out. Strief, who’d been contemplating quitting days before informing his father, was full speed ahead until he walked into a speed bump.

“In my head – I was walking down, we had a second practice – I’m walking to the field and I told myself, ‘I’m going to finish the day, I’m going to finish this practice, and then I’m going to go tell Sean that I’ve had enough. It’s not for me,’ “ Strief said. “I’m walking down to the field and our tight ends coach at the time, Terry Malone, walks out of the coaches building. We walk right past there to get to the field and Coach Malone came out and he said, ‘Hey, Zach, how are you doing?’

“And (the late) Randy Walker (Strief’s college coach at Northwestern) basically beat into your head, when someone asks you how you’re doing, you’re doing great. There’s no other answer, you’re just doing great. You’re always doing well, that’s a decision you’re making in that answer. So I said, ‘I’m doing great.’ I didn’t mean it.

“Terry tells me, ‘I’ve got to tell you, man, you’re doing great.’ We were really low on numbers. We had several injuries. They basically put me and (fourth-round pick) Jahri (Evans) at right guard and right tackle, and just kind of patted us on the butt and said go for it. For six straight days, we were the only two players at that position.

“I was doing terrible. I told him I was doing great and he said, ‘Listen, we’ve all been talking in the meetings about how good you’re doing. You’re fighting through it. Just keep it up, just keep fighting.’ And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Maybe if I just work my butt off, they’ll keep me in spite of the fact that I’m getting beat every play.’ That’s kind of what I said to myself.

“So, Terry Malone kept me from walking into (Payton’s) office that day. Now maybe (Payton) would have talked me out of it. But Terry Malone kept me from ever doing that and from that day on, it was just like, hey, I’ll just work as hard as I can and maybe they’ll ignore some of these issues that I’m having.”

The issues were cleared enough to the point where Strief is 11th on the Saints’ all-time list for games played, but much higher that than on the list since ’06 of the kind of player who epitomized “Saint.”

Strief worked his way into the lineup at right tackle after spending basically five seasons as a tackle-eligible, with Jon Stinchcomb starting.

“He has become an expert at his craft,” Payton said. “I think that it’s very easy to say, ‘He overachieved in his career.’ I would say that what he has been able to do, with his strength, his size, his experience and all of those things, he became one of the best right tackles in our game in the last five years. Consistent – you just knew what you were getting and you can’t overstate that enough.”

“Jon Stinchcomb showed me the entire playbook on how to be a professional,” Strief said, as he thanked Stinchcomb during his announcement. “He did it while I trained and worked to replace him. He was a coach to me when we played together, he has at times been a therapist for me since he’s left.”

Additionally, Strief opened by thanking team owners Tom and Gayle Benson, Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, the Saints’ trainers and equipment staff, and his teammates.

Chief among the teammates was quarterback Drew Brees, one of several who attended the announcement. Strief’s recollection of playing with Brees produced tears.

“For the past eight years, I’ve played in front of the most prolific passer in NFL history,” he said. “Drew Brees has been the single greatest motivation for me as a player. Every day I would walk into the building and pass Drew watching film. Every Thursday I would send him pictures of the menu so we could order his dinner, since his workday ended four hours after ours.

“You have made countless sacrifices for your teammates, spent countless hours with us instead of your family. My greatest drive as a player was not to let you down. You’re the greatest leader I’ve ever been around and I admire you so much as a player, but more as a person. Being a small part of your Hall of Fame career has been my greatest honor as a player.”

Brees responded in kind, to the last remaining teammate he had from ’06, when Brees signed with the Saints as a free agent.

“I can’t say enough about what Zach Strief has meant to this team and to me personally over the last 12 years,” Brees said in a statement. “There’s not a better teammate. Not a better leader. Not a better man. Not a better friend.

“He was the same person every day and never have I known someone to have a better pulse of the team. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it, and we listened. I admire him so much for the player and teammate he was and the man he has become.

“I am so fortunate to have played behind him for 12 years and many of my best memories in this game include him. His journey and career should be admired and respected as he moves on to the next chapter of his life and he will always be one of the best to ever play for this great organization.”

Strief was drafted by Payton on the recommendation of Walker, who also coached Miami (Ohio) from 1990-98; Payton was Miami’s quarterbacks coach in 1994-95.

“I could not have been more fortunate than having Sean Payton as a head coach for the past 12 years,” Strief said. “Your genius as an offensive mind and play-caller are well documented. Your genius as a leader of men is only known by the fortunate few that have had the privilege of being around you in this building. I have the utmost respect for you. You had more to do with me getting an opportunity here than anyone else. You took a chance on me when no one else would, your faith in me has changed my life forever.”

Payton said the Saints will miss Strief’s leadership.

“There’s the player, in regard to at his position (that will be missed),” Payton said. “But more importantly, all the other things that came with his leadership. You can’t begin to measure it yet. You hope there are others that can pick up the void that’s left.

“One of the traits we mark now is, ‘Does he endear himself to his teammates?’ That’s a category that’s important, just as your 40 time, your height, your weight, your ability. And I think he epitomizes that.”

Strief said he considered retiring last year. But with no clear replacement on the roster, and with Payton and Loomis telling him that they believed he had more left in the tank, he returned.

“And I knew if I was at home watching TV and Drew was being hit, and I felt like I could have helped, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself,” he said. “It’s much easier knowing that there’s someone there that’s going to play at a high level for him. So, this is all Ryan Ramczyk’s fault.”

Ramczyk, the final pick of the first round in ’17 and a starter who played every offensive snap, gives the Saints their future at right tackle.

But Monday was about celebrating their past, with a player who was determined only to play for the Saints.

“There’s no amount of money that a team could have paid that would have outweighed (staying in New Orleans),” Strief said. “It was important to me early. Randy (Walker) told Sean that I’d play for him for 10 years, and that was very important to me. I remember negotiating the last contract, how important it was that it looked like I would make it to 10 years and make him right.”

Strief, it turns out, made a lot of people look right, even though he was listed on a  “special” category on the team’s draft board.

“I was sitting in the coaches meeting room a couple of years ago, it was before the draft,” he said. “And they slot – I don’t know if they still do it – but there’s six categories of players. It’s basically like, these elite guys that come every few years, all the way down to, like, maybe this guy could possibly have a chance of playing.

“I’m looking at them and I see there’s five (categories) up there, and I’m reading them and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, after talking to Mickey (Loomis), I don’t know which one of those they would have put me in. I don’t think he’d put me in any of those categories.

“And right when I’m thinking it, Mickey walks into the room. And I said, ‘Mickey, I can’t identify which one of those categories I would have fit in.’ And he looks at the board and goes, ‘Oh.’ And he closes the door. The sixth category was behind the door. And he said, ‘That was your category.’ ”

Funny, and appropriate. Because in the end, Strief seems to have found a category of his own.

“I can’t tell you what an honor it is for me to even have the opportunity to sit here and put closure on a career that exceeded my own expectations by so much,” he said.