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New Orleans Saints program cover story: Willie Snead IV

Receiver honoring his family with addition to jersey

Check out Willie Snead IV during the regular season opener on Sunday, September 11, 2016.

What's in a name?

Pride. Legacy. Love. Respect. Admiration. Tribute.

That, and more, is how New Orleans Saints rookie receiver Willie Snead became second-year receiver Willie Snead IV, a jersey adjustment not announced publicly but shared with the world in New Orleans' first preseason game this year, when "Snead IV" adorned the back of his jersey as a sign that Snead was upping his name, and his game.

Snead and the Saints (1-3) will face Carolina (1-4) Sunday at noon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"The thought was just emphasizing the generations that are in my family's name," Snead said. "My dad is the third, my grandfather is the second and my great-grandfather is the first. I just wanted to put that out there and embrace my family, because that's what it's all about and that's what matters to me the most."

Now, don't think that Snead didn't have the same feelings regarding family tribute last year. He didn't just this year develop pride in his name. It's just that, as an undrafted rookie in 2014 who was signed by Cleveland in May, cut by Cleveland in August, signed by Carolina in September, cut by Carolina in November and signed by the Saints to the practice squad in December – all in '14 – well, he had larger concerns than the name of the back of his jersey.

Specifically, whether he'd be awarded a jersey at all, and roster spot.

"I wanted to do it last year, but me trying to make the team and trying to solidify and get a spot on the roster – at the time it just wasn't appropriate," he said. "I felt like I needed to focus on trying to make this team, trying to find my role here. That wasn't really the focus. I knew I wanted to eventually, but I felt like last year was just a different situation."

The situation that Snead was presented last season, he grabbed hold of and owned. His final numbers: 69 catches for 984 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games, and status as a dangerous and worthy compliment to Brandin Cooks (84 catches, 1,138 yards and nine touchdowns). That's what made him comfortable enough to request, and be awarded, with the name change entering this season.

And, yes, his family was especially pleased.

"I did it in college my junior year (at Ball State), switched it from Snead to Snead IV," he said. "They wanted to see that again so when I told them that Coach (Sean) Payton was allowing me to do that this year, they were very happy. My father was ecstatic about it. It just means a lot to them."

Perhaps, just as much, they're ecstatic that Snead is carving out a name for himself as an NFL player. Entering Sunday's game against the Panthers, he has 15 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns – good for fourth, second and tied for first on the team, respectively, in those categories – despite missing the Falcons game with a toe injury.

The journey from there to here has been an arduous one, and the reminders to not get too far ahead of himself are constant.

"It was a scary feeling (being cut)," Snead said. "I wasn't ready for it, I wasn't expecting it at all and it kind of caught me off guard. At the time I didn't know what to do except just get on my knees and pray, just try to figure it out from there. My family supported me all the way through when I wasn't on a team.

"I just had to keep motivating myself that someday, somebody's going to call me and I have to just keep working out and be ready. You always have to be ready when you're in a situation like that. That was the main thing, just keeping my head on straight and staying focused on the dream and what I needed to do to get back into the game.

"There are definitely doubts and questions that come up when you're cut. I'd never been cut before in my life with football, so this was a first and brand-new thing for me. But that's when my faith has to be strongest, when I'm at my weakest. And I have to lean on somebody, and I lean on God and Jesus.

"They help me, I look to them for guidance and my family is always there to love me and support me. When you have all those things around you, and you have a great support system, it makes things a little bit easier to handle. Without them I don't know where I would be. I'm here because of them."

Today, "here" is an NFL game, against one of the two teams that cut him. He caught five passes for 44 yards against the Panthers last year, missing one of the two games due to a calf injury.

"I met a lot of good people there," Snead said of his Carolina experience. "Those five weeks I was there on their practice squad, I felt like I earned a lot of peoples' trust, I gained a lot of good relationships there. There's no bitterness because when I got cut, it came down to a business decision.

"It came down to numbers; they had to let somebody go and I was the newest guy in the building. It's nothing bitter but there's always that deep feeling that, 'I was on that team and now I want to make them pay.' I definitely want to have a good game against them."

Being picked up by the Saints made that possible, and Snead overcame substantial odds to work his way from the practice squad, to the 53-man roster, to a prominent role in one of the NFL's most prolific offenses.

"It was definitely an opportunity that just fell into my lap at the end of the year (in '14)," he said. "At the time I didn't think I was going to be on a team at the end of the year. I was thinking I needed to get ready to either go back to Carolina, because they told me they wanted to bring me back at the end of the year if I didn't get signed, or somewhere.

"But when my agent called me and told me, 'New Orleans wants to work you out, they want to bring you in, there's a good possibility you make the team if you have a great workout,' that just motivated me so much more. I was working out at the time when I got that call. It just goes to show that you have to be ready at any moment, you always have to be training and you have to be ready for the opportunity, because it can come at any time.

"You've just got to come every day to work with a new mind-set and a goal to accomplish. That's what I did when I was first on the practice squad – came in early, got a lift in and tried to focus on what I needed to do today to help the team, whether that was on the practice squad, or giving a great look for the defense, things like that. Get better each and every day and show the coaches that I really wanted to be here."

Most definitely, he showed them exactly that. And he's looking to show more; specifically, a 1,000-yard season, which tantalizingly was within his sight last season, a goal that wasn't even on his radar when the '15 season began.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I didn't even think I was going to get over 500 yards at the beginning of the year. Just the season I had was such a blessing. All the opportunities and plays that I got were unbelievable.

"This year, it's more expected now, I now my role in this offense – more in the slot, get-open guy on third down. I knew I had to embrace my role this year and I knew I wanted to surpass 1,000 yards this year. I'm off to a good start. I just have to keep pushing myself.

"The struggle definitely is not the same as it was when I first got here. I am established a little bit more, I feel a little more comfortable. (But) at the same time, I'm always pushing myself to get better at something.

"I'll never take for granted being on the team because I've been cut before, and that's the worst feeling in the world. That'll always be a reminder for me; when it comes down to it, you can always be replaced. I just always want to be the hardest-working guy in the building, and always emphasize hard work, commitment and pushing myself to the limit."

What's in a name? For Willie Snead IV, everything.

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