First of all, thank everyone for being here. It's a humbling day here to see all of the people that have played such big roles for me in my career here in this room. I've got some stuff I'd like to say and some people I'd like to thank. This speech is longer than it should be, I apologize for that.
I can't tell you what an honor it is to even have the opportunity to sit here and put closure on a career that exceeded my own expectations by so much. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say here today and I promise the version you're going to hear here today is considerably shorter than where it started and yet considerably longer than what you're all hoping for. Fortunately, when I add up all of the time spent answering questions for so many people in this room, I feel less bad about stealing some of your time.
First, let me thank Mr. and Mrs. Benson for being the greatest owners that I could have ever asked for. Everything I've ever needed as a player has been provided to me and the leadership in this organization is why we've had so much success here. My opportunity here started with you and I cannot thank you enough for having me and for all that you've done for all of us. Certainly, Mr. Benson is in all of our prayers, we are all hoping he gets well soon and gets back in this building sooner rather than later. I have so many people I feel strongly I need to thank for getting me to this point; they say it takes a village to raise a child, I'm learning that personally right now and I feel like my career in New Orleans has been no different.
It's an interesting life as a professional athlete, frankly we spend a lot of time getting far more credit than we deserve. There are so many people who have worked behind the scenes in this building that have played such huge roles in my personal and our team's success that I would feel remise not to address. Greg Bensel, JMac (Justin Macione), Doug Miller and our entire communications team has done such a great job preparing us and at times protecting us from the ever changing media landscape. They played a large part in the event today and I appreciate you guys so much for it. Beau Lowery, Scottie Patton, Reggie Stone, Kevin Mangum, Ben Stollberg, and countless other trainers and student trainers that have tirelessly, except for Mango he's generally tired, to keep us and return us to the field. The relationship I have with all of you I will cherish and I can't tell you how much I appreciate the sacrifice that you've made for the betterment of my and my teammates careers.
Bum, Corey, and the entire equipment staff have been nothing but the epitome of professionalism, never once in my professional career did I need something you all didn't already think of. I appreciate the 5,000 pairs of socks and 10,000 pairs of gloves y'all have passed to me without questioning what I did with the other 9,000 pairs. There is also a myriad of coaches that have had profound impacts on my career: Doug Marrone, Aaron Kromer, Bret Ingalls and Dan Roushar each have played the biggest roles in my development as a player. While each of you were unique, you were all the same in your selfless devotion to our offensive line room. The sacrifices you made for us and me specifically, I could never repay you for.
Dan, where are you? I want to look at you. I hope that each of you know the admiration and the appreciation that I have for all of you. The strongest bond I've had with any coach in my life is Dan Dalrymple. Our strength coach and I have shared a history, we both spent time with the late Randy Walker. At Coach Walker's funeral, his wife told Dan, "take care of Zach." Knowing now that you're the most loyal person I've ever met, it's no surprise that you took that to heart. Let me tell you, you did not let Tammy down. I've had no bigger supporter in the building from Day One than Dan. Our pre-practice staff meetings have kept me going on more than one occasion and I will miss our time together greatly. You are truly someone who is working behind the scenes to most, but you've been in the forefront of my career from Day One, thank you for your friendship.
Where's Deuce? Sorry, that didn't take long, I thought it was going to happen sooner (tearing up). Deuce told me the only thing that I had to worry about was not crying. I could not have been more fortunate than having Sean Payton as a head coach for the past 12 years. 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 to be around you in this building. I have the upmost 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, and your faith in me has changed my life forever. I will miss our meetings talking about the team and about life, thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me this opportunity.
I've signed five contracts in New Orleans, and restructured two of them, every one of them starting in Mickey Loomis' office. This is a business that revolves around deception, constantly trying to outthink our opponents, the same can be true in the front office. In 12 years, not once did Mickey Loomis mislead me. Your honesty did not go unnoticed, these past few years I've had the opportunity to share with you my view on so many different aspects of this organization. Thank you for the opportunity to feel so involved in every aspect of this building. You've kept me around for a long time, admittedly to your own surprise. If I was honest, I would say it surprised me as well, thank you for everything that you've given me.
I've had so many teammates over the past 12 years that have had a profound impact on both my career and my life. Jon Stinchcomb showed me the entire playbook on how to be a professional, he did it while I trained and worked to replace him. He was a coach to me while we played together, he's at times been a therapist for me since he left. Him and his wife beautiful wife, Ali, have taken me in nearly every summer since he left and allowed me to live with their family while I trained in Atlanta. You have been the greatest of friends to me, I admire you so much and I hope you have gotten something out of our relationship. At times it feels like I'm the one getting all of the benefits. I love you and all of your family for everything you've done for me.
For the past eight years I've played in front of the most prolific passer in NFL history. 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 work day ended four hours after ours. You have made countless sacrifices for your teammates and 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 even more as a person. Being a small part of your Hall of Fame career has been my greatest honor as a player. I will miss being around you on a daily basis. Thank you for everything that you've done and continue to do.
I could do a paragraph on about 50 players in my tenure as a player, guys like: Lance Moore, Max Unger, Roman Harper, Pierre Thomas, Scott Fujita, Jonathan Vilma, Jahri Evans, Marques Colston, Jeff Faine, Thomas Morstead, Ben Watson, Jimmy Graham, Deuce McAllister, Mark Ingram II, Cam Jordan, Charles Grant, I could but I will not go on for 10 minutes. I have been surrounded by the greatest people on the planet, guys that are great teammates, tremendous competitors and selfless people. You have already made the journey special and I have missed being around all of you. To my family, Charlotte thank you for being by my side every day since we met, my most productive years as a player have come with you behind me. You have filled my life with happiness and allowed me to give 100 percent to this team, thank you and I love you.
To my parents, Doug and Cathy, and sisters Heather and Karle, you have all been my biggest fans since before anyone else cared. You have been the strongest support system I could have ever had. The only thing any of you have ever asked of me is to be healthy. I can't thank you all enough for loving and supporting me. To my New Orleans family: Tommy, Debbie, Marissa, and Megan, you have all quickly become such a huge part of my life. Every week you were in the stands and every week you were there for me win or lose, I appreciate all of you. Finally to the Who Dat nation, you're simply the greatest fans in sports. Maybe not the largest in number, but certainly the greatest in passion. What is so unique in this city is that you have truly been there no matter the outcome. You do not turn negative after a loss, you always see the positives coming around the corner. It was my greatest joy as a player getting to be a part of bringing you a world championship and I fully expect you'll be getting another one quite soon. I will be right there with you cheering on our black and gold. I hope I get the opportunity to meet each and every one of you at Port Orleans, I am not above shameless self-promotion. I am sorry I've taken so long, when I wrote this I kept contemplating it, scrapping it and simply saying, "Thank you to everyone," and walking away. My college coach, Randy Walker, who played a huge part in my development as a player and a person, passed away before I had a chance to tell him thank you for everything he did for me. It's one of my greatest regrets in life and I vowed not to ever let it happen again. My career here has exceeded my wildest imagination, I didn't think this was going to last through my first August let alone 12 years. My admiration of the New Orleans Saints organization has grown daily throughout my career, thank you to everyone who has played a role in it, it certainly was not accomplished alone. Thank you all for coming today and giving me the opportunity to do this. I acknowledge this is a very rare opportunity given to very few. To my current teammates, I will be watching, see you at Super Bowl LIII, Who Dat.
Zach, how close did you come to coming back again for another season?
"You know I spoke with Sean and Mickey last year about retiring and they both felt like I had more time and in spite of my family's arguments at times, I felt like it was time. I think this one was fairly clear. It was harder than I thought, I thought it would be, I'm done, it's over and it's easy. It's a huge part of my life that's going away and that made it difficult but I think it's undoubtedly the right decision. One of the things that I kept thinking about last year was that there was no clear replacement on the roster. I knew if I was at home watching TV and Drew was getting hit and I felt like I could have helped, I wouldn't have been able to live with myself. 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."
Zach, when you look at the future, are you going to be a coach or become a part of the media?
"I told Dianne the other day that I was going to take your job. No, listen, obviously I've been a part of starting a company in New Orleans, I'm going to be heavily involved in that for the time being. As a player over the course of your career you hear a lot of people say things like, "Well come and talk to me when you're done." Yet you have no idea if any of those people are serious or if any of those things are actual jobs or if it's just talk. We're fortunate, we're going to spend some time and kind of see what is available and I'll make a decision on what's available to me. I'm in a fortunate position that I can sit and wait and see what I enjoy."
Coach what was your reaction when Zach told you he was contemplating this move?
"Probably a lot like Mickey or the rest of the teammates, I reflect on the handful of people that have been here for the whole time. A year and a half ago there were a group on 10 of us that were 10 after 10 I guess it was, and we had a dinner before the start of training camp and we all really reflected on how we got here. That was still clear and to this day I can still remember, Zach talks about Randy Walker who he played for at Northwestern who I coached for at Miami University in Ohio, that's where I met Dan Dalrymple. Randy who passed on after Zach finished, Randy was one of those guys that just was hard to get strong opinions about somebody. He was a tough judge but if he ever did have a strong opinion, you'd listen. I called Randy to get some feedback on Brett Basanez who was a quarterback at Northwestern a long time ago with Zach at the same time. We spoke a while about that and then he asked me about Zach, his right tackle who was captain and he just went on and on about him and I remember going over the board and just trying to figure out where the magnet was (Strief: "It wasn't on the board") it was on the back board. When you get to that portion of the draft you're looking for conviction and traits and certain things and measurables and you start looking at certain things and you know he's a two-time captain, Randy loved him, Randy had just coached an offensive lineman that had just gone and gotten drafted earlier. Honestly, those words from Randy had as much to do with I think with us looking closely because I can only think of two or three times that Randy spoke that way about any one player. That's what goes through my mind. It seems like maybe six years, he reported eligible it seems like for a couple years and then he became our right tackle, it doesn't seem like as long as it's been."
Was there ever a time that you thought you might sign with another team?
"No. There's really only been one contract I signed here where there was any other interest. I remember having a conversation with my agent saying, "Just say as much as you can about that other team so we can get this done quickly. (Loomis: "That's not what you told me.") As honest and straight-forward as Mickey has been with me, I might have not been the same with him. But I wanted to stay probably more than Mickey wanted me to stay. First of all, as soon as I realized that I wasn't ever leaving New Orleans, the opportunity to stay and be on one team and live in that city…there's no amount of money that a team could have paid that would have outweighed that. It was important to me early and it was super important to Randy, Randy told Sean that I would play for him for 10 years and it was very important to me. I remember negotiating in the last contract that it looked like I would make it to ten years and make him right. I will tell one story, this is making me feel a little better about that. I was sitting in the coaches meeting room a couple years ago, it was before the draft and they had six categories of players. Basically these elite guys that come every few years all the way to maybe this guy could possibly have a chance at playing. I'm looking at them and I see there's five up there and I'm reading them and I'm like, "I don't know, after talking to Mickey, I don't know which one of those they would put me in. I don't think they would put me in any of those categories." 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 fit in." He looks at the board and goes, "Oh," and closes the door and the sixth category was behind it, and he said, "that was your category." That's a good story, so I don't feel as bad because that was so disrespectful. Although I agreed with it."
When did you know and why New Orleans?
"The relationship that I have with, first of all, I wasn't a guy that every team in the NFL was chasing after when I came out of college, right? I didn't schedule any private workouts and I'm not good at 40's or verticals or any of those things and this was the place that gave me the opportunity. I think from Day One I felt very obligated to hold up my end of that and I've felt indebted to these two for a long time (Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton). Once I was here and built relationships, it's funny, free agency is starting soon and these guys look at teams and where they're going to go and there's all these discussions about..it's all contract talk, right? I can't tell you how many players have come in this building from other places and a month in said, "you don't know how good you have it, it's not like this everywhere." It's the single greatest advertising that you could ever give to a free agent. This is a special place, they care about you, they treat you like men. It was very easy for me to feel like I owed them something every year. A lot goes into someone playing at a place as long as I've gotten to, the situation has to be right, I came in with a new coach, if Sean was here for seven years I probably would have been here for seven years. It's just the nature of this business sometimes. My desire to stay had as much to do with my being as comfortable as I am in New Orleans and the people in it and feeling this kind of constant urge to prove myself to make them feel like they made a good experience."
How long would you say it took you to develop here?
"There's so many things that play into me staying here as long as I've gotten to. One is coming into an organization with a new coach and a new group of people, a huge one and maybe as big as any was coming in and playing behind a player that was constantly trying to help me Jon Stinchcomb has meant as much to my career as any player every could have. Jon trained me to replace him, he made comments every single day about how my foot was on his back and "you're just trying to push me out the door" and "I've given you all of this stuff and this is how you repay but at the end of the day," he's joking but it's true, you're training your replacement when you help a younger player. But Jon was selfless in that but he taught me and gave me more than I could ever ask for and gave me time to develop as a player. I was not ready to start my first year, if I had I probably wouldn't have lasted too long. But I was given an opportunity to play a little bit and to play a role and to get on the field and get experience without exposing all of my numerous weaknesses and it gave me time to develop. I think that's the biggest reason why I've always felt that it was important to the guy behind me, kind of pay it forward and be a mentor. There's guys that come in this league and there's so much talent and responsibility there and it takes a while to unravel it. Sometimes, this business is not patient and I'm one of the very few that was given patience. The ability to give some of that back to younger players is very important to me because it's probably I got the reason to stick around."
Sean, how good is he?
"You begin to appreciate this the longer you coach. We just got finished coaching at the Pro Bowl not too long ago, our staff was at the Pro Bowl, and you begin to realize the better-to-elite players in our league are gifted physically and yet they're also emotionally, there's a level of intelligence, there's all these other things, they endear themselves to their teammates..so when you're at that game you begin to appreciate exactly how to set in a passing situation he understands the help he's getting from his right guard, he's become an expert at his craft and I think that it's very easy to say he's overachieved in his career, I would say what he's been able to do with his strength, his size and his experience, all of those things, he became one of the best right tackles in our game in the last five years. You just knew what you were getting and you can't overstate that enough. The shame of it all is that your son is going to know you as a brew master and not a brilliant right tackle. Everything his son hears about his father, he's going to have to believe you in regards to football. As much as Mickey and I are…it's very important for us to find the right people that fit this program, we'd never insert someone just because they're a good guy and they're smart. I would say in some of his later years he played some of his best football and there's a lot that went into that. The amount of attention to detail and taking care of his body and the off season, the attention to detail on his technique, all of those things go into being very good at a certain position. He became an expert at that position and I think in a time I could see him teaching that, whether it's to professional players, college players, high school players, I think that will all come. That part of it, it's hard for me to think that's it's been twelve years, you just keep thinking, well Zach will be back at right tackle. These events date or age you a little bit or they do as we sit here and talk about the players and the years."
Sean, how much will you miss having a guy like Zach in the locker room?
"A bunch. There's the player as in regards to his position but more importantly all the other things that came with his leadership. You can't begin to measure it right yet. You hope that others can pick up the void that's left. I just know who he played for in college and Dan and he had that unique relationship because Dan had worked for the same gentleman, Randy Walker, and I think it's not until he's truly gone that you begin to feel that void. The good news is, he's right down the road. It'll just be hard to replace the leadership and the consistency. One of the traits that we mark is does he endear himself to his teammates? That's a category that's important, just as your height, your weight, your ability and I think he epitomizing that."
Sean, can you speak about the significance at all about the people you brought in in 2006?
"We've used terms but it really ended up becoming the foundation, that draft class that group of free agents. If you went through the draft, real quickly, Reggie Bush was the pick No. 2 and we took Roman Harper in the second round, we backed up a few slots and acquired Jeff Faine in that same round so Jeff and Roman came in round two, I don't think we had a three, four we were getting ready to draft Owen Daniel and back then it was two days so the second pick of the second day and while we were on the phone with Owen Daniel the Texans selected him, and we backed up and selected Hollis Thomas and then we selected soon to be Hall of Famer Jahri Evans, then in the fifth round is was Rob Ninkovich, we just weren't smart enough to have the correct vision for Rob, I told him he was going to be a long snapper, so he won Super Bowls somewhere else. I think we took a few other players in the sixth round that didn't make it and then Zach in the seventh and Marques (Colston) in the seventh. We discussed this draft two years ago, right about this time in the season the scouts were in maybe a couple weeks later and we're discussing hits and misses. We're all trying to improve our efficiency throughout this process. We put those names up and I haven't even hit the free agent names that year, I haven't hit Fujita, I haven't hit Drew Brees, I haven't hit Scott Shanle or any of the other players. We're talking about the draft and we list those players and we go, what do they have in common? We gotta start searching for guys that are good teammates and have good traits and stay true to it. When we had gotten off the path, occasionally it hasn't worked out. I would say the significance of that class was everything. Not even at the time knowing how important it was going to be. As a coach you don't coach twelve years if you only have that class, maybe you're only there for three years. It's always important but it's not until you look back that you realize all those guys had that passion for football and I can't speak for them but I think all of them are guys that are close with each other."
(Mickey Loomis) How special has it been to see Zach develop from a seventh round pick to where he is now?
"Any time you hit on a seventh-round pick you're pretty excited but that class. I did a research project a couple years ago and that class had six guys that played 10 years plus in the NFL. I went back 25 years and I couldn't find another teams draft class that equaled that. We're kidding Zach about where he was on the board but he was taken in front of Marques Colston, he's got those bragging rights. This is unique because we get to celebrate a player who has been with our team over 10 years and even more unique than that it is a guy that was drafted and spent his entire career with one team. I think there's only three other guys that have had more than ten years in that category for the Saints so this is a pretty special day."
Are there any moments that just jump out as highlights of your career?
"Certainly the Dome re-opening and we're all fortunate to get to spend time around Steve (Gleason) and you know that moment for me was certainly eye opening at the power this game has. I went to Northwestern, most of our students were upset we had a football team. It's better now, I don't want to cause recruiting issues at Northwestern but it was not exactly like the atmosphere of an Ohio State or an Alabama or an LSU it was different. That was kind of the first time that I was like, my gosh your ability to affect lives doing this is on such a large scale. Certainly the situation had everything to do with that but that was a moment I'll never forget. The kick going through the uprights in the Minnesota game is a moment I'll never forget. Getting pulled down to the ground when I had the opportunity to catch a touchdown pass is a moment I'll never forget, that one has really stuck with me. That actually came up today again so that's great. I think more than anything, this is true and may be a little cliché but the moments I remember most are private moments I remember in the locker room with people. Stories that you share in a locker room during training camp, as big as all of those moments are, at times you can feel a little disconnected from it, it's never your moment it's everyone's. There's times, I said the first year I played football, I learned to like practice a lot more than I did when I was young but it was never so much the football that I had a deep love for it was the locker room and the comradery and that's the thing that's hard, you lose that completely. I can compete with somebody or go play on a team or do something that maybe you get some of that but that comradery you lose and you never get that level of togetherness back. The greatest moments of my career are small things that would not make sense to anyone in this room that had a huge impact on my life, I'm going to miss those the most."
Was there ever a thought where you didn't know how much longer you could play?
"I'll tell you this story and it's appropriate that it gets shared, cause it is such a big moment in my career. A lot has been said about the training camp in Jackson in '06, the first one at Millsaps. Obviously a real eye opener for me as a player. The guy I played next to in college went and got drafted by the Colts and he was with Tony Dungy and he's calling me like, "bro we don't even wear pads, this is amazing, the NFL is the greatest thing ever." I get to New Orleans and we're in Millsaps and I'm like, "this is not what I was sold. This is not the same situation." We're about 15 days into that camp or so and I really, first of all, that camp was very difficult, there was weather issues but more than anything I was just getting beaten to death. I was losing every play, that's what it felt like anyways. I got to a point where I was like, if I'm just gonna be a camp body, I'm a pretty introspective person, I generally feel like I know what's going on around me. I was like, "I'm getting cut in three weeks, so why not just stop now before I subject myself to this and get cut in three weeks?" It's funny now, it was not funny at the moment, I call my dad and I'm like, "This is not for me. I this is what the NFL is, I don't care what they're paying. I don't want any part of it."
My dad told me to stick it out, don't stop, just keep going. I was like, alright, this hasn't been going on since this morning I've been thinking it for two weeks. In hindsight I was not the only player who thought that during that camp. But in my head, I'm walking down to the second practice, I'm walking down to the field and I told myself, "I'm going to finish this practice, finish this day and then I'm going to tell Sean I've had enough." I'm walking down to the field and our tight ends coach at the time Terry Malone walks out of the coaches building and says, "Hey Zach, how are you doing?" Randy Walker basically beat into your head, if someone asks you how you're doing, you're doing great. There's no other answer, you're just doing great. I said, "I'm doing great," and I didn't mean it. Terry tells me, "hey man, I gotta tell you, you're doing great. We were really low on guys Stinchcomb was coming off a knee surgery, we lost Jermane Mayberry I don't think he every practiced, we had someone else go down, they basically put me and Jahri in at right guard and right tackle and patted us on the butt and said go for it. Individual, team, for six straight days we were the only two players at that position so I was doing terrible. He (Malone) says to me, "Listen, we've all been talking in the meetings about how great you're doing, you're fighting through it, just keep it up just keep fighting." I remember thinking to myself, maybe if I just work my butt off, they'll keep me in spite of that I'm getting beat every play. In hindsight, that probably was not true, they wouldn't have, but that's what I kept telling myself. Terry Malone kept me from walking into his (Sean Payton) office that day. Now maybe he would have talked me out of it but Terry Malone kept me from ever doing that and from that day on it was just, "Hey, I'll just work as hard as I can and maybe they'll ignore some of these issues I'm having. In that moment, I did not think for a minute about playing 10 years or 12 years or even a year, I thought I was done in three weeks."
Can you talk about this community? Coming in at the same time as the rebuilding.
"I drove in eight months after Katrina. I gave a speech the other day and I went back and counted, it was eight months from the end of Katrina and when I was driving in I missed an exit. That was before navigation systems, I had MapQuest papers in my passenger seat. I'm driving in and I kind of miss my exit, I stay in a hotel in Birmingham and I get up the next morning and continue to drive and realize I missed the exit and hour later and I call my dad and he pulls out a map, crazy stuff, and gave me directions. Instead of coming in West of New Orleans I come in from the East, which it was not a good time to come in from the East. I hit Slidell and the Twin Spans - which was half-floating - and there are no exits open in New Orleans East, they're just blocked off. I remember vividly seeing a car on the roof of a shopping center and looking to my left and seeing a street with a bunch of driveways but no houses. I remember calling home and being like, "I don't know what to do. There are no exits and I'm kind of low on gas. The whole city is gone, I don't know how there is a football team, there is no city. Obviously when you get to New Orleans and get to the city you see there are actual people here. I got in toward the airport, airport Hilton was home for like eight months. I remember feeling a little better seeing people and then a McDonald's offering $1,000 signing bonuses to work there. Then I realized I was in a bad place in that moment so I got to see this city at its worst. For 12 years it's gotten better every single year and I think what's been special is I've been able to be a part of not only this organization growing to where it is today but also the city. It's very hard not to become attached to that. Coming here and seeing what happened in '06 and winning a World Championship in '09 and being around people in this city and hearing what it meant to them and what we've meant to them, it endears you very quickly. It's played a huge role in my decision to not leave here, in spite of what some of you think, my wife said she would go wherever I needed to go so she was not tied to New Orleans. It was a decision that we made that we were going to stay because it was home to both of us."