Photos of the remaining 2006 Saints players: Drew Brees, Zach Strief, Marques Colston and Jahri Evans. Photos from them in 2006 and 2015 photos by Michael C. Hebert (New Orleans Saints photos)
Don't call them "Junction Boys" or "Jackson Boys," the former, an homage to the Texas A&M players who experienced a brutal 10-day summer camp under Coach Bear Bryant in September 1954 and the latter, a reference to their own survival of oppressive training camp conditions that bordered inhumane – and cleanly might have crossed that line as often as it straddled it – in July and August of 2006 in Jackson, Miss.
Call them brothers.
Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief are more than teammates, bonded by their introduction in Jackson and a union that has extended to the point that Sunday, against Jacksonville in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, they will take a step closer to completing their 10th NFL season together.
The game will, in fact, mark the completion of their 10th home season. New Orleans has played 79 regular-season home games since Brees was signed as an unrestricted free agent quarterback with an injured throwing shoulder, Evans was a little-known, fourth-round pick from Bloomsburg who originally attended school on an academic scholarship, and Strief and Colston were obscure, seventh-round draft picks who had a ton of work to do even to be considered long shots.
The Saints have won 64 percent of their home games since '06, and are undefeated in four home playoff games.
The quarterback (Brees), receiver (Colston), right guard (Evans) and right tackle (Strief) weren't on the field together for every one of those 83 home games.
But for the overwhelming majority of them, with the Saints en route to setting franchise records for offensive production and establishing a home-field advantage that nearly was unequaled, the best quarterback in franchise history has been able to look to his right for two comforting protectors at the line of scrimmage – one of whom became a six-time Pro Bowler – and throw to a target who became the best, most productive and reliable receiver in franchise history.
"It's very rare, especially to have all the guys on the offensive side," said Evans, the six-time Pro Bowler. "You think about all the great accomplishments we've had on our side of the ball the last 10 years, a lot of history being made."
"So much has changed in 10 years, guys as players and as people, and the organization is just so different from what it was when we came together," Strief said. "For me, Jah and Marques as rookies, none of us being all that touted or heralded, all of us trying to make an impression, to a situation where those two guys are two of the best players the organization has ever had.
"Obviously (that's) a big change there and I think the organization has gone from one that had traditionally struggled to one that has seen success, has won a world a championship, won division titles. The expectations are so different today than they were 10 years ago."
Said Colston, the franchise leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns: "I pride myself on being a fan first, and a student of the story. I definitely understand how rare this is, especially in this day and age with free agency. For four guys to come in together and really help to build a program that didn't really get a lot of respect when we got here into what it is today, we definitely take a lot of pride in that and it's really special to all of us."
As well they should, and it should be.
It's no coincidence that the most successful decade in franchise history links to the careers of the four players whose link goes back to Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss.
There, on the upper and lower practice fields at the liberal arts college, Saints players weren't just put through the paces by first-year coach Sean Payton and his staff. They endured withering sun and wilting heat, probably setting a record for most IVs needed by a team in a single training camp.
It was unbearably uncomfortable to media and fans who had the benefit of retreating to whatever patches of shade were to be found. For players – often in full pads, one unit or the other wearing black jerseys – it was a test of will.
Brees, at least, had a clue. He was a five-year veteran, and had played for hard-driving Coach Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego.
"I had a feeling that it was going to be tough, just because Sean Payton was a Bill Parcells disciple and I'd come from Marty Schottenheimer, who kind of had the same reputation as a Bill Parcells – just a tough, hard-nosed, Oklahoma-drill, two-a-days-every-day kind of mentality," a smiling Brees said. "So maybe I anticipated it a little bit.
"Now, listen, I play quarterback, so it's not like I'm hitting anybody or they're hitting me. But for me, I was coming off the injury and I felt like, for me, every day was just mentally a hurdle to try to convince myself that I was going to be OK and I was going to come back.
"I wasn't 100 percent so I'd be practicing, and the zip wasn't quite there yet and the distance on the deep balls wasn't quite there yet. It wasn't as crisp as I knew it needed to be, so I just hoped and prayed each day that it would get back to that point and at the same time, I'm looking around and guys are dropping like flies. And you're like, 'We're just all trying to survive here right now.' "
For the clueless rookies, it was a demanding introduction to the NFL.
"It's the closest thing to hell on Earth," Colston said, laughing. "It was brutal. It was one of those things where, as you're going through it, you're just kind of in survival mode, trying to get to the next day. But 10 years later, looking back on it, it's one of those things where the guys that made it through that training camp, you're bonded forever."
"The first camp was pretty brutal," Strief said. "It was so much more than I had expected it to be in terms of the amount of work, the difficulty, the heat. Jackson was, without question, the hardest thing I've ever gone through.
"The first Millsaps – physically, mentally – it took pretty much everything all of us had to get through it. It was a new environment, it was harder to play than it had ever been and the three of us (Strief, Evans and Colston), they beat us up pretty good.
"Me and Jah, the first week, were without a sub. Both of the guys in front of us were hurt and they just kind of threw us in and let us go and seven days into camp, we're 14 practices in and we haven't seen a break yet. It beat us up pretty good and yet, it created a foundation for all of us as players and in terms of making impressions with the staff here."
Said Evans: "I think nowadays when you see how the approach is, not just with our club but with the new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) developed, you kind of sit back and look at perspective, how much of a grind it was. Especially with the Superdome not being ready (due to repairs required from Hurricane Katrina), and having to stay there an extra two weeks – there wasn't another team going through that."
Having gone through it, and to still be members of the same franchise 10 years later, creates a thread that is unbreakable.
Not Junction Boys, or Jackson Boys.
"For sure, because the four of us have been through all the ups and downs of this regime," Colston said. "We've lost guys every year with the turnover, but to have the four of us still remaining, we definitely have a tight bond."
"Going through things that are difficult bonds you with the people that you're going through it with," Strief said. "Being 10 years in a place and going through what we've gone through, and what we've seen, and being a part of the things that we have, I definitely say you feel a different and unique connection to those guys.
"It transcends football. It's not a football relationship, it's not even a teammate relationship. It's become so personal – you know those guys so well and the good thing about that is, whenever it is over, those relationships will continue because it's more than football at this point with the four of us."
Still, Brees said, after a Super Bowl victory, division titles, individual honors and team records, there is one last thing that the brothers are eager to experience together.
"We've been through a lot together," he said. "We can all look back on those Jackson days. I don't know if many people are laughing, (but) the joke is, When is the bone coming for the Jackson guys?
"In other words, when is it that Coach Payton says, 'All right, everybody who had a training camp in Jackson, Miss., you get to sit out for this last set of conditioning.' Or, 'You don't have to do a conditioning test.' Or, 'You don't have to run that 100,' or whatever it is. Our guys are still waiting for that bone."