By Rick Cleveland, Special to NewOrleansSaints.com
The New Orleans Saints these days are billed as representing the entire Gulf South region, including not only Louisiana but Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle.
But the truth is the Saints have been, since Day One, Mississippi's NFL team. At first, it was a simple matter of geography but after four decades there's much more to it than close proximity.
The connections are seemingly endless.
First Saint under contract? He was Paige Cothren, born in Natchez, and a star at Ole Miss.
Most beloved Saint? If he's not Drew Brees, then he's probably 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! McAllister became the analyst on Saints radio broadcasts this fall.
Best non-kicking special teams player in Saints history? This vote goes to 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.
Joe Horn, who caught 50 touchdown passes for the Saints, famously played junior college football at Itawamba (in Fulton, Miss.) and never played collegiately.
The Saints took more concrete steps this year to cement the ties between the franchise and Mississippi when they became the presenting sponsor of Mr. Football in the state as part an agreement with the Mississippi Association of Coaches and Mississippi High School Activities Association.
And then there's the fact that the Saints have trained both in Hattiesburg and Jackson over the course of their history. Coach 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. Just ask them.
One of those who sweated was McAllister, who grew up watching the Saints almost every Sunday in Lena, not far from Morton, which is about 30 miles east of Jackson.
"I remember watching Bobby Hebert and the Dome Patrol and Eric Martin," McAllister said. "Those were really good teams that never quite got over the hump."
McAllister was happy when the Saints called his name with the 23rd pick of the 2001 draft, despite the Saints already having a guy named Ricky Williams in the backfield.
"Well for one thing, I had dropped so far, I was happy to be drafted period," he said. "But I also was glad that my family and friends who had watched me in high school and college would be able to make a short drive to watch my home games in New Orleans. Most of them were Saints fans to begin with."
Those fans' attraction to the Saints only grew as McAllister helped the franchise get over that afore-mentioned hump.
There are so many other Saints-Mississippi ties, including the fact that Hattiesburg's Hamp Cook was a longtime scout for the Saints and a man who served more coaches and general managers than he could count. Like Manning, McAllister and McAfee, Cook is a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Funny story: Cook always would raid Saints training room ice machine 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 one day decided to "surprise" him. Hamp reached his destination, reached in for a cold beer and found nothing but Gatorade. He kept digging and digging. Not one beer.
"I knew Archie had something to do with it," Cook says and he still laughs when he says it.
There's nothing funny about the hardships and heartaches Mississippians and the Saints have shared. Nothing brings folks closer together than the common suffering. Witness: Hurricanes Camille and Katrina. Indeed, the Saints' revival after Katrina helped the entire Gulf South region recover emotionally from that evil storm.
True, many Mississippians follow Eli Manning and the Giants and followed Brett Favre and the Packers (and Jets and Vikings). We have had "favorite sons" — Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, D.D. Lewis, etc. — who played for many other teams. Indeed, as a child, McAllister pulled for the 49ers when he wasn't pulling for the Saints because of his adoration of Rice.
But the fact is most Mississippi football fans live and die, emotionally, with the Saints. They are in our livings rooms every Sunday. The Black and Gold are Mississippi's pro football team.