My old college buddy Nate was in town from Houston, so we stayed up late Friday night relishing memories accompanied by stiff drinks. At 6 AM my alarm went off, and I immediately jumped out of bed and headed straight for the coffee pot. Nate was still sleeping on the couch, but soon awakened to all my clamoring in the kitchen.
Despite being up late, I was ready to go. We were headed to Saints Training Camp.
Last year, after the last shred of confetti hit the floor of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Baltimore Ravens were starting their celebrations, the Super Bowl ended, marking the official end of the NFL season. But if you were a Saints fan, the season had ended weeks before.
Attempting to deal with the unprecedented penalties handed down by the league and Commissioner He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the Saints had stumbled out of the gate on opening day and were never able to fully recover to make a push for the playoffs. We Saints fans watched in frustration and agony as our beloved team eked out a win one week, only to collapse dramatically the next. The 2012 Saints season was atrocious for both fans and players. It seemed at times that, if we had just had our head coach back or if our defense could just tackle someone for God’s sake, we would have a fighting chance to break .500 and have a winning season.
Since the arrival of Sean Payton and Drew Brees in 2006, a beleaguered fan base had been treated to what teams like the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, and the Payton Manning-led Colts had experienced for quite some time: consistent success, consecutive winning seasons. 2012 reminded us all just how fortunate we are to have a great team and to never take the Sean Payton-Drew Brees cocktail for granted. Although in New Orleans we never take a cocktail for granted.
With the 7-9 season in the rear-view, I headed to the Saints training facility. Rain had been threatening Airline Drive for most of the morning, so when Nate and I arrived a few minutes tardy, the stands and sidelines of the practice field weren’t crowded with as many Who Dats as usual. Our friend John had hooked us up with family and friends wrist bands upon entry, so we were able to sit ground level toward the end of the field with folks I assumed to be family and friends of players, coaches, and other Saints staff.
Not long after watching the practice, Tom Benson steered his golf cart around the field and parked it right by our section. As Mr. Benson autographed Times-Picayune Saints Super Bowl edition newspapers and other Saints momentos, my friend suggested I go get his autograph. No offense to Tom, but the only way I want his signature is on a check. If signatures were the reason I came, I’d join the throngs after practice and patiently wait my turn to get one from Drew, Jimmy, Sproles, or Vilma.
I don’t go to training camp for autographs. I go to watch the rookies, newly acquired free agents, and veterans show off their stuff. I also wanted to see how this new 3-4 defense is looking and who’s starting at the key positional battles: LT, OLB, Safety, and Nickel CB. Most of all, I was just ready to get my Saints football fix, because the Aug. 9 preseason game still seemed too far away.
Watching a Saints practice from the sideline is a lot of fun. It’s a unique way to experience the Black and Gold and it gives you a chance to really see how unexpectedly big or small the players are. I know Darren Sproles is a tiny man for a big-sized league; the roster lists him at the same height as me – 5’6” or so – but with 40 extra muscular pounds. Watching Sproles up close made me realize how crushed I would be if I had to take same the beating as he does from the likes of Will Smith, Junior Galette, Cameron Jordan, or Akiem Hicks. I can’t even imagine being mauled by a man the size of new rookie defensive tackle Jonathan Jenkins, who is 6-foot-3 and 359 pounds. The sheer size and athleticism of these men is ridiculous and seeing them with pads on makes they appear even bigger, as if that were possible.
As I tried my best to keep pace with the up tempo practice and constant switching between various drills and stretches, I couldn’t help but feel the excitement that a new season of Saints football brings. I thought the off-season after losing to the 49ers in the NFC divisional playoffs was rough, but this past one undoubtedly felt like the longest.
With the new season comes a fresh start, a chance to right the 7-9 ship back to its winning ways, and with Captain Sean back at the helm, it’s easy to put the past behind you and realize this could be our year, again. And that all starts at Training Camp.
For a schedule of Saints practices, both closed and open to the public, visit the event calendar at www.neworleanssaints.com by clicking here. This week, the public can watch practices from 8:50 to 11:50 AM on Tuesday and Wednesday, and from 4:30 to 6:30 PM on Thursday. The training facility is located at 5800 Airline Drive in Metairie.