METAIRIE — Fans watching the second-to-last practice of the New Orleans Saints’ training camp on Thursday morning got a surprise near the end of the workout when a small plane started circling the training facility.
The plane, which was towing a banner that read “Free Payton” in capital letters, flew around the practice fields for 15 minutes before heading downtown.
The aircraft, owned by Saints fan and United Airlines pilot Philip Marshall, was hired by a group of fans who want NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to lighten the season-long suspension handed to coach Sean Payton for his role in the bounty scandal.
The group, which runs a website called FreePayton.org, is seeking donations to keep the plane up at a cost of $500 per hour.
“We’re going to set a world record,” said Randolph Chapman, one of the group’s members. “We’re going to fly every day until they release him.”
Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said he didn’t see the banner, but strong safety Roman Harper and linebacker Scott Shanle were among the players who did.
“That’s me ... I did that,” a smiling Harper said while taking a sideline break.
“We all got a chuckle out of it,” Shanle said. “Somebody noticed and then everybody kind of noticed it. It doesn’t surprise me with the support for coach Payton off the charts.”
While it only lasted three weeks, the end of training camp can’t come soon enough for the Saints after three straight hot and humid morning practices.
With the team playing its home preseason opener Friday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Saints will wrap up camp with an indoor practice Thursday — a workout originally scheduled to be open to fans. Wednesday’s practice was a little sloppy with several dropped passes.
“They’re getting tired, they’re getting worn out and you have to work through these dog days of training camp,” Vitt said. “It’s certainly not acceptable. Those balls have to be caught.”
“That’s why they call it the dog days,” said quarterbackDrew Brees. “It’s been a couple of hot days here in a row. I know (Tuesday), especially, it drained a lot out of us. We have to fight through.”
Not practicing Wednesday were CB Jabari Greer (hernia surgery), RB Darren Sproles (knee), DT Tom Johnson (ankle), WR Nick Toon (foot), DE Turk McBride (ankle), WR Adrian Arrington (knee), CB Marquis Johnson (knee), CB Kamaal McIlwain (groin) and LB Aaron Tevis (knee).
The only new name on the list was Johnson, who didn’t work because of a knee injury. Vitt said he’s expected back Thursday and should play Friday.
Cornerback Corey White, a fifth-round draft pick, has gotten a lot of repetitions as the nickel back because of injuries to Greer and Patrick Robinson — the two starters.
On Wednesday, White moved to the left cornerback spot that Johnson has been manning in Greer’s absence. White broke up Brees’ first pass of team drills, leaping high in front of wide receiver Marques Colston in the front corner of the end zone to bat the ball away and save a touchdown.
Linebacker Jonathan Casillas intercepted Brees for the second straight day when he dropped into coverage and pulled in a pass Brees was trying to loft over Casillas’ head to Colston.
Brees also got some revenge against White when he went right over him for a completion to running back Pierre Thomas, who ran a wheel route to the sideline.
Also, backup safety Jonathon Amaya had back-to-back pass breakups in team drills.
The linebackers had a bit of fun with rookie free agent Kadarron Anderson after practice as he was taken by a group of veterans to the end of the field and taped to the goalpost padding.
Before the vets could finish taping him, the defensive backs brought rookie safety Johnny Thomas over and tied him up also. Then, the two were doused with buckets of ice-cold water.
“I don’t know what the other guy (Thomas) did to the safeties, but (Anderson) was being disrespectful and not wanting to do his rookie duties,” said linebacker Chris Chamberlain. “They tried a small prank on him, but he didn’t want to cooperate. So he dug himself a hole. It’s all in good fun.”
Former Saints quarterback John Fourcade will visit with fans in the Saints Hall of Fame Museum at Gate B on the Plaza Level of the Superdome.
Fourcade, a New Orleans-area native who played for the Saints from 1987-90, will be available for pictures and autographs from 5-6:15 p.m. The museum is open three hours before and for 45 minutes after each home game.
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