BY Sheldon mickles
July 18, 2012
To understand what Deuce McAllister meant to the New Orleans Saints franchise, all one has to do is turn back the clock a couple of years to the team’s only Super Bowl appearance following the 2009 season.
On the day before their first playoff game, Saints players were surprised to learn that McAllister had been signed to the active roster to lead the team onto the field for an NFC Divisional Playoff game with the Arizona Cardinals in the Superdome.
McAllister’s surgically-repaired knees, which endured eight operations during his eight-year NFL career, wouldn’t allow the powerful 6-foot-1, 232-pound running back to carry the team as he so often did.
But General Manager Mickey Loomis, who had to make the painful decision to release McAllister in February 2008 because of his knees, and coach Sean Payton thought the club’s all-time rushing leader could still help out.
After bringing in a series of guest speakers to talk to the team before big games, they decided to put a new spin on the plan to inspire the players: Bring back one of their own to lead them out of the tunnel and onto the field.
McAllister, who didn’t play with anyone in 2009, simply could have done that. But Payton and Loomis took it a step further and signed one of the franchise’s most beloved players to the 53-man active roster.
“Deuce helped lay the foundation for that team when Sean got here in 2006,” Loomis said recently. “We decided, ‘Hey, why don’t we sign him and have him lead the team out?’ It was a good feeling to have him be a part of that team and that (Super Bowl) run.
“It was a huge, important thing for our team,” he added. “It wasn’t just our players, our coaches and our staff. It’s hard to describe how much Deuce meant to our building.”
Of course, Payton knew.
“Deuce McAllister has always embodied the spirit of the New Orleans Saints and the city of New Orleans,” the coach said in a statement announcing the signing.
Later that year, in his book “Home Team,” Payton described how the players reacted when he announced McAllister had been signed to the roster — even though they knew he wasn’t in any kind of football shape and wouldn’t even suit up for the game.
“An instant buzz swept across the room,” Payton wrote in the book. “These guys loved Deuce, and they knew immediately how fired up the fans would be.”
It was the final chapter in McAllister’s career with the Saints, but it was a joyous one. And it was a proud moment in a sometimes-rocky journey that has led him to induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on June 23.
“Just to be thought of by that organization, by Sean and Mickey and (owner) Mr. (Tom) Benson in that way, that was special,” McAllister said. “To walk into that room and have them tell me I was just as much a part of that team as they were … words really can’t describe that feeling.”
With McAllister leading the way, the Saints crushed the Cardinals, 45-14.
Even though he was put on injured reserve the next week because the Saints needed the roster spot because of an injury to another player, McAllister was on the sideline and helped provide the impetus for their victories in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl XLIV.
“I just wanted to make sure that I could help,” he said. “If I had to be the best teammate or the best water boy, that’s what I was going to be.”
The only thing that can top that ride to a Super Bowl title in McAllister’s eyes was the divisional playoff game with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006.
That night, he bulldozed his way for 143 yards on 21 carries and scored two third-quarter touchdowns to erase a 21-13 deficit as the Saints advanced to the NFC title game for the first time in club history with a 27-24 win.
“That was my first time in the playoffs, but I knew that to be known as a national player you have to make your mark and step up in the big games,” said McAllister, who ran three straight times for a first down in the final two minutes to keep the ball away from the Eagles. “In the biggest games, the best players step up and make plays.”
It was that kind of blue-collar, dominating performance that endeared McAllister, a 2001 first-round draft pick with a rare combination of size, power and speed, to the Saints’ faithful.
There just weren’t as many of those performances as there could have been because of a series of knee injuries — including torn anterior cruciate ligaments in each knee. He also had microfracture surgery and several cleanup procedures that combined to end his career at the age of 30.
When healthy, McAllister was a dependable ball carrier who would routinely take on bigger defensive linemen and linebackers. If he couldn’t out-run pesky defensive backs, he would run over them.
In the four seasons he started more than 10 games, he rushed for more than 1,000 yards each time — including a career-high 1,641 yards in 2003.
He also had 1,388 yards in his first year as a starter in 2002, and rushed for 1,074 and 1,057 yards, respectively, in 2004 and ’06 before injuries started to take their toll on the former Ole Miss star.
“I think back and, in a sense, I feel like I was robbed,” McAllister said wistfully. “I felt that I could have been a guy that could have made it to the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame. I felt like I had that kind of talent.”
Saints’ fans thought he was on that track early as he set the course for a career that would produce club records for rushing yards (6,096) — easily smashing the old franchise mark of 4,267 yards by George Rogers — rushing touchdowns (49) and total TDs (55).
He also had a franchise-record 27 100-yard rushing games, 11 more than Rogers, and still holds three of the top nine rushing games in club history with 184 yards at Philadelphia, 173 yards vs. Atlanta and 165 yards at Washington — all in an incredible three-week span in 2003.
In his first two seasons after Ricky Williams was traded, McAllister established himself as one of the NFL’s top featured backs in rushing for 3,029 yards and 21 touchdowns.
A capable receiver as well, he caught 116 passes for 868 yards in 2002-03, giving him 3,897 total yards from scrimmage and 24 TDs — which resulted in two Pro Bowl invitations.
After those two monster seasons, however, it started to go downhill as his rugged running style was slowed by a high-ankle sprain in 2004 and torn ACLs in 2005 and ’07.
He eventually played in just 97 games with the Saints, leaving coaches, teammates, media and fans to wonder what might have been.
“I was only 100 percent, or close to 100 percent, for four or five of those years,” he said.
Still, McAllister can’t help but think about what a fun ride it was even though it was short-circuited by the injuries.
Ironically, growing up in the late 1980s, he wasn’t a fan of the Saints. He followed the San Francisco 49ers, mainly because All-Pro wide receiver Jerry Rice was a fellow Mississippian.
But after being selected by the Saints with the 23rd pick in the 2001 draft, McAllister quickly grew to love New Orleans.
And New Orleans loved him back, not only for his work ethic on the field where he heard the chant of “D-e-e-e-u-u-c-c-e” whenever he touched the ball or simply went into the game, but off it as well.
The community-minded McAllister raised money for and devoted much time away from the field to help underprivileged children in the Gulf South region through his Catch 22 Foundation. He has two young boys of his own — Kaleb (6) and Curtis (2).
Despite the disappointment from the injuries, McAllister, who’ll be inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame along with Benson in September, can’t help but think how well it turned out.
“The experience, the overall experience, was the thing,” said McAllister, who returned to Ole Miss this spring to complete his degree requirements and work with the football team as a student assistant coach. “One of the worst memories you could ever have was of the bag heads and being called the ‘Aints,’ and to be a part of it and see where it is today makes you happy and excited about the future for it.
“It used to be that the latter wasn’t possible,” he added. “Now, the Saints are among the league’s elite. They’re one of the teams that can challenge every year for a Super Bowl, probably for the next 10 to 15 years, and that’s a positive thing for this organization.”