Saints’ Jairus Byrd: ‘Any time you play this game, you play to win it’

The students of Harahan Elementary probably didn’t know much, if anything, about Jairus Byrd before Wednesday afternoon.

They are, after all, only first- through-fourth graders.

But once they were told the Saints’ new free safety would be talking to them about a team-sponsored reading program, they treated him like a rock star.

“It’s a blessing to be here,” Byrd said after dealing out high-fives and hugs and being asked questions ranging from whether he’d ever been hurt (Yes, several times) to his favorite color (green). “I’ve heard so much from (cornerback and native New Orleanian) Keenan Lewis about how much the team means to the city.

“I heard it from the people who run the organization, too. And now that I’m getting to meet the fans, I’m getting to see it for myself.”

Wednesday’s school visit was Byrd’s first public appearance since signing a six-year, $56 million contract as a free agent after he’d spent his first five seasons with Buffalo.

Aside from the contract, which with $28 million guaranteed was one of the tops in the league this year, Byrd said that coming from a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1999 to one that has gone in four of the past five years was important to him.

“Any time you play this game, you play to win it,” he said. “You prepare at a high level. When you don’t see the fruits of your labor, that’s a tough thing.

“So anytime you’ve got a chance to pair up with a quarterback like Drew Brees and a coach like Sean Peyton with the offense that he’s running and then with coach (Rob) Ryan on the other side with the strong defense that he’s running, that’s a combination that’s going to win a lot of games.”

Byrd said he has visited with Ryan daily since coming to New Orleans on Monday. Before that, they had been texting and talking since he signed his contact last month.

“He’s got some stuff in his head he’s going to get out at you one way or the other,” Byrd said. “And the way he calls things is so unorthodox.

“It’s going to be fun and exciting, and it’s going to keep other people guessing.”

Byrd will get a more hands-on experience with Ryan starting Monday when the team begins its voluntary offseason workouts.

He will be part of a revamped Saints secondary that parted ways with 23 years of experience in cornerback Jabari Greer along with safeties Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins. That leaves cornerback Corey White and recently retained safety Rafael Bush, going into their third seasons, as the senior member of the remaining defensive backs in terms of years with the Saints.

But besides Byrd, there’s veteran help on the way in the form of 16-year veteran cornerback Champ Bailey.

“We’ll all be getting to know each other,” said Byrd, who Wednesday was wearing No. 31, worn last year by late-season pickup Terrence Frederick. “But having a future Hall of Famer like Champ on the team takes it to another level.

“He knows so much about breaking down things to make you successful. It’s a big, big plus for the secondary and the entire team.”

Byrd said he was already friendly with Lewis and second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro.

Immediate help could be on the way in the draft also. The team this week worked out several defensive backs, including projected first-round choices Justin Gilbert of Oklahoma State and Calvin Pryor of Louisville.

But for Byrd, Wednesday was about talking to youngsters about the importance of reading, and in return to experience the response to anyone in a Saints jersey.

“I really wanted to come out and talk to the kids, and I mean that,” he said. “I remember being in that position when I was younger.

“Just to be able to come out here and talk to them was a really big joy for me to get a feel for the city and the kids. I enjoyed myself.”