Lewis: Six early observations from Saints camp in West Virginia

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — A six pack of thoughts from a long first day here:

1. Almost heaven

Just as advertised, The Greenbrier provides a striking setting for an NFL training camp, not to mention a decided weather relief from New Orleans.

Locals were apologizing Monday for the low-80s temperatures, a few degrees higher than the team experienced last week. Although, with the low humidity, it was certainly tolerable for players and spectators alike.

And lest anyone think this part of the state, far from any of West Virginia’s population centers, is some hillbilly enclave, the nearby town of Lewisburg features a year-round professional theater company and one of four remaining original Carnegie Halls for other high-level entertainment.

Starting Thursday, and going though next week after the Saints depart, the West Virginia State Fair draws visitors from both this state and just across the border in Virginia.

The crowds are understandably quieter than back in Metairie when the team has public practices, but that’s a combination of the stands’ distance from the field and there being fewer kids here.

Still, when Drew Brees went over to sign autographs Monday, it elicited a very familiar sound.

2. The question

Even though it’s just an exhibition game, it had to be asked: “What are you going to say to Gregg Williams on Friday night?”

But Saints coach Sean Payton deftly sidestepped saying whether he had any plans about encountering Williams, his collaborator in the pay-for-performance scandal and now defensive coordinator for the Rams, Friday’s opponent in St. Louis.

“I don’t have expect to have any conversions prior to the game with those guys,” Payton said. “I would imagine they have certain things they want to get accomplished, and we have certain things we want to get accomplished. These games are all about evaluating their guys. But Friday is a month away. We’re still trying to work on things here Tuesday and Wednesday before we start thinking about playing another team on Friday.”

3. Fans soak it in

Perhaps the first week of drills here was for fans from the New Orleans area who had made the trip here to take in the early practices.

Monday’s session was more for the locals and those from nearby cities.

Judy Lucas and her friend Brenda Pelsiko, both from Lewisburg, were first-time visitors who just wanted to see an NFL team in person.

John Emory, who became a Saints fan during the time he lived in New Orleans, brought son Russell and grandson Luke, all three wearing Saints gear.

“We don’t get to see them very often, except on TV,” Russell said. “There’s a Saints-watching club in Roanoke (Virginia) made up of people displaced by Katrina, but that’s about it.”

Similarly, Mark Schaffer of Washington and his daughter, Katie, are transplanted New Orleanians who made the five-hour drive to take in the Black and Gold.

Katie was wearing a Brees jersey, so she was a little disappointed when he didn’t practice due to injury.

“It’s still great,” she said. “We’ll definitely be back next year if they come back.”

And then were the Heltons, father Robert and son Devon, both from Covington (Virginia, not Louisiana), who were self-described “just fans” who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.

Robert Helton said he was particularly drawn to free agent receiver Brandon Coleman, whose 6-foot-6 frame has drawn plenty of attention.

“He really deserves to make the team,” the elder Helton said.

Coleman said he appreciated the support.

“I understand that most people are not going to know who I am right off the bat,” he said. “It’s my job to get the coaches to notice me. The fans can say all they want, but the coaches are the ones that count.”

4. Enjoying the break

The players were off from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning (or, more properly, Sunday night), and Payton said he was less worried about them getting into trouble here than if training camp were being held back home in Metairie.

But Payton added his fears of a sluggish workout were unfounded.

“It’s pretty self-contained here, and most of these guys are smart enough to get off their feet, get inside, rest, hydrate and get some treatment if they need it,” he said. “But hopefully you get the right guys, and they know how to handle a period like that. Surely it’s different than when you’re at home. Oftentimes, home can be a little more challenging with some other distractions.”

Count cornerback and native New Orleanian Keenan Lewis among those who would have preferred to stay put.

“I’d definitely have rather been back home,” he said. “I’ve never thought New Orleans was a distraction.”

5. Billionaires club

According to real estate website Movoto, Saints owner Tom Benson is the richest man in Louisiana with an estimated worth of $1.5 billion. Greenbrier owner Jim Justice is the wealthiest man in West Virginia with an estimated worth of $1.68 million. So, when they go out to eat, who picks up the check?

6. No-fly zone

Unless you have a private jet like Benson or Justice, there are only two airlines that service Lewisburg. Don’t use the one that I did.

On Sunday, our luggage didn’t arrive — along with those of 14 other passengers on a 45-person flight. We were told this is a common, almost daily occurrence.

But maybe we were lucky: Monday’s flight was canceled outright, and Sunday’s luggage was flown to Roanoke, Virginia, then bussed to Lewisburg, some 50 miles away.

You’ve been warned.