Saints look to region for support

Published 8:10 pm Tuesday, July 25, 2006

When the New Orleans Saints report to training camp Thursday in Jackson, it will serve as a homecoming of sorts for several players with Mississippi ties.

Running back Deuce McAllister is a Morton native who starred at Mississippi and is entering his sixth season and is the Saints all-time leading rusher with 4,529 yards and 34 TDs.

Receiver Joe Horn is a former Itawamba Community College standout and is a four-time Pro Bowl pick entering his 12th season.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Return specialist Fred McAfee is a Mississippi College alum and Philadelphia native who is entering his 16th season and has been one of the NFL’s top special teams players the past decade.

Defensive tackle McKinley Boykin is also a former Ole Miss player and is two-time All-SEC pick. He is a rookie free agent signee who will be fighting for a roster spot in camp.

Defensive line coach Marion Hobby

And the list goes on. Which is good, because the Saints haven’t exactly cast a football spell over Mississippi as the team prepares for its march to Jackson this week for training camp.

But the team’s heightened interest in the capital city can be traced to a dose of Voodoo. And the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

When the Saints report to Millsaps College on Thursday, it will culminate nearly a year of research and scouting, planning and rebuilding that began last August.

That’s when Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, then in town for the team’s Black and Gold scrimmage at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, crossed Woodrow Wilson Drive to Millsaps’ campus in search of a place to hold a tryout for the New Orleans Voodoo, an arena team the Saints own.

Loomis instead found a prospect that became the Saints’ training camp home away from home last month, when the team agreed to a four-year deal with Millsaps.

But last summer, few could imagine what role Jackson would play in the Saints’ future. Not until Katrina struck Aug. 29 and changed the face of a region and its pro football team.

“That hurricane did something to us,” Saints owner Tom Benson said. “It’s forced us to redefine who we are and how we do business. How we survive. It’s made us a team for the entire region. The Mississippi Saints and the Louisiana Saints. … The Gulf Coast Saints. We’re trying to be the (New England Patriots) of the South.”

Nearly a year after its initial blow, Katrina has flooded Jackson with an NFL franchise, a team the town can call its own through the Saints’ Aug. 26 preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts at Veterans Stadium.

Saints officials say they are leaning on the region now more than ever to survive, places such as Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., the Mississippi Gulf Coast and, of course, Jackson.

Those areas, officials said, are where the Saints aim to recoup some of the potential ticket-buying fans and luxury suite-buying businesses they lost to Katrina.

A stable pipeline of regional support, analysts say, might help keep the team in New Orleans beyond 2010, when the Saints’ lease at the Louisiana Superdome with the state expires.