ATLANTA -- Perhaps the most remarkable performance in the New Orleans Saints’ 17-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons came from undrafted rookie guard Tim Lelito. He held up well in place of injured starter Jahri Evans -- and he did it during an emotionally-wrenching week after the death of his grandmother, who adopted him at a young age and raised him.
Lelito flew home to Michigan late Tuesday for the funeral on Wednesday before joining his team in Atlanta on Wednesday night.
After the game, Coach Sean Payton awarded Lelito with a game ball.
When asked if it was an emotional game, or if he was able to block out his emotions and focus on football, Lelito said, “A little of both.”
“It was, ‘Block it out, I have a job to do.’ But at the same time, I knew that she was going to be with me and help me along the way,” Lelito said.
“Unbelievable,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said of the performance. “Tim Lelito, undrafted free-agent rookie. Obviously in a week where you really have very little time to prep -- for a young guy to get one walk-through, basically, and then get the news that his grandmother who raised him passed away and go back and take care of her and the family and then meets us here last night. Obviously an emotional deal for him, a roller coaster and yet, comes out, starts and plays phenomenal. He got a game ball in the locker room, and it’s well-deserved.”
Technically, Lelito’s performance wasn’t perfect. He allowed one sack and drew a holding penalty that was declined. But his positive plays far outnumbered the negatives -- even more impressive under the circumstances.
Lelito, an undrafted rookie from Grand Valley State, has shown growth since he struggled as Evans’ replacement in a Week 3 game. Last week, the Saints used Lelito as an extra up-back blocker in a 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, and he thrived in the limited role.
“It’s not going to be a perfect film. But for him to fly in after the funeral, watch some extra tape last night and then play like he did tonight, it was pretty strong. And pretty emotional I’m sure, for him,” Payton said.