JACKSON, Miss. -- 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.
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.
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.
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
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.