McAfee provides leadership for Saints
By By Richard Dark / EMG staff writer
Dec. 22, 2002
NEW ORLEANS Every team has one. If they're lucky.
That quintessential veteran leader in the locker room that not only has the experience and team focus to help keep younger players grounded, but the quick wit and comedic charm that keeps things light and teammates in stitches. If that isnt enough, the horde of media that surrounds the New Orleans Saints is quick to gravitate to him after games because of his ability to put a win or a loss into its proper perspective.
The above aptly describes Saints special teams captain Fred McAfee. The 34-year-old native of Philadelphia in his 12th year out of Mississippi College, is yet again, in his own words: (doing what he does)and it's a big reason why the Saints have arguably the strongest special teams unit in the entire league, as well as his being selected to the Pro Bowl last Thursday for the first time in his career.
Any and every time McAfee is quizzed about a pivotal spark his has provided on a special teams play and there have been quite a few the answer invariably is always the same. "Thats what I do," he exclaims with the trademark million dollar smile.
Area fans have another chance to see "Fast Freddy" do what he does again when the Saints (9-5) take on the Cincinnati Bengals (1-13) today.
Kickoff for the FOX broadcast from Paul Brown Stadium is at noon.
The latest of those spark plug plays came last Sunday in the Louisiana Superdome when McAfee once again wowed the crowd with a textbook 51-yard reverse on the game's opening kickoff.
It's the most recent mark he has made on the field. The other bookend to the season began on the field of one of the journeyman's former teams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when McAfee broke through and disrupted Tom Tupas punt in overtime, which led directly to the Saints winning that opener.
But in between, the toll of an unyielding effort, what head coach Jim Haslett and special teams boss Al Everest both describe as "the vital cog of the unit with the kamikaze mindset" manifested itself with a nagging hamstring injury that sidelined him for a period of six games, save a couple of plays against another former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Following the win over Baltimore in which McAfee had a clutch punt block, Haslett was again trumpeting the player he has also spent time in Pittsburgh with, dating back to his own stint as Steelers defensive coordinator.
He also, according to Everest, shows other players the way to "make a living on special teams." But that isnt the only way sets examples.
A mentor to others
Two of this years stars and fellow pro-bowlers, Michael Lewis and Deuce McAllister, will not hesitate to give McAfee credit for being a mentor.
Deuce and Fred have become a pretty close knit pair, coming from similar areas, with the former Tornado having lived in Madison since 1993, to McAllister's Ludlow home. The two are beginning to pool their resources, dabbling into some as of yet revealed business ventures.
Consider the influence McAfee has had on fellow special teams mate Lewis, whose game-breaking style of play is quickly engulfing the league's fans like wildfire.
Lewis, a former beer delivery driver who hadn't played much football before breaking into the NFL, gives credit to McAfee on a nearly weekly basis for helping him sculpt his game.
That same gratitude would have been paid back with Lewis taking Fred to the Pro Bowl had he not been selected.
Lewis also finds other inspiration from McAfee.
The two players are similarly very small in stature for NFL standards, but Lewis, like McAfee, has quieted critics who have knocked him about his size, simply by using his friend as an example.
So does his blocker. Even when the chips are down.
Persevering through injuries
Maintaining a business-like approach to injury rehabilitation is another calling card of McAfee. During the five-plus game layoff, He was faithful to getting treatment, forsaking many other things. During practice, one could always find him focused quietly while on the sideline riding the exercise bike.
But where the tedium and reality of age may have gotten most players down and contemplating hanging up the cleats, the Gulf South Conference's former All-time leading rusher continues to bounce back time after time and exude resiliency. And throughout all those afternoons of watching his teammates go through daily drills, the view from that bike didnt signify the end of the world.
He conquers those types of setbacks head on, the same way he put aside his intense fear of heights by making his way to the top of the Superdome during a spring celebrity appearance on NBC's Fear Factor.
Like a fine vintage, the son of Philadelphia's to "Tippy" and Mattie McAfee gets better with age. Once, during one postgame interview, he made an amusing comparison of himself to a sitcom character.
This is his second stint with the Saints after being drafted in the sixth round out of MC in 1991, following a national title with the Choctaws. He racked up 500 yards in that rookie year, playing in only nine games because of injury. But Sunday will mark the 148th contest he has participated in. No small feat to be sure when one considers the average NFL career is around 54 games. His second tour with the Black and Gold began in 2000. In between there were other stops, but the Saints are home.