12 unsung Saints greats to remember
Drew Brees, Archie Manning, Willie Roaf, Rickey Jackson and Morten Andersen represent my Mount Rushmore for the New Orleans Saints in franchise history. Yes, I know that’s one more player than Presidents on the monument but it’s all in fun so I took liberties.
There are other players who fall into different levels of reverence due to their contributions to the team’s success or popularity as a fan favorite after overachieving. These dozen players, some who are perhaps now overlooked, may be underappreciated or even somewhat forgotten yet they were all instrumental during their Black & Gold days and laid the foundation for future success.
CB Dave Whitsell (1967-69)
Elected as a member of the Saints Hall of Fame in 1996, the man known by teammates and friends as Weasel was 31 years old when he ended up in New Orleans through the expansion draft. Hacing helped the Chicago Bears win an NFL title in 1963, Whitsell proved he was still a great player when the cornerback led the NFL in interceptions in ’67 with 10 and became the first in team history to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl.
In his three seasons with the Saints, Witsell tallied 19 interceptions in 42 games. Dave brought savvy and veteran leadership to a secondary which also consisted of rookie corner John Douglas and safeties Obert Logan and Jimmy Heidel during the Saints inaugural campaign. Whitsell played 12 NFL seasons with 46 career picks.
SS Gene Atkins (1987-93)
He may not be a player that many fans quickly recall, but Atkins played in 107 games with the Saints with 462 tackles, 21 interceptions and seven sacks. He was a bruising, punishing tackler who teamed with Brett Maxie at safety on perhaps the best defenses in franchise history. The Florida A&M product played behind the famed Dome Patrol linebacking corps who rightfully garnered most of the attention in those days and even long after from national media.
LT Jammal Brown (2005-09)
A first round pick in the ’05 draft, he earned two Pro Bowl honors (2006, 2008) during his stay in the Big Easy and was a first-team All Pro in ’06. The former Oklahoma Sooner rarely allowed a sack and only suffered 35 penalties during his 58 contests. He usually squared off with the opponent’s best pass rusher.
S/ST Bennie Thompson (1989-91)
The undrafted former Grambling and John McDonogh High playmaker arrived with the Black and Gold after earning All-CFL honors in 1988 with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Named to the Pro Bowl in 1991, the special teams standout spent 11 seasons in the NFL with three in New Orleans. Thompson recorded 40 tackles while mostly covering kicks with the Saints.
RB/ST Fred McAfee (1991-93, 2000-06)
Serving as the Saints’ director of player development since 2007, he previously led the team in rushing in ’91 with 494 yards. McAfee landed in the Pro Bowl in 2002 strictly due to his special teams contributions. Fast Freddie had 103 kick returns and made 79 special teams tackles with the Saints. He is a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and his cousin, Marcus Dupree, was a star running back at Oklahoma and later in the USFL.
KR Mel Gray (1986-88)
Grabbed by the Saints in the USFL supplemental draft in 1984 after his time the L.A. Express, the former Purdue Boilermaker played 12 seasons in the NFL. He was a three-time Pro Bowler with Detroit after earning All Pro acclaim twice with New Orleans (’86 and ’87). Gray set team record with 101-yard kickoff return in 1986 against the 49ers. Overall with the Saints, he returned 49 punts for a 13.4 yard average and one touchdown while also posting 23.3 yards per kick return with one score.
DE Willie Whitehead (1999-2006)
The Auburn alum completed his days in the Crescent City with 154 tackles and 24.5 sacks. He arrived to the NFL as an undrafted free agent, originally signing with San Francisco in 1995. He spent three years in CFL before he carved out a vital role with the Saints as part of a talented rotations that included former New Orleans greats Wayne Martin, Joe Johnson, La’Roi Glover, Darren Howard and Charles Grant.
OG/C Steve Korte (1983-90)
You may have heard him on local radio but the Arkansas Hall of Fame inductee was a great player long before his broadcast days. Korte came to the Saints as second round pick and proved a solid choice. In 83 games with Saints, he only allowed three sacks, always graded out consistently high, and twice was named an alternate for the Pro Bowl.
Korte learned to play center in the NFL after starring as a All-Southwest Conference and All American guard at Arkansas. He was a dominant run blocker at guard but then-Saints head coach Bum Phillips moved Korte to center to help combat nose guards in the 3-4 alignment which was used by most NFL teams in that era. His 595 pounds in the bench press is still the heaviest lift in Razorback history.
FB Hokie Gajan (1982-85)
A 10th round pick (249th overall) by Saints in the 1981 NFL Draft out of LSU, he was a self-built, no-holds-barred, no-quit type of player. Gajan is still second in franchise history with a 5.4 yard per carry average with a minimum 250 career carries. He averaged over six yards per tote in 1984. In 1984, the former LSU Tiger was the team’s leading receiver with 35 catches and second leading rusher. Hokie was a reliable ball carrier, rarely losing a fumble. He started 36 games, often overcoming injuries, and ran 252 times for 1,352 yards with only six fumbles.
At LSU, Gajan returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown on December 2, 1998 against Wyoming. That score was the difference in a 24-17 victory.
Gajan should be remembered as a fine player, scout and broadcaster for New Orleans but he will definitely be fondly remembered as a good man loved by many.
CB Jabari Greer (2009-13)
A talented cover man with 4.45 speed, Greer was a key figure in the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV winning campaign. His five interceptions that season included a pair for touchdowns, but his contribution far exceeded his stats. He was usually assigned to the opponent’s best receiver. Greer played with a high IQ and great ball skills while always maintaining his composure and playing with class. He finished his time in New Orleans with 257 tackles and nine interceptions. Fellow cornerback Tracy Porter with safeties Roman Harper and Darren Sharper formed a championship secondary that always seemed to come up with a big play whenever it was needed.
TE Jimmy Graham (2010-14)
It seems like he has been gone a long time but it was not so long ago that the brilliantly talented 6-foot-7 pass catcher with 4.56 speed was an All Pro in 2011 and ’13 for the Black & Gold. A third-round pick out of Miami (Fla.), he set a franchise record with 99 catches (since broken by Michael Thomas) in 2011. Graham also had 16 touchdown catches in 2013.
During his five-year stay with the Saints, Graham tallied 402 catches for 4,963 yards and 54 touchdowns. Now 32 years old, he is approaching the twilight of his career elsewhere. Despite that, he is closing in numbers which will place him among the most productive tight ends in league history. His current stats (611 catches, 7,436 yards and 71 TDs) already exceed the numbers that these former great players at the position produced during their careers: Riley Odoms, Keith Jackson, Dallas Clark, Charlie Sanders, Mike Ditka, Dave Casper, Kellen Winslow and John Mackey. That’s impressive, and Graham’s best days were with New Orleans.
WR/ST Rich Mauti (1977-80, 1982-83)
Undrafted out of Penn State, the father of former Saints linebacker Michael Mauti was a jack of all trades who recorded 31 special teams tackles in 1978 alone to set a NFL record. Rich was the consummate team player, always sacrificing his body whenever he lined up as a receiver, runner and return man. He returned 76 punts for a 8.1 average along with 125 kick returns (22.8 yard average) and added 21 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns.
That’s my dandy dozen worth remembering in Saints lore. I know there are plenty more fans can bring to mind. Who else can you recall from franchise history who are gone but not forgotten?
- < PREV Ponchatoula looks to promising youth, defensive improvement to complement QB Finley
- NEXT > Video: Rummel, Helen Cox benefit from scrimmage
Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…