McAfee, Henderson followed similar paths from small towns to Saints Hall of Fame
METAIRIE – The combined population of Fred McAfee’s hometown and Devery Henderson’s hometown wouldn’t fill the Superdome halfway.
But McAfee overcame long odds to find his way from Philadelphia, Mississippi (population less than 10,000) just as Henderson found his way from Opelousas, Louisiana (population less than 20,000) to the 70,000-seat Superdome where they became major contributors to the New Orleans Saints.
The two passed through nearby colleges – McAfee as a running back at Mississippi College and Henderson as a wide receiver at LSU – on their way to the Saints and performed well enough to be elected into the Saints Hall of Fame.
Their selection was announced Thursday along with that of another area product – longtime trainer Kevin Mangum, a graduate of Southern Mississippi, as the recipient of the Joe Gemelli Fleur-de-lis Award for outstanding service to the organization. The trio will be formally honored during the weekend of the Saints home game against the Las Vegas Raiders on October 30.
Henderson thanked owner Gayle Benson, vice president of football operations Mickey Loomis, who were in the audience, and Benson’s late husband Tom for “giving a little guy from Opelousas an opportunity to come here and do some good things.”
“Opelousas didn’t have too many examples of guys who made it to this level,” Henderson said.
But it now has a prominent one in Henderson, who compiled the highest yards-per-reception average in franchise history during his tenure from (2004-12).
McAfee’s hometown produced another professional running back in Marcus Dupree, a cousin of McAfee’s who was a high-school legend who played at Oklahoma and for the old New Orleans Breakers of the USFL.
Calling himself “a band nerd” before he joined his high-school football team, McAfee said he wanted to “uphold my little town,” though he didn’t expect his football career at Mississippi College, a private university in Clinton with an enrollment of about 5,000, to lead to the NFL.
“I didn’t expect to get drafted,” said McAfee, who was selected by the Saints in the sixth round of the 1991 draft. “I just wanted my degree. That’s what it was about.”
McAfee wound up playing 16 years in the NFL, including two stints with the Saints (1991-93 and 2000-06).
He thanked the late Jim Finks for drafting him and acknowledged the three Saints head coaches for whom he played – Jim Mora, Jim Haslett and Sean Payton.
McAfee said that when Payton would introduce him he would joke “here’s Fred McAfee, who played 16 years in the league, 12 longer than he should have.”
“I fooled a lot of good coaches that I could play,” McAfee added.
McAfee, who never attended an NFL game until the first one he played in, led the NFC West champion Saints in rushing during his rookie season and made his biggest mark on special teams, earning All-Pro honors in 2002.
“We talk a lot about knowing who you are,” Saints head coach Dennis Allen said. “Fred knows exactly who he is and he’s comfortable with exactly who he is. He just came to work every day working hard with a smile on his face.”
McAfee has worked with the Saints player development program since retiring after the 2006 season. He’s entering his second season as Vice President/Player Engagement.
“It’s been a journey, but it’s been a great ride,” McAfee said, “and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Both McAfee and Henderson endeared themselves to their teammates and coaches for their willingness to embrace the less-glamorous aspects of their jobs – McAfee by becoming one of best special-teams players in the NFL and Henderson by blocking with the same passion he had in becoming one of the top deep-play threats in the NFL.
The coach noted that Henderson’s speed didn’t just enable him to catch deep passes but also to attract enough attention from defenses to create opportunities for other receivers such as Marques Colston, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, who was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in 2019.
“Devery was always willing to do all the dirty work,” Allen said.
Henderson said his willingness to do whatever his team needed stemmed from an experience he had in his first game of contact football as a 9-year-old. He was so nervous that he didn’t eat on the day of the game.
Things got worse after the game started.
“I started hyperventilating,” Henderson said. “I couldn’t finish the game.”
After the game, Henderson’s stepdad told him, “You let your team down.”
“That has stuck with me ever since,” Henderson said. “I never wanted to be in that position again so I always prided myself on being a good teammate and a good person. And it has me here.”
Somewhere along the way, Henderson said, he became “addicted to team camaraderie.”
Henderson has the distinction of scoring one of the most memorable touchdowns in LSU history and in Saints history.
He caught “The Bluegrass Miracle” pass from Marcus Randall, securing a tipped ball and sprinting to the end zone as time expired to complete a 74-yard touchdown that turned seeming defeat into a victory at Kentucky in 2002.
In the Saints first game in the Superdome after it reopened in 2006, a year after Hurricane Katrina, Henderson took a hand-off from Reggie Bush and sprinted around end for an 11-yard touchdown run. The “Superdome Special” double-reverse electrified the crowd and gave the Saints a 14-3 first-quarter lead in what become an emotional 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
“You knew when Devery stepped on the field,” Allen said, “there was going to be some speed involved.”
Allen was a graduate assistant at Texas A&M when he tried to lure Henderson out of Louisiana to play for the Aggies. Allen’s entry-level position didn’t allow him travel for recruiting so he made his pitch to Henderson over the phone.
“The first phone conversation I had with him,” Allen recalled, “I wondered, ‘what is that language that he’s speaking?’”
Henderson’s distinctive Louisiana accent could have been a sign that the young assistant wasn’t going to be able to land Henderson, who played his entire football career from high school through the NFL in his home state.
“At the end of this journey,” Henderson said, “I just wanted everybody to say, ‘he did it the right way.’”
Allen said Mangum, who is entering his 42nd season with the Saints, shares important traits with the two former players – “great pros and great people who care deeply about the people in this organization.”
“I don’t know if any of them has ever had a bad day,” Allen said.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…