Saints receiver Willie Snead IV proud of his family name, determined to leave his own mark
METAIRIE — New Orleans Saints wide receiver Willie Snead was preparing for his sophomore season at Ball State when he made a request of head coach Pete Lembo.
Snead wanted to have his precise surname, Snead IV, placed on the back of his jersey, which was technically against policy. He had been pondering the change after having a conversation with his father, who had told him that it was “an honor” to have the name passed down to him.
Lembo was inclined to grant the request because he respected the commitment he had seen from the younger Snead, who had joined the Cardinals at the same time that Lembo left Elon University to take over as head coach in 2011. The coach also saw an opportunity in granting the request.
“You’re always looking for little ways to motivate guys and push them to be the best they can be,” said Lembo, who’s now in his second season as assistant head coach at the University of Maryland. “This was obviously very important to Willie. He took great pride in representing his family and this was a great avenue for him to show it and step up to become the type of player we knew he could be.”
So Lembo told Snead, who had been a standout high-school quarterback in Michigan while being coached by Willie Snead III, that he would make the name change on his jersey for his junior season if Snead earned it during his sophomore season.
“My coach told me I had to prove myself to be able to put that on the back of my jersey,” Snead said, “and I did.”
Snead had what Lembo called “a breakout season” as a sophomore, increasing his reception total to 89 from 28 as a freshman, increasing his yardage to 1,148 from 327 and increasing his touchdowns to nine from two.
“He started to find out who he could be,” Lembo said. “The promise of putting the name on the back of the jersey was representative of his growth and development from year one to year two.”
So the IV went on the back of Snead’s jersey for his junior season and he went on to break every one of his school’s major single-season receiving records and finished as the second-most prolific receiver in Ball State history even after foregoing his senior season to go to the NFL.
But Snead’s exploits in college weren’t enough to entice any NFL team to draft him. He signed with Cleveland after the 2014 draft, but was released during training camp. He signed with Carolina in late September and again was released in early November.
Snead went home to work with his father, who had been a wide receiver at the University of Florida, drafted by the New York Jets and played briefly with them and the Houston Oilers. The pair worked on preparing the younger Snead for the next opportunity, hoping someone would give him a third chance before his rookie season ended.
“We went back to our training regimen — working on routes, working on getting in and out of cuts, training, weight lifting,” Willie Snead III said while attending the Saints training camp last week. “It was more like our own system that we’ve had for years when I coached him through high school.
“It was frustrating because he always felt like he was good enough to play at this level. He had gotten a taste of it and there really was nothing that would preclude him from being able to make a roster.”
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Willie IV learned how to play football from Willie III, but he didn’t fully realize the trickle-down effect that Willie Jr. and the original Willie Snead had on him even though he had never met either of them.
“We all have the same personality,” Willie IV said. “I know that those men before me were great men and I just want to be like them and maybe be more than what they were able to be.”
It seems each Willie Snead has used determination and perseverance to create a better opportunity for their children than the ones they were born into.
The first Willie Snead fled the sharecropper culture in Southern Georgia nearly 100 years ago, weary of a life that wasn’t appreciably better than the plantation life prior to the end of the Civil War. He hitch hiked his way down through Florida in search of a better life.
“No one knew who he was until one day he knocked on someone’s door and said, “hey do you need any work done around your farm?”” Willie III said. “They saw his work ethic and that’s where our work ethic came from.”
The original Willie Snead cut grass, chopped down trees with a machete and tended farm animals, usually sleeping in a shed somewhere on the property where he worked.
“We look at my grandfather as someone who didn’t give up, that left a bad situation to get in a better situation,” Willie III said. “I think as a result of that we’ve all found our way to be in a better situation.”
The original Willie Snead eventually found his way to Belle Glade, a small rural town of fewer than 20,000 people about 40 miles west of West Palm Beach.
Willie Snead Jr. was unable to find steady work in Belle Glade so he took a job as a truck driver, often having to leave his family for weeks at a time. His wife also was away quite a bit as a migrant farm worker, traveling to places as far away as New York state to pick fruits and vegetables.
That left Willie III at home with his grandmother, who told him stories about her husband, the original Willie Snead, whose grandson met him just once while he was an infant.
Willie III would sit by a window in the front of the family house waiting to hear his father’s truck rolling up the gravel road outside at the end of his many trips.
“Every time that I was with him it meant the world to me,” Willie III said. “That was the highlight of my day when I knew he was coming home.”
But when Willie III was 8 years old his father was shot and killed in a case of mistaken identity on Halloween.
“As a son you always want approval from your dad because you want him to know, “hey, I’m carrying the name forward”, and for him to tell me, “son, you did a great job, you raised your family,” Willie III said. “I never got a chance to do that, but I was proud to have his name.”
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As Willie III worked with his oldest son on his receiving skills he also emphasized that there were other ways he could earn another shot at making an NFL team.
“You’ve got to be willing to do the dirty work, to do the work that others guys maybe don’t want to do, guys that just want to catch the ball and don’t want to do any blocking,” Willie III told him. “You’ve got to fill in the gaps, check all the boxes for the skills that create value at that position.
“As a coach I look at him like any other player. I’m looking for the most versatile players that I can get, that can stay on the field and do as many things as possible.”
The Saints signed Willie IV to the practice roster late in the 2014 season and less than a month later they signed him to a contract for the next season.
Early in training camp for the next season, New Orleans was participating with the New England Patriots in joint practices when all the dirty work that Willie III put Willie IV through paid off as Willie IV caught head coach Sean Payton’s eye during a punt drill.
Payton couldn’t remember whether Snead was the jammer or the gunner, but he remembered clearly the “grit element” that the receiver demonstrated throughout the drill.
“That is probably one of the hardest things to do on a football field,” Payton said. “He was taking every other rep, getting tangled up and fighting with these guys. You could not help but notice his effort. I was looking at him, saying, “wow.”
“That is what got him in the building. There was a toughness that you could see, a willingness to block and determination.”
Quarterback Drew Brees called Snead “the MVP of that training camp.”
“There was this chip on his shoulder that you can’t teach,” Brees said. “Here’s an undrafted free agent who’s coming in fighting for a spot on the roster, playing his butt off on special teams, getting in there and blocking linebackers and safeties and catching the ball and making plays with it when he gets the opportunity.
“You just felt like there was something there with this guy that he could be a big contributor and he just got better and better.”
Snead rode that momentum into the regular season, catching 69 passes for 984 yards and three touchdowns. He kept it up last season, catching 72 passes for 895 yards and four touchdowns. He also showed off his quarterback muscle memory by throwing a touchdown pass.
In the first year of his second stint as Saints wide receivers coach, Curtis Johnson has gotten to know Snead well enough to call him “the ultimate warrior.”
“I’m not saying anybody missed on him because there are so many good players in this league that sometimes you just get overlooked,” Johnson said, “but whoever cut him, thank God they did cut him.”
Just as the original Willie Snead had to knock on doors to find farm work on his way to Florida, his great grandson didn’t find steady work until he reached his third NFL stop.
“That’s the thing about our family, it’s about opportunity,” Willie III said. “It’s about knocking on the door and saying, “hey you guys looking for receivers?” The Saints gave him an opportunity and he came in and proved that he can play in this league.”
Much like Willie IV’s breakout sophomore season earned him the privilege of putting Snead IV on his Ball State jersey, so too did his breakout NFL season in 2015 earn him the privilege of putting Snead IV on his New Orleans jersey last season.
“It brings out my fathers before me — my father, my grandfather, my great grandfather,” Willie IV said. “It just shows that family means a lot to me. With the IV on my back it shows that there are generations of Willie Sneads.
“I just wanted to put my family up there on that platform and let people know that my fathers before me brought me here.”
NFL people now know the name Willie Snead IV and he is in the final year of his contract, poised to sign a big-money deal some time in the next several months.
“When he arrived here no one knew who he was,” Willie III said. “That’s kind of the trademark of our name — that no one knows who we are until you give us a chance. Now he’s made a name for himself.”
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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…