There’s no doubt where most Mississippians’ loyalties will lie Sunday when the New Orleans Saints go marching into U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis to face the Minnesota Vikings in an NFL quarterfinal playoff game.

Former Ole Miss star Laquon Treadwell, Belhaven’s Tramaine Brock, ex-Southern Miss Golden Eagles Tom Johnson and Rashod Hill all play for the Vikings, but the Saints remain Mississippi’s team. They have been since New Orleans became an NFL franchise city 51 years ago.

When the Saints play at home, Interstates 59, 55 and 10 all are clogged with Mississippians going to and from the game. Saints officials say nearly 4,000 Mississippians are among their season ticket holders. Four of the Superdome’s luxury suites are leased to Mississippi businesses or individuals.

Said Michael Stanfield, the Saints’ senior vice president of sales: “We consider Mississippi part of our community, the Saints family … Mississippi is critical to our success.”

“We have tremendous relationships with many Mississippi businesses from South Mississippi all the way up north of Jackson,” Stanfield said. “We held training camp in Jackson in 2006-2008 and further forged relationships with businesses and state government there.”

But the shared history of the Saints and Mississippi go back past the 21st century.

The original Saint? The first Saints player under contract was Paige Cothren, a former Ole Miss Rebel from Natchez. Several of those early Saints teams trained in Hattiesburg at Southern Miss.

If the most beloved Saints player of all-time is not current quarterback Drew Brees, then he is former quarterback Archie Manning, from Drew and Ole Miss, the first Saint to have his jersey number go up on the wall of the Louisiana Superdome. Manning never experienced a winning season with the Saints, but he was so productive and valiant in defeat he was universally respected by opponents, played in Pro Bowls and was once the NFC’s offensive MVP. No doubt, Manning’s years (1971-82) with the Saints strengthened the bond between the Saints and the Magnolia State.

Deuce McAllister no longer plays but he’s still with the Saints. Credit: New Orleans Saints

Brees has long since surpassed Manning and all others as the Saints’ leading all-time passer, but the Saints all-time leading rusher remains Deuce McAllister, from Lena, Morton High School and Ole Miss. McAllister will be doing the radio commentary on Sunday’s game – and it’s a little known fact that Jim Henderson, the Saints radio play-by-play man, lives in Mississippi on a fishing lake in rural Pearl River County.

Fred McAfee was a special teams ace.

Joe Horn, the Saints’ third all-time leading pass receiver, never played senior college football but he played his junior college football at Itawamba in Fulton. The best non-kicking special teams player in Saints history is probably Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Fred McAfee out of Philadelphia (Miss., not Pa.) and Mississippi College. Fast Freddie still works for the Saints as director of player engagement.

And did you know that the Saints’ first-ever starting free safety was Yazoo City native and former Ole Miss quarterback Jimmy Heidel, later Mississippi’s chief economic development? He was. He wore jersey number 26 in black and gold long before Deuce McAllister. Heidel started his entire rookie season and then was unceremoniously cut during the Saint’ second training camp in 1968. Interviewed shortly thereafter, Heidel told a newspaper reporter, “Somedays you’re the windshield and somedays you’re the bug…”

Back then, and for years thereafter, the Saints most Sundays were usually the bug. But they plugged away through hurricanes Camille and Katrina and more. Mississippians suffered with them, shared the hardship and misery of those horrific storms. No doubt, that shared misery – and the shared joy of the Saints rise to Super Bowl champions from the Katrina’s aftermath – have much to do with Mississippi’s affection for the Saints, who for better (and sometimes worse) are Mississippi’s team.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.