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The Lineman in Winter 

Re-signed for his 16th NFL season, Lafayette native Jerry Fontenot still has his eyes on the prize.

New Orleans Saints center Jerry Fontenot has the most thankless job in football. Fontenot usually only makes the evening sportscast when something goes awry: a bobbled snap, his quarterback gets sacked, or he misses a block. The ESPN Sportscenter reels belong to marquee players such as quarterback Aaron Brooks and running back Deuce McAllister, but Fontenot's work on the offensive line plays a role in every breakaway run or touchdown pass.

Relative anonymity has served the Lafayette native and Lafayette High standout well through his 16-year tenure in the NFL. Through eight years with the Chicago Bears and the past seven seasons with the Saints, Fontenot has proven to be one of the most durable and reliable linemen in the league. He's tasted success, making it to the second round of the playoffs with the Bears in 1990, and with the Saints in 2000. He's also swallowed the bitterness of dismal seasons such as the Bears' demoralizing 7-9 1996 campaign and the Saints' disastrous 3-13 season in 1999.

Now 37 years old, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Fontenot has been the NFL equivalent of a sure thing -- but his upcoming 16th season carries an air of uncertainty. The Saints have given their 2002 No. 2 draft pick LeCharles Bentley the starting job at center, and Fontenot could watch the entire 2004 Saints season from the sidelines as a backup. "Jerry is capable of stepping in at any time," says Saints Coach Jim Haslett. "We expect him to help the transition with LeCharles, and be a role model and a leader for everybody in the group. He's got the most years in the league, and the most seniority."

But the coming weeks leading up to Sept. 5, the date that the Saints will trim their roster to its final 53 players -- could be one of the most important stretches of Fontenot's career. With the Saints stocking up on offensive linemen, there is a slim chance that Fontenot could be released.

"You never know," says Haslett. "There's a chance anybody can get cut here, that's the business. Jerry's been playing a long time, and he's exceeded the life of a football player six times over."

Sitting in the living room of his Old Metairie home two days before the opening of training camp, those thoughts are the last thing on Fontenot's mind. "Let's put it this way: I'm not going to change the way I approach this season," he says. "That's the way we're starting camp. [The Saints] told me they wanted to (start Bentley), and told me they wanted me to take some time to think about taking on a different role. I did, and I considered going somewhere else and earning a starting job, and none of those situations seem as promising to get a (Super Bowl) ring as this one."

It's hard to imagine the Saints without Fontenot. With the exception of a 10-game stretch in 1998 that he missed due to a knee injury, he's started every single game at center for the Saints since 1997. Even his replacement as the starting center acknowledges he has big shoes to fill. "The center has to know the offense and get everyone directed, and you can't find a better person than Jerry, unless you put the offensive coordinator under center," says Bentley. "Really, Jerry and offensive coordinator [Mike McCarthy] are running the team's offense."

AS THE YOUNGEST CHILD in a household with three older sisters, Fontenot took charge at an early age. "I opted not to stay inside and play with dolls, or just ride bikes," he says. His father worked in the oil industry, and worked a seven/seven schedule: seven days offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, then seven days at home. Occasionally his dad would take Jerry with him on emergency calls to a drilling rig. "I got to see my Dad in action," remembers Fontenot. "He was kind of the guy running the show. So I was no stranger to hard work and putting forth effort to get some reward."

Fontenot also developed an appreciation for life's simple pleasures. His mother is Cajun and cooked accordingly; his sisters were always supportive of his sports endeavors and came to his games; and he felt the passion for sports in the community. "Lafayette is a great city," he says. "It's a big sports town, and on a very young level. We did start early, and it was competitive at that age. We'd go around to different cities, to Rayne and Crowley, and they'd come to us, so it was fun to be able to not only practice and play around Lafayette, but get outside Lafayette and play other teams. I loved my childhood, and have very fond memories of growing up in south Louisiana."

When he was flattening defensive linemen for the Lafayette Lions, recruiters started coming around. Like many of his peers in Acadiana, Fontenot dreamed of playing for LSU. But when Fontenot graduated in 1984, LSU's coach, Jerry Stovall, had recently resigned, and its football program was in a state of transition. Heavy courting by Texas A&M, its solid chemical engineering program, and a visit to the campus cemented Fontenot's decision to head to the Lone Star State.

Fontenot quickly learned that college football was a whole different world than high school. "I was playing left guard my first day of spring ball, and the rookies got to practice against the first-team defense," he remembers. "Ray Childress was playing the opposite end, and we called a trap play. So I had to pull and trap Ray Childress. I got sent so hard, I landed flat on my back. I was a 17-year-old boy going out to play with men for the first time."

But after his sophomore year, Fontenot realized that he had a shot at the NFL. He earned All-Southwest Conference recognition -- an honor he repeated his junior and senior years -- and watched as peers such as Childress were being picked in the early rounds of the NFL draft. By the time he graduated from Texas A&M, Fontenot knew he was going to be drafted -- he just didn't know when or by which team.

On draft day 1989, Fontenot gathered with family and friends at home. The first two rounds passed him by, and then the phone rang.

"Jerry, this is Mike Ditka. I'm looking at a picture of you, and you look mean. Are you mean?"

"I said, ŒCoach, I'll be whatever you want me to be.' And I'm picturing this guy that just threw gum at fans and flipped them off."

The magnitude of going to the Bears -- and the city of Chicago -- didn't initially sink in for Fontenot. The franchise had won the Super Bowl in 1986, and won division titles in '87 and '88. It was the days of Windy City heroes such as linebacker Mike Singletary and defensive end Richard Dent, and in a town accustomed to the futility of the long-suffering Chicago Cubs, the Bears were saviors. Coach Ditka became such an icon that he was immortalized by actors George Wendt and Chris Farley in the classic "Da Bears!" skit on Saturday Night Live.

"I had no idea what I was in store for," says Fontenot. "I knew about the team because of them winning the Super Bowl in '86, but had no idea about the magnitude of that size city. It was a breathtaking experience to go into the city and see the skyline, and Lake Michigan right there. It has a very similar feel to south Louisiana, with a lot of hospitable people, so it really wasn't that big of a change for me, except for the scope of it. And since the Bears had just won the Super Bowl, the town just embraced the team and loved them."

With the offensive line from Chicago's Super Bowl team still intact at the time, Fontenot had little chance of cracking the starting lineup in his rookie season. He learned deep-snapping for punts before reporting to Chicago, a move that earned him playing time on special teams all 16 games in his debut year. After starting six games at left tackle at the end of the '91 season, he became the starting center in 1992.

While Bears players like Singleton and Dent were elevated to almost mythological status in Chicago, Fontenot says they justified it on the field. "Some of the best lessons I learned were from guys like Singletary, and Jay Hilgenberg, and Tom Thayer. Those guys just loved the game of football, and they would play, as long as they weren't going to hurt the team, with an injury, or by playing through an injury. They were on the field. My first two years I played in about three games, and that was only because Jay went down twice, and one week he missed because he was sick. Otherwise I wouldn't have played at all. They had a dedication to the team, and always team came first, no matter what. They understood what it took to get to the Super Bowl and win it."

Being a member of "Da Bears" had its perks. Top-flight restaurants with two-week waiting lists would have tables open immediately. Fontenot remembers, "I'd call up, and they'd say, ŒMr. Fontenot? With the Bears? How many people will you have tonight?'"

The Bears' dominance and mystique began to unravel a few years after Fontenot's arrival. In 1992 the team went 5-11, and Ditka was fired. The team had moments of respectability the next four years with new head coach Dave Wannstedt, and made the playoffs in 1995. But Fontenot -- whose voice drops a notch as he refers to "the Wannstedt era" -- was ready to leave Chicago by 1996. When asked if there was one moment that he knew he wanted out, he exhales deeply.

"There were so many (moments)," he says. "There wasn't a defining moment, but Dave had really lost the team. Guys weren't responding, some guys felt betrayed and didn't know if they could trust him, and whenever it gets to that situation, it's not good."

His Chicago contract expired at the end of the 1996 season, and Fontenot was ready to explore his free agency options. Then one afternoon at his house in Chicago, he heard a radio report that Mike Ditka had been hired as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints.

"I called my agent right then, and said, ŒLet's go to New Orleans,'" remembers Fontenot, "and we got the deal worked out immediately. Mike was excited, we were excited. I'm going back home, and I get to work with Mike again. My parents were excited, too, because my wife Stephanie and I had one daughter, and I was just as excited about my parents getting to spend time with their granddaughter. Since then we've had two more daughters, so it's even better."

His growing family provided more joy than the Ditka reunion, which didn't quite go as hoped. The 3-13 season in 1999 sealed Ditka's ticket back out of town. Since Ditka has been such an important figure in his NFL career, Fontenot chooses his words carefully and sparingly when assessing Ditka's ill-fated time in New Orleans. "One thing that did not change about Mike was his loyalty," says Fontenot. "He just wanted guys around him that were going to fight hard and play hard, and that's what we had. I think he stuck by his people -- and I love the guy for that. Ultimately, we all know, if he would have made some changes, he wouldn't have lost his job. But he's fiercely loyal to guys that are loyal to him, which is a pretty rare commodity these days."

Loyalty, integrity, dedication, consistency -- it's impossible to spend time with Fontenot or his teammates and coaches and not hear those words. Says Haslett, "Jerry's the ultimate pro, a great person, a good family man. He's a guy that you go to when something needs to be addressed." His former Saints teammate and Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme notes, "The thing with Jerry is, what you see is what you get. He's always courteous and business-like, and just super-intelligent." Saints Offensive Coordinator Mike McCarthy echoes the sentiment, and says he's never seen Fontenot get rattled professionally or personally, in any situation. "That's one of the things that's so satisfying about working with him," says McCarthy. "You know exactly what you're going to get from him."

That explains Fontenot's friendship with former Saints offensive lineman Kyle Turley. From his infamous helmet-tossing incident in 2001 against the New York Jets to venomous quotes about Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and practically the entire Saints organization, it's hard to picture outspoken Turley and reserved Fontenot bonding over anything -- especially hard rock music. But that's just one of their shared passions; it was Turley who inspired Fontenot to take up guitar playing three years ago, leading to a nationally televised Monday Night Football promotion last year where Fontenot jammed with rockers Nickelback. A year after the Saints tired of Turley's attitude and traded him to the St. Louis Rams, Fontenot and Turley remain close.

"I think some guys definitely throw personalities out there for their own personal gain, and I think there are some guys that are genuinely what they put out there -- like Kyle," says Fontenot. "Those are the kind of guys I tend to gravitate toward -- and I'm not saying loud guys that are fiercely opinionated. I have opinions and I have values, I just express them in a different way. The similarities are that we're both very loyal and honest people. I just like people that you know what you get. I can deal with that -- I can't deal with someone if I'm guessing all the time. And every team has a couple guys like that."

Having the right person to deal with bad apples in the locker room appears to be one of the reasons the Saints have Fontenot slated for their 2004 roster. In an era where NFL head coaches -- even successful ones like Tony Dungy -- are fired regularly and their successors institute major overhauls of team rosters, it's worth noting that Fontenot is the only remaining player on the Saints roster from the Mike Ditka era. And with leadership issues frequently cited as a factor in the Saints' past three late-season failures, Fontenot says he's ready to become a more vocal leader this year if necessary.

"If the situation dictates it, we have three or four guys who have no problem doing that: Wayne [Gandy], myself, Aaron and Deuce. Through this offseason, I've had some discussions with Aaron, with Wayne, and Deuce about that issue, about when the time comes -- and it's gonna come -- we're gonna have to stand up and do something. And we're all in it together, trust me. Everybody wants to win. There won't be any problem finding a leader this year or having a leader come forth."

The larger question is how Fontenot -- and Bentley and the rest of the offense -- will respond to his new role as backup. There is no denying that Bentley's time has come; he's a fierce competitor who's bigger and faster than Fontenot. (He's also returning from a knee injury. "Jerry likes to remind me that he came back from his ACL surgery when he was 30, and I'm only 24," says Bentley.) But with nearly 200 games under his belt as a starter, Fontenot is one of the league's best linemen when it comes to reading defenses. That ability coupled with his ingrained knowledge of the Saints' offensive playbook makes him a difficult commodity to replace.

"When you design any kind of system, whether it's the computer industry or football, you've got to have a decision maker running it, and he's the key decision maker," says McCarthy, who has 11 years of NFL coaching experience, including stints with Oakland, Green Bay, and Kansas City. "He's always given me great flexibility in the schematic sense, in devising run and pass schemes, and he's great at recognizing defensive schemes. He's the smartest center I've ever worked with." (See sidebar.)

Fontenot's preparation and routines have also made him a creature of habit in quirkier ways. Since his early days in Chicago, he's maintained a tradition of being the first player to get taped by the trainer on game days. He still cuts the fingers off his snapping glove six years after leaving Chicago, even though he no longer has to worry about fumbling due to his glove freezing. And don't even think about trying to take his kneepads. "I have a pair of kneepads that I've had for about 10 years now," Fontenot notes. "I seem to get very attached to my equipment, and trade it out begrudgingly."

Old habits die hard, and while Fontenot says that he's comfortable with whatever role he plays this season, it's obvious he still wants to be out on the field. Remarkably, after 16 years of dishing and taking out punishment from countless 300-pound opponents, Fontenot's frame is still relatively unscathed. He's a little stiffer on the mornings after practices and games, but hasn't suffered the debilitating injuries that are often the norm in the NFL -- and doesn't think about the health risks of further playing time.

"From a personal standpoint, I don't know how many years I have left, and I plan on getting a ring before I retire," he says. "That's all I care about. The formula I've always had is if I feel good and the situation is right, I'll continue. And I'm not saying definitively that this will be my last year. I think the bottom line is I just love to compete, and it's something in my genes. I want the ring."

Through Jerry's Eyes

Photo by Michael C. Hebert/New Orleans Saints While he doesn't do the prolific and exaggerated gesturing of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Fontenot's line-of-scrimmage approach is filled with pointing and yelling at the defense. He explains the process:

The first thing I'm looking for is how many linebackers they have on the field. We'll know by game-planning them what personnel groupings they have on the field, and what tendencies they have from those personnel groupings. So the first thing I'm looking for is linebackers: I want to know how many linebackers they have on the field and which way their line is lined up -- whether they're lined up to a strong formation or weak formation.

Once I get there I'll know who the three linebackers are, or if there's two linebackers and a DB playing that position. The point is that in the event that we're in a loud stadium, the [running] back or the tight end can't hear who I'm calling out, then they see a visual, and then there's no guessing involved. That's by habit. I do it here (in the Superdome) as well, just to be absolutely sure everybody knows what we're doing. Some guys are more in tune than others at any point in the game. So I'm digesting that and giving out information to those guys.

Most of the time I will designate who the middle linebacker is. That becomes much more important if you've got a young guy next to you, or in nickel situations in third down. Then it gets kind of hairy as far as what personnel groupings they have on the field. You'll see a lot more pointing going on in third down. You want to make absolutely sure that there are no leaks because somebody didn't get the call or didn't know who they were supposed to block, especially on third down, with Aaron dropping back. Once I get up to the line and I've made that declaration, then I'm getting down in my stance, and I now I'll read defensive coverages. I'll start looking for safeties to see if one's rolling up just to anticipate what play we're running. A lot of teams will do that now, and bring a safety down in the box right before the snap. So that gives me more information as to which way the linebackers will be playing. It can also dictate which way your defensive line is going to slant. A lot of that is addressed during the week, and it just becomes reaction on Sunday. There's probably a good four or five times in the game, where you'll know (whether) a play will work or fail, just based on the defense called.

click to enlarge   - TERRI FENSEL
click to enlarge   - TERRI FENSEL
click to enlarge Tales From the Saints Sideline airs more of the - team's dirty laundry than readers might expect.
  • Tales From the Saints Sideline airs more of the team's dirty laundry than readers might expect.
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