GEORGE ROGERS HOLDS a special place in his heart for the New Orleans Saints. He was a big part of helping the Saints gain respectability, and a quarter of a century later they are playing in their first Super Bowl.
Before Rogers' arrival in New Orleans for the 1981 season, the Saints were the laughingstock of the NFL. The previous season, one in which New Orleans went 1-15, Saints fans took to wearing paper bags over their heads at the Louisiana Superdome and calling their team the "Aints."
Then Bum Phillips arrived. He was hired as coach with two objectives in mind - exorcise the past of a New Orleans franchise that in its first 14 seasons had stumbled to a 55-142 record, and establish the same winning mind-set he had in Houston, where his last three Oilers teams reached the playoffs.
Phillips' first order of business was to re-create his Houston team in New Orleans, and that meant selecting Rogers with the first pick in the NFL draft. Envisioning another Earl Campbell, Phillips believed the franchise could be built around Rogers, who in 1980 won the Heisman Trophy at South Carolina.
It was a similar vision to the one New Orleans possessed when it was formed as an expansion team in 1967, only with different results. The original Saints signed Green Bay's great running back tandem of Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor in the expansion draft, only to see Hornung immediately retire and Taylor follow suit a season later.
As a rookie, Rogers was everything Phillips envisioned and more. In his second game, Rogers carried the ball 29 times for 162 yards and a touchdown in a New Orleans victory against the Los Angeles Rams. Later that season, Rogers out-dueled Campbell. Rogers went for 142 yards in the Saints' win, and Campbell scored two touchdowns with 96 yards rushing.
The wins were scarce that season - New Orleans went 4-12 - but the foundation was being built for a solid franchise under Phillips. Rogers was a big reason. With 1,674 yards and 13 touchdowns, Rogers was the NFL Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowl selection.
Rogers bought into Phillips' slogan of "Every man get a man, and every good man get two." Phillips repeated it just before New Orleans took the field before every game, and Rogers said the team was learning what Phillips meant by every player doing the job of two.
Then a couple of off-field problems derailed Phillips' train to success in New Orleans. Rogers went through drug rehabilitation that offseason as a cocaine scandal rocked the league, and NFL players went on strike two weeks into the season. When the players returned, the season was reduced to nine games, and New Orleans matched their win total of the previous season with four.
Rogers returned to form for the 1983 season, and New Orleans matched its best record at 8-8. A final-game, 26-24 loss to the Rams prevented New Orleans from going to the playoffs for the first time. Rogers finished the season with 1,144 yards rushing.
Just when it appeared the Saints were going to take off with Rogers, Phillips pulled the unexpected. Midway through the 1984 season, New Orleans traded for Campbell, who at age 29 was considered past his prime.
"There weren't enough footballs for me and Earl both to run," Rogers says. "I might have thought it was a little slap in the face when we got Earl, even though (Phillips) said he got Earl to make us both have long careers. Earl was good and we competed, but don't get the script flipped. ... The writing was on the wall for one of us."
That proved to be Rogers. Following the 1984 season, one in which New Orleans missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record, Rogers was traded to the Washington Redskins for a first-round pick.
Rogers played three seasons with Washington. He topped 1,000 yards rushing in 1985 and '86. He the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns in 1986. Then he closed his career by playing for the Super Bowl champions in 1987.
"It wasn't a bad deal for me," Rogers says of his trade to Washington, "but I loved New Orleans. My best times and my best years were in New Orleans."
As it turned out, the trade for Campbell and the trading of Rogers proved to be the undoing of Phillips in New Orleans. After a 4-8 start in 1985, Phillips retired and turned over the coaching duties to his son, Wade.
By then, the Saints had shed their label as a perennial NFL also-ran. They first reached the playoffs in 1987 and have been championship contenders - on and off - since.
Rogers says he takes great pride in being part of the New Orleans construction project. He was there when the Saints no longer were the Aints. Now he says he will be rooting Sunday for his favorite team to be called Super Bowl champions.
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