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NFL PLAYOFFS | CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

Chants of a Lifetime

`Deuuuuuce' is heard in the Superdome as a tribute to McAllister, who embraced the Saints' new era and a rookie running back who didn't steal veteran's thunder

January 20, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — As the clock ticked down, the New Orleans Saints holding a slim lead, a howling filled the cavernous Superdome.

The hometown fans were making it known that they wanted the ball in the hands of running back Deuce McAllister. They bayed his first name, long and low and melodic.

The moment couldn't have been sweeter for a six-year veteran who, in this city known as "The Big Easy," has endured hard times.

Disappointing seasons. A knee injury. The arrival of a younger, flashier teammate.

"A phenomenal feeling," he said of hearing the crowd of 70,000 call for him.

After last Saturday's playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles -- after McAllister's three consecutive carries secured a victory and a trip to the NFC championship game -- his teammates joined the serenade.

They lauded his 143 yards and two touchdowns. Call it a victory for the working man, a lunch-bucket runner who tends to get overlooked on a roster of marquee names such as Drew Brees, Joe Horn and Reggie Bush.

"We were all really happy and excited for Deuce," Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said. "I can't say enough good things about him and what he means to this team."

The Lena, Miss., native started his career at New Orleans in 2001 as a first-round draft pick who found himself in the shadow of Ricky Williams. The following year, when Williams moved on to Miami, it didn't take long for McAllister to flourish.

He rushed for more than 1,000 yards the next three seasons -- a franchise record -- and made the Pro Bowl twice.

"I'm a big guy," the 232-pound back said, describing his running style in simple terms. "If you don't get direct contact on my knees, I'm pretty hard to get down."

The problem was, the Saints wallowed in mediocrity, never making the playoffs. As McAllister explained, "We've always been a talented team since I've been here, but we were never able to put it all together.... We had a drop here or a turnover there, something like that, and we were one or two games out."

Then came last year.

Shortly before the opener, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The storm, which also devastated much of the Gulf Coast where McAllister grew up, left the team shuttling between Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio.

Five weeks into the season, McAllister went down because of a knee injury at Green Bay.

Rehabilitation can be a difficult and lonely time for any player. For him, it was made worse by watching the Saints finish a chaotic 3-13, then select a premier running back, Bush, in the draft.

The Heisman Trophy winner from USC was immediately hailed as a savior, raising questions about whether there was still a place for the other guy.

"The first thing you ask yourself is, 'What's going on?' " McAllister recalled.

The answer was as direct as one of his runs.

After a talk with new Coach Sean Payton, McAllister bought into a system designed to spread the ball around. He also decided his relationship with Bush was not going to be like the one he'd had as a rookie with Williams, who, he said, was "hard to read and understand and to get to know."

This fall the Saints led the NFL in total offense, with Brees passing for 4,418 yards and Bush doing triple-duty, gaining 1,618 yards with nine touchdowns as a running back, receiver and punt returner. Another rookie, receiver Marques Colston, caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards.

McAllister, meanwhile, reclaimed his role as a steadying influence, hammering up the middle for a team-high 1,057 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Brees talks about him as a leader -- "Man, he's got such a big heart" -- and Bush calls him a mentor.

"It obviously could have gone the other way with Deuce," the rookie said. "He could have felt threatened by it, but Deuce has been a huge help and he has been nothing but a role model for me."

With the Saints facing a historic playoff game Sunday -- the long-suffering franchise only one victory from the Super Bowl -- the expectation is that much of the weight will fall upon familiar shoulders.

"Our No. 1 concern is stopping Deuce McAllister," Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "Especially after what he did last week."

McAllister, who gained those critical yards against Philadelphia while battling cramps, said getting this far in the playoffs is something "every player dreams about.... That's one of the goals I've always had."

Several days after the crowd sang his name at the Superdome, fans were still offering congratulations and wishing him luck. "So many people are pulling for us," he said.

Given what he has been through the last few years, McAllister figures it's a nice change.

*

david.wharton@latimes.com

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