Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The year was ’94 and my trunk is raw, in my rearview mirror is the motherfu – wait – that’s the wrong story.
The year was 1995 and I was a little six-year-old boy in Illinois with an identity crisis. I was a huge college football fan, but felt no allegiance to any pro team, nor had any real interest in the NFL in general, really. My dad was and is, for some unholy reason, a Raiders fan, and (almost) all of my friends were Bears fans, yet neither team felt like my team. In the football world, only one team felt right at that time, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
I was the kid that would wear his complete Notre Dame jumpsuit to school at least once a week, hot or cold. I had a Notre Dame helmet, Notre Dame cups… and a Notre Dame poster featuring an unlikely hero, Ray Zellars. Zellars was a running-fullback for Notre Dame during a stretch where they reached four straight bowl games (Sugar Bowl, Cotton bowl twice, and Fiesta Bowl). He was also a starter on the team when they held the #1 ranking in college football in 1993. To six year old me, Ray Zellars was THE man.
The New Orleans Saints drafted Zellars with the 12th pick of the second round of the ’95 NFL draft. Although I really did not pay attention to the draft back then, it was still a sad, sad day for me; Ray Zellars was no longer at Notre Dame. Fast-forward a few months, my parents bought me a deck of NFL player cards. This was a somewhat regular occurrence and I had no way of knowing, but this deck was special… I was flipping through the cards, Jason Hanson (whoopty-freakin-doo), Mark Chmura (what a treat), crap, crap, crap… wait… wait… WAIT, IS THAT RAY ZELLARS!?!? There it was, in all of its glory, Ray Zellars catching a ball in white and gold. In that moment, something magical happened. I felt something. I felt right. I felt at home.
That card instantly became my favorite, and the Saints instantly became my team. From that point on, I would check the score ticker on every nationally televised (or Bears) game, waiting to see "NO" trickle across the bottom. I would read the box scores in the papers and flip through every issue of Sports Illustrated that I could get my hands on, hoping to come across something Saints related. Eventually, this thing called "the internet" became popular and made it so much easier to be an out of market fan.
Zellars’ career with the Saints never really panned out, in fact, you could call him a flat out bust. He only played four years for the guys in gold and put up pedestrian numbers: 57 catches on 85 targets for 390 yards, 382 rushing attempts for 1351 yards, 11 total touchdowns (all rushing), and 11 fumbles (7 lost) through 48 games. Neither the type of production, nor the length of stay you’d expect out of a high second round pick… but still, if not for drafting Ray Zellars and my parents randomly buying me a deck of cards that just so happened to have him in a Saints uniform, I’m either cheering for another team, or just simply not caring about the NFL.
Go ahead, call him a bust, call him a wash-out, call him a joke, call him a waste of a draft pick… I still call him a hero. Thank you, Ray, for leading me to the Who Dat nation!