The New Orleans Saints have one of the more interesting family traditions than perhaps any other team in the NFL. Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram II's story is pretty well known. Mark's father, Mark Sr., was a successful NFL receiver, most notably with the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins. Also well known is Saints All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan's father, Steve Jordan, who was a six time Pro Bowl tight end with the Minnesota Vikings from 1982-'94. Star wide receiver Michael Thomas, whose uncle is former Pro Bowl wideout Keyshawn Johnson, also had a big shadow in front of him as he entered the league. Running back Trey Edmunds also has strong NFL bloodlines. Not only were his two brothers, Tremaine and Terrell, selected in the 1st round of this spring's NFL draft, but their father Ferrell Edmunds was a Pro Bowl tight end for the Miami Dolphins through the late-1980's and early 1990's. The Saints have had a long line of players with close NFL lineage, but especially during the Sean Payton era. Some of the other notable former Saint players who had close family ties since Payton became the team's coach in 2006 have been Nick Toon, whose father Al Toon was an All-Pro wideout for the New York Jets. Safety Jairus Byrd's dad Gil Byrd was a ball-hawking safety for the San Diego Chargers. Wide receiver Kenny Stills' father, Ken Stills, played defensive back for the Green Bay Packers. Linebacker Michael Mauti's father, Rich Mauti, was a wide receiver and kick returner for these same Saints through the late '70's and early '80's. Another talented player with NFL lineage was added to the New Orleans roster immediately following this spring's draft, when former University of Cincinnati star cornerback Linden Stephens was signed as an undrafted free agent. Linden's father Mac Stephens was an NFL linebacker in the early 1990's. I had the honor of speaking with both Linden and Mac this past Wednesday on the Bayou Blitz podcast. For the full interview, please click here:
Mac Stephens entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie linebacker from the University of Minnesota. Mac overcame alot just to get on the football field at any level. Stephens was hit by a car when he was just 11 years old, leaving him with a permanent injury in his left foot. Despite growing up in northern Ohio, typically Cleveland Browns territory, Mac grew up as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. He even wore number 82 during his playing career at Firestone High School in Akron, OH as a tribute to one of his favorite players, Steelers Hall of Fame receiver John Stallworth. Stephens would suffer more adversity during his collegiate stint with the Golden Gophers, suffering a major back injury that short-circuited the end of his college career. He was initially signed by the New England Patriots as an undrafted rookie, and faced long odds as he looked to compete for a backup job behind future Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett. Stephens worked his way up the depth chart with the Patriots, often getting snaps with the number two unit. Surprisingly though, he was among the final group of cuts that same preseason. Crushed, and thinking that his NFL dream was ended, Stephens rebounded and made the roster with the New York Jets. After a brief stay in New York, he would sign with the Minnesota Vikings, but back injuries continued to affect his health. He would continue his career in the Canadian Football League, where he would eventually get offered another contract opportunity with the Detroit Lions. Unfortunately, another bank injury caused doctors to inform Stephens that further damage to his vertebrae could cause paralysis, causing the toughest decision any athlete faces. He ultimately made the decision to step away from playing the game he loved in favor of family and quality of life. He remained close to football however, and after serving as an assistant coach for a number of years, Stephens accepted a head coaching position with Cleveland Heights High School in 2015. Today, he leads an up and coming Tigers program, and has developed a number of players that have caught the attention of Division I college programs.
On March 21, 1995, Mac became the lucky father of twin boys, Collin and Linden Stephens. Despite seeing the physical toll that the game of football had taken on their dad, both boys began playing at an early age, and did so with their father's full support and tutelage. While Collin would forge his own successful path separate from football, Linden decided at a very early age to pursue a dream of being a professional football player. He would face his own adversity, but leaned on strong family support and his own will and perseverance to succeed. Stephens would quickly become a defensive star at the University of Cincinnati. His incredible athleticism, natural man to man coverage ability, and aggressive nature of play gave him the look of an NFL cornerback throughout his college career. Surprisingly, Linden was not selected during the NFL draft, but the Saints quickly jumped on the opportunity to add the Bearcats talent to their roster. Linden wouldn't dwell on the disappointment of not being drafted for long, and true to his nature, he got right to work with his new team and coaches. He looks to be a natural fit with the aggressive defensive style that Saints coaches want to play, but Stephens is also an athletic match with many of the receivers that he'll line up against. Early through the team's OTA's and mini-camp, he was working most often as an outside corner, and of course working closely with his new teammates in film study. He will also be given looks at slot corner, sub-package safety, and will need to make a mark on special teams once training camp commences.
It is quite evident that father and sons have a close relationship to this day. Linden has sought out Mac's advice as not only a supportive father, but also as a player who himself knows the path of an undrafted player who faced long odds to even make a pro roster. The odds of an undrafted player to have an impact on an NFL team is indeed slim, and especially so in a defensive backfield with as much young talent as the Saints possess. New Orleans does have a solid history of such successes, particularly since Sean Payton took over as head coach. Given the way the entire Stephens family has defeated all other adversity in their path, not to mention the talent that Linden brings to the Saints defensive backfield, the odds seem to be in his favor to continue a unique New Orleans father/son tradition.