October 23, 1994 – As the New Orleans Saints get set to take on the Los Angeles Rams in the Superdome, a camera pans through a sea of Saints scoured across the field during pregame warm-ups. The camera stops on phenom kick returner Tyrone Hughes as he sits on the turf, stretching his hamstrings. “I think I’m good for two today”, Hughes stated, predicting two returns for touchdowns in that game. Hughes set the stage for what would become one of the most remembered games in Saints history.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Life of a Saint: Tyrone Hughes
To know Tyrone Hughes’ roots, you don’t have to travel far from the aforementioned Superdome. In fact, you’d have to head a few miles east to the Lower Ninth Ward. Prior to high school, Hughes would move a few minutes closer to the Dome into the Seventh Ward, eventually attending one of the highest NFL player producing high schools in the country in “St Aug”. Fate would eventually land the local product inside walls of the Superdome, playing as a Saint.
The Early Years
It didn’t take long for Tyrone Hughes to realize he stood out from his peers. “I wouldn’t say I was better, but as a young kid playing playground ball, I was always faster”, Hughes mentioned. His speed was not only known by the kids up the street at Hardin Park, but also the coaches of multiple sports. Hughes played on park ball teams, excelling in football, basketball, track and baseball.
As ironic as it may be, Hughes started playing football in junior high school as a punter. Hughes stated, “That was really my first experience with older players.” While Hughes stated he did well, he noted that as he headed to St. Augustine High School, he was known more as a baseball prodigy than a football phenom.
While the focus was on baseball, Hughes did find himself on the football roster as a junior in high school, still as a punter. About three games before the end of the season, the coaching staff decided to mix things up. “The defensive backs coach was also the baseball coach. He knew I was fast from stealing bases in baseball. He and the linebackers coach said, ‘Let’s put Tyrone back there to return a punt.’. They punted the ball to me and I returned it for a touchdown, but there was a flag. They had to re-punt. They punted to me again. I returned it for a touchdown.” A star was born. By the end of the season, Hughes would land himself on the “Top five players to watch” list for Sports Illustrated leading into his senior year.
Following the eye-opening success of his junior year, the St. Augustine coaching staff redesigned the offense to a “Delaware Wing-T” playbook, specifically designed for Hughes. Hughes remembered, “What really got me noticed was my third game of the year. I would say it was my ‘Al Bundy” game. I had four touchdowns in the first half. I had a kickoff return, a punt return, a run and a pass.” At that point, local buzz had turned into national buzz. Hughes earned the Gatorade Player of the Week award. The mailbox was immediately and regularly filling with colleges attempting to attract Hughes. In one year, Hughes went from punter to Offensive Player of the Year for the state of Louisiana, averaging a whopping 40 yards per return, 10 yards per carry at running back and 30 yards per reception at wide receiver.
The 1993 NFL Draft
Hughes emergence in his junior and senior year of college landed him in the NFL, getting drafted by the very local New Orleans Saints in the fifth round. For Hughes, it was a dream come true in many ways. But, given the choice, would he have rather gone to a Super Bowl contender? Hughes answered, “You’re talking about the draft, so you don’t get to pick and choose. At that time, I think it would have been the San Francisco 49ers. Yes, I would have gone to them. However, I think my best opportunity to play was with the Saints because of what I did (returned kick-offs and punts).
Hughes was happy to stay home though. After jesting that he dodged a bullet by not being selected by the Bengals the pick prior, Hughes spoke about how happy he was to join the Saints. “My family and I were just so thrilled. They had brought me in for a workout and I knew they needed a punt and kick returner.”
Hughes in the NFL
Hughes not only earned his roster spot on the Saints as a rookie, but also made such a splash that he played his way onto the Pro Bowl team. His family was able to join him on the trip as fate would have it. Prior to starting his rookie season in the NFL, Hughes played in the American Bowl. Hughes said, “I ended up being the MVP of the game. Along with the trophy, they gave me two first class tickets to the Pro Bowl. When I made it to the Pro Bowl that year, I ended up trading those first-class tickets in for four coach tickets and paying for the rest of them. I ended up having my whole family come. We all hung out in Hawaii and had a great time.”
Hughes success continued into year two. “Again, I led the NFL in kickoff returns and kickoff return yardage, which I don’t know if that was a good sign for our defense”, Hughes joked. “I led the NFL in my third year as well. Three years in a row I broke my own record.” Hughes held the record for most kickoff returns for several years until current record holder MarTay Jenkins of the Arizona Cardinals eclipsed Hughes’ mark.
It’s well chronicled that with the Saints offensive woes mounting at the tail end of Jim Mora’s 11-year stay with the New Orleans Saints, fans and media went to the head coach to ask why he didn’t use Tyrone Hughes at wide receiver. Between his speed and his experience at the position, Hughes was a logical answer on the offensive side of the ball, or so it seemed to most.
When asked if he still had any bitterness toward Jim Mora in not being afforded the opportunity to play wide receiver, Hughes responded, “Yes, I do. There was always bitterness. First of all, I was one of the fastest guys on the team. They could have put me at receiver while I was still learning the defense. Whether it’s political or whatever, everything is not done in the best interest of the team. It was more in the best interest of the organization. What I mean by that is how they would justify the reasons for not doing something, regardless of how stupid it may have sounded. Jim Mora’s response was, ‘We don’t feel he can catch good enough’. Think about that. If I drop a pass, that’s incomplete. If I drop a punt or kickoff, that’s a turnover.”
October 23, 1994
So, whatever happened to Tyrone Hughes’ pregame prediction on October 23, 1994. Tyrone Hughes did, in fact, return two kicks for touchdowns and in the process set NFL records for most kickoff return yardage in a game (304) and most combined return yardage (kickoffs and punts) in a game (347), of which both still stand today.
When asked how he knew such a prediction itself, Hughes commented, “That was actually the first time I had done something like that. It just felt that, after watching the film, we would have the opportunities to return.” After Hughes’ success that day, he didn’t make a habit of making pregame predictions. “I had never done it before and I never did it again. But that day, it just felt like we had an opportunity.”, Hughes mentioned.
Tyrone Hughes was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 2015 along with another great returner, Michael Lewis.