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Life of a Saint: John Fourcade

Fourcade speaks about his Louisiana roots, the most significant letter of his life and one of the wackiest plays in NFL history.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

October 2021 (ESPN NOLA 110.3, Sports Hangover) – As Gus Kattengell asks a regular guest on his radio show how he’s been, he’s met with a familiar, New Orleans voice. John Fourcade responds, jesting how he’s just getting over Covid, putting things back together in his home after some damage from the hurricane and “just took a few needles to the hand” in preparation for his upcoming carpal tunnel surgery.

Just another day for the man they have long called, “Toughie”.

Life of a Saint: John Fourcade

The road for John Fourcade started in a “shotgun” house, just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River in southeast Louisiana. He shared the space with his parents, two older sisters and two younger brothers, all of which were athletes. Fourcade mentioned, “Five kids back in the 60’s? That’s a lot. That’s a large family for us Catholic people.”

Growing up in that family full of athletes, Fourcade always felt right at home competing in sports. He recalled his introduction into football, sharing, “My best friend growing up, a little guy at that, his name was George. We would ride bikes and he said, ‘Hey, I need a ride to the park for football practice’ I said, ‘What? A little bitty dude like you?’ So, I pedaled him on the front of my bike to the playground. The coach looked at me and asked, ‘You wanna play some ball?’ I said, ‘I better ask my family first.’ So, I came back the next day and he said, ‘As big as you are, we’re gonna put you down on defensive line at defensive end.’ That’s where I started out. Then, he realized he didn’t have anybody that could catch the ball or get the ball to somebody.” So, the coach moved him to quarterback. And Fourcade recalls the playbook in those early years as, “John run right. John run left. John run up the middle.”

Baptism by Fire

Fourcade enjoyed some success as a youth football player. When it came time for high school football, he was tossed right into the deep end, becoming the starting varsity quarterback as a 13-year-old freshman. While the experience may have been daunting at the time, it would serve Fourcade well throughout his life.

Fourcade laughed as he shared, “When my coach at Shaw High School told me I was gonna start this game against Holy Cross, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. These guys have beards!’

But once the game started, Fourcade focused on what he needed to do and less on the intimidating opposition. Although the boys at Shaw didn’t win a game that first season, Fourcade mentioned that the team was young and as they grew together, they would enjoy a tremendous amount of success before he would leave high school.

He capped his junior year by leading Shaw to the state quarterfinals which they lost after Fourcade sustained an injury. His senior year, he would lead his team to the state semifinals, losing to another future New Orleans Saint, Bobby Hebert and the South Lafourche Tarpons. Fourcade credits his opponent for playing a full 48 minutes and capitalizing on some opportunities throughout the game. But regarding Fourcade’s still controversial forward pass beyond the line of scrimmage penalty, he still insists he was not across the line and stated, “I don’t care what anybody says whatsoever. There was some home cooking in that town!”

New Orleans Saints v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Ole Miss

The college options for Fourcade were seemingly endless as he was finishing his time at Shaw. LSU, with coach Charles McClendon and Alabama with coach Bear Bryant seemed to be the leading contenders for Fourcade’s services. But when neither coach could offer him a starting role until possibly his junior year, Fourcade decided to explore other options.

Ole Miss and head coach Steve Sloan entered the picture a little later in the process. While they couldn’t put it in writing, the school was prepared to start the then 17-year-old incoming freshman. Fourcade stated that the leap into college football was made easier through the experience he had at the beginning of his playing days in high school.

Fourcade would ultimately play his way into the record books at Ole Miss, breaking many of the benchmarks set by former New Orleans Saint, Archie Manning. The Manning family would later return the favor as Eli Manning ended up breaking many of the records Fourcade set at the time.

During the 1981 Egg Bowl, the final play of Fourcade’s college career saw him carry the ball into the end zone on a game-winning touchdown against arch-rival Mississippi State. It was his second rushing touchdown of the game, flashing back to his, “John run up the middle” days as a youth.

The Road Less Traveled

Despite the successes and gaudy stats put up by Fourcade while at Ole Miss, he would end up going undrafted. Discouraging? Yes. But the Louisiana product would use a lifetime of life lessons on toughness and perseverance to take advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves.

Fourcade found himself in the CFL, playing for the BC Lions (’83) and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (’84). From there, he moved to the USFL and spent 1985 with the Memphis Showboats. With every opportunity, Fourcade stayed focused on the ultimate goal of playing in the NFL.

Later in 1985, Fourcade got the call he had been hoping for from the New York Giants. He credits the three former Ole Miss coaches who were on New York’s staff in helping him get in the door. Unfortunately, as quickly as the opportunity came, a back injury would throw another roadblock in his path. ”I really thought I had a shot to be the third quarterback. It was going well for me, but then I injured my lower back.” Fourcade thought, “What should I do?” Fourcade was offered the chance to go back to school and finish his last semester, which he did.

In 1987, Fourcade would then spend a little time in the Arena league, playing for the Denver Dynamite.

The Letter

His play in college, the CFL, the USFL and the Arena League had not yet landed Fourcade the opportunity he craved. Fourcade’s next move would be a combination of desperation, creativity and resourcefulness as he reached out to the New Orleans Saints.

“In the spring of ’86, I wrote a letter to Jim Finks. The letter was to say, “Hew look. I’ll do anything possible. I just want to try out. I’ll pay for the tryout. I’ll do whatever has to be done for me to get a lookie.” Fourcade continued, “Well, they got back with me. They said, ‘Yeah, we’ll give you a tryout.’ So, they said that on a Monday night. I drove home. I worked out for them on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, Jim Finks called me and said that he would sign me to a contract. Then he said, ‘Don’t you remember that if you made the ballclub that you would play for free?’ I said, “Yes sir. I did say that.’ He said, ‘Well we can’t do that, but we are going to sign you to a contract.’ That’s when it all began. Right there.’

Fourcade also shared, “I wasn’t sure if I should give it all up when I went back to Ole Miss to graduate. It worked out that I sent them a letter. If I didn’t send that letter, I probably wouldn’t have played football anymore.”

This time, Fourcade would stick.

Timing is Everything

After two weeks in the 1987 NFL season, the players went on strike. Week 3 of the season was cancelled entirely, but week 4 brought a odd combination of both new players and seasoned veterans that were willing to cross the picket lines and play during the strike.

Fourcade decided to cross the line and would end up starting his first NFL game for the Saints. Fourcade would lead the Saints to a 2-1 record during the strike and kept the Saints moving toward what would ultimately be the franchise’s first ever winning season. Fourcade mentioned that when the balance of the regular players came back from the strike, they were grateful for Fourcade’s efforts and acknowledge his contributions toward the unprecedented results in New Orleans.

The efforts not only helped lead the Saints to that first ever winning season, but it also earned Fourcade a permanent roster spot. Not only was Fourcade’s timing great in his pursuit to play and stay in the NFL, but he was also lucky to join the right team at the right time.

Fourcade explained, “Obviously, everybody knows the Dome Patrol, with Rickey Jackson, Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills and Pat Swilling. Secondary-wise, we had Dave Waymer, Toi Cook and Johnnie Poe. For the lineman, we had big Tony Elliott, Bruce Clark, Frank Warren, Jimmy Wilks. There were so many players. Running backs that I can remember were Reuben Mayes, Dalton Hilliard, ‘Ironhead’ Heyward. We had wide receivers like the legendary Eric Martin, Brett Perriman, Moe Hill and tight ends John Tice and Hoby Brenner. Stan Brock on the offensive line with Steve Trapilo, Joel Hilgenberg, Brad Edelman and Chuck Comminskey. I can still name all these guys. We had a good football team. We got to the playoffs a couple times but didn’t go all the way. We struggled at moments, but it was exciting.”

Then he added, “We helped build something. I don’t think the Saints would be what they are today if it weren’t for us, back then, getting things started, getting things rolling and getting that winning attitude. Jim Mora was our head coach. People can say what they wat about him, but he got us our first winning season.”

The Play

While 24 games aren’t a ton of time in the NFL, Fourcade managed to make an impact when he was afforded the opportunity. Oddly enough, he was involved in a single play that landed him on both the NFL’s Top 100 Follies and the NFL’s Top 100 Plays.

“I can still remember that play. The guy intercepting it, running it down in front of our bench, cuts across. He fumbles the football. The defensive lineman picked it up and he runs all the way trying to cross the field. I’m the last guy between him and the goal line. I see one of the receivers come down the field. I think it was Brett Perriman. He stripped the football off the guy. It bounces two times into my hands, and I take it back game 85 yards, or whatever it was, sucking wind like crazy. I’m running down the Rams sideline and I’m seeing so many of the coaching staff and players coming onto the field, thinking the thing is over with. I just kept running.”

Next Up

Fourcade’s running tally is now at 26 surgeries and counting. The game has certainly taken its toll on him physically. But for Fourcade, his love of the game is too great to ever hold any ill will or regrets. He continues to surround himself with football at every turn. Whether it’s watching one of his nephews coach or watching his other nephew work on his own NFL aspirations, Fourcade gravitates to the game.

Since walking off the field, Fourcade has been a general manager, coach, radio analyst and broadcaster. He continues to do work with Gus Kattengell on ESPN NOLA’s ‘The Sports Hangover’.

Because it took Fourcade so long to break into the NFL on his journey, he appreciates what an exclusive club he is forever a part of. He will continue to humbly wear it like a badge of honor and hold onto that involvement in football, no matter how many surgeries those hands need.

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