On December 4, 2016, the New Orleans Saints announced their All-50th team to attending fans in the Superdome. There were 6 linebackers who earned a spot on that prestigious roster: The 4 members of the Dome Patrol (Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling), Jonathan Vilma and Joe Federspiel.
The achievement was a culmination of a lifetime of being married to the game that he wouldn’t let go.
Life of a Saint: Joe Federspiel
“I grew up in a little place called Valley Station, Kentucky. It’s just outside of Louisville. I had an older brother and two younger sisters. My father worked at home in a cabinet shop. Plus, we did a little farming on the side.”
It was on that farm that Federspiel would learn many of the life lessons that would help shape the young man he would become. Amongst those lessons were the value of hard work, how to work well with others and the value of sports in his life. Regarding the latter, Federspiel jested, “My dad always said you either play sports or you work. And guess what I did? It didn’t take me long to figure it out.”
University of Kentucky
Federspiel took full advantage of the opportunity his father provided him and stayed focused on sports straight through high school. In fact, Federspiel mentioned his high school football coach and his father in the same breath when it came to their influence on his journey to the NFL.
As Federspiel continued to impress in high school, opportunities began to present themselves. Federspiel recalled, “I really never had any idea that I’d go play football on scholarship at a university somewhere until I got to my junior year in high school when colleges started coming around.” Many of the biggest local Universities eventually jockeyed for Federspiel’s attention. Purdue, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and, of course, the very local Louisville.
“I started paying attention to Kentucky. They had a couple local boys that played at Kentucky and they came up and visited me and we talked about it. I favored Kentucky because I knew a couple of the guys that were already there. It was also close to home, so my mom and dad could come watch me play. They also had a couple of coaches down there that I just really admired and respected. So, guess where I went? I went to the University of Kentucky.”
The Draft Process
The NFL draft process of today is very well attended, viewed and celebrated. Federspiel reminds us how different the process was 50 years ago.
“There wasn’t this great combine of pro scouts. They had some but it wasn’t like they have now where, you know, you get on the radar”, Federspiel said. He then added, “I get a scout come out, and they’d want to time me in a 40 yard and see how high I could jump and how many pushups I could do. So, it’s a little bit different now. But that’s why they did it.”
The combination of those tests, along with a host of accolades including invitations to the North-South game, the East West Shrine game, All-SEC honors and the Kentucky Football MVP Award all worked together to open eyes around the NFL.
Surprisingly, Federspiel would ultimately get drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round.
Hattiesburg to New Orleans
After being drafted, Federspiel would head to meet up with the New Orleans Saints at camp, held at that time in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Federspiel laughed as he shared, “When they picked me, we had camp in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They sent me a plane ticket that was on a mail plane because they couldn’t get into Hattiesburg in a big airplane. So, they flew me in by a little mail plane and landed in Hattiesburg. And I was the only guy on the plane and the guy opened the door and he said, ‘Joe, this is Hattiesburg. Good luck.’ And I got out and there was nothing there except one strip and a plane tire. And then, all of a sudden, a van comes up and one of the equipment managers says, ‘Joe, welcome to Hattiesburg.’ And that started it.”
After camp in Hattiesburg, Federspiel transitioned to the city of New Orleans. He remembered, “You go from the country to the University of Kentucky to the city of New Orleans. It’s a pretty big jump.” The fact that he went from a college kid who had his entire schedule laid out for him to a man with a career and high expectations overnight was also a change that took some getting used to. But for Federspiel, it was the mental part of the game that was the toughest obstacle for him.
“When I think back about it, it’s easier now to look back and say one of the things that probably was toughest is you think, ‘Am I good enough to be in the NFL?’ You know, I went to a couple of these bowl games like to North/South game and the East/West game. You see all these other player from all over the country and you go, ‘Wow. Can I compete with these guys?’ And you get that mindset like, ‘Oh man, you know, I can’t do that.’ And all of a sudden, you get thrown into it, and you say, ‘Hey, I can. I can play with these guys.’ You know, it’s that mental part of the game that is so big when you get out of college. Because, you know, in college, if you have a bad week or a bad game, they might move you down the second team or third team and you can work your way back. But if you have a bad day or just lose your confidence in the pros, you might not ever get another chance to get back in.”
A Decade in the NFL
As an incoming linebacker, Federspiel mentioned that there weren’t many other linebackers willing to help him along and show him the ropes as he started his journey. Because the competition was so fierce to make the roster, that group each concentrated on their own game. He also shared that, being a linebacker, you don’t make a lot of friends in the running back room because you’re always hitting them. But the Kentucky product did mention a couple of guys that took him under their wing upon his arrival.
“I will say there was a couple of offensive guys that helped, like Archie Manning, or Bobby Scott from Tennessee.” The linebacker laughed at the irony of making friends with two quarterbacks. Federspiel continued, “They were a year ahead of me and I knew them in college. You start to gravitate towards people you know.”
It didn’t tale long for Federspiel to impress and he would eventually start 10 of the Saints 14 games in 1972. He would continue to be a mainstay in the second level of the Saints defense and started all but one game in the 8 seasons that followed his rookie campaign.
The Saints did enjoy the consistency of having Federspiel lead on the field. Unfortunately, the coaching staff during his tenure lacked that same consistency. Federspiel, at one point or another, saw J.D. Roberts, John North, Ernie Hefferle, Hank Stram and Dick Nolan at the helm. It’s no surprise that Nolan, the coach with the longest stay, was the most successful of the bunch. Nolan’s Saints went 8-8 in 1979, which would be the franchise’s first non-losing record.
After his 9 seasons in New Orleans, Federspiel finished his NFL career with a single season with the Baltimore Colts in 1981. He compiled a staggering 135 starts in 141 games, becoming a model of both consistency and durability.
One Last Stop
He didn’t leave the NFL because someone replaced him. He didn’t leave because of injury. He just chose to leave. That being said, despite being content with his accomplishments on the field and the career he had experienced, football wasn’t done with Federspiel.
“It was over. It was part of my life that was done. I was glad that I had it. And then I get a phone call from George Allen, the great Washington Redskins coach and he says, ‘Joe we’re putting the league together and we’d love to have you part of it.’” So, Federspiel headed north to become a member of the Chicago Blitz.
Federspiel admits that his mental state wasn’t what it needed to be while in Chicago and his stay was short lived. “When you start thinking about injury, that’s the time you might need to retire. I went up there, I think a training camp and half a year. And I knew it was time to go on. I retired for good.”
Federspiel Joins the Other Side
Despite being such a technically sound defender throughout his career, Federspiel didn’t opt to enter the coaching world. He asked some active coaches for their opinion of what to do next and was discouraged by the amount of work and time away from being home that would be required.
Federspiel was then approached with a different opportunity that would keep him close to the game he loved.
“Well, I had a real good friend here in Lexington who was in SEC officiating, and he said ‘Joe, you’d be natural, you need to think about it, but you got you need to put your time in, in high school and all that.’”
Federspiel worked his way up from high school into college, eventually becoming a referee for the SEC. Federspiel remembers some of those fast, tough calls resembling a crime scene more than a football game. “You’ve got all these indicators coming in. What did you see? What do you got?”, Federspiel joked.
Joe Fed’s Place in Saints History
In 1993, Joe Federspiel became just the 11th member of the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame, an honor that he holds very dear to his heart.
“It was one of the best things, sports-wise, that ever happened to me. To be thought of in a way by the City of New Orleans or the Saints organization enough of me to put me in their Hall of Fame, and to be in there with all those other guys, was really special. It tells everybody, ‘Hey. Joe Fed was pretty good in his day.’ It’s nice to be remembered. It was probably my biggest thrill to be told, ‘Joe, you’ve been elected into the Saints Hall of Fame.’ With what football means to the city of New Orleans and the NFL, it’s such a great honor.”
13-years later, Federspiel would be announced to the Saints All-50th team. He would once again share the field with the likes of Archie Manning, Derland Moore, Tom Myers and so many of the legends in New Orleans Saints’ history.
“Football never leaves you. 40-years later, I’ll introduce myself to someone. They’ll give me that ‘I know you from somewhere’ look. Then I’ll get, ‘Oh, you’re the Federspiel that played football.’ After 40 years in the insurance business, I’m still known as ‘Joe Fed, the football guy.’”
All these years later, we realize it was the game of football that won’t let go of ‘Joe Fed’.
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