By David Hughes
TERRE HAUTE — Steve Weatherford already had plenty to think about in recent weeks.
He survived an NFL training-camp battle for the third straight year. So he was preparing to punt in the New Orleans Saints’ season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this coming Sunday in the Louisiana Superdome.
Weatherford’s mind also was on his wife Laura and their growing first son, 10-month-old Ace.
Then word came last week that Hurricane Gustav was approaching the New Orleans area. Weatherford suddenly feared for his family’s safety, not to mention the structure of their five-bedroom, two-story home in Mandeville, La., about 25 miles north of New Orleans.
To avoid possible danger, Saints players were told they would conduct practices in Indianapolis’ new Lucas Oil Stadium and they would fly out of New Orleans on Saturday. But Weatherford left with Laura and Ace for Indianapolis one day earlier.
“My main concern was my family,” emphasized Weatherford, a former multi-sport standout at Terre Haute North High School. “I didn’t want to have to fight the traffic [of people trying to leave New Orleans].”
The Weatherfords checked into a room at an Indianapolis motel and the Saints — led by coach Sean Payton — conducted their first practice of the week Monday morning.
“Sean did a real good job of taking the distraction off the hurricane,” Weatherford mentioned.
“He made sure everyone was prepared as far as making sure the players and assistant coaches got their families secured.”
After taking Tuesday off, the Saints practiced in the Indy facility again Wednesday.
“It’s really nice,” Weatherford said of the $700 million retractable-roof stadium. “The [Indianapolis] Colts have always been a first-class organization. They represent themselves well with Lucas Oil Stadium.”
When not practicing or attending team meetings, Weatherford found time to visit with his older brother Chris and Chris’ recently born son. That would not have been possible until after the season if it weren’t for Steve Weatherford’s unexpected trip to Indiana, so there was a little bit of a silver lining in this potential disaster.
Meanwhile, Gustav did not leave near as much damage at the Superdome as Hurricane Katrina did in 2005, the year before Weatherford joined the Saints as a rookie out of the University of Illinois. So the Superdome will be ready for football Sunday after all and the 25-year-old Weatherford can concentrate on the upcoming season.
“I think we can be as good as we want to be, as long as we stay healthy,” he said of the Saints, who finished a disappointing 7-9 in 2007 after winning the NFC South in 2006.
The Weatherfords and the Saints are planning to fly back to New Orleans today. But before Steve got off the phone with me, I asked him to join me in predicting the 2008 NFL division winners. We differed on four of the eight and our selections can be found on this page.
Amazingly, each of us chose the Saints and Colts.
After the season, I’ll let you know who ended up with the most correct picks.
Unless it’s Steve, then I’ll conveniently forget.
NFL division champion predictions
AFC West San Diego San Diego
AFC North Baltimore Cincinnati
AFC South Indianapolis Indianapolis
AFC East New England New England
NFC West Seattle Arizona
NFC North Green Bay Minnesota
NFC South New Orleans New Orleans
NFC East Dallas Philadelphia
David Hughes can be reached by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at (812) 231-4224; by e-mail at email@example.com; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.