The notes in the lockers of Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief contained only a time and place to meet inscribed under a number 10.
“It was like a scavenger hunt,” Brees recalled. “Everyone was like, ‘What does it mean?’ ”
But when the quartet of Saints gathered at a private dining room at the Greenbrier during training camp last month, they realized it was a Sean Payton-engineered surprise celebration of the their entering their 10th season as teammates.
For hours, the players, along with Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and longtime staff members Joe Vitt, Dan Dalrymple, Fred McAfee, Pete Carmichael, Greg McMahon and Brian Young swapped stories about the improbable way they came together — a free agent quarterback with a shoulder issue and three low-round draft picks, one a tackle, one a guard and one a wide receiver.
What are the odds that all four would still be in the league 10 years later?
And then, more improbably, is how they have somehow managed to stay together for the past decade.
How about a Bear Grylls-level survival accomplishment for the Black & Gold’s core four?
This year, the Saints are the only team in the NFL with four players who have been together for 10 seasons. In fact, just two others — Kansas City and San Diego — have three 10-year teammates, and both of those include a kicker.
Time was when such collective longevity wasn’t that uncommon. In 1992, Morten Andersen, Rickey Jackson, Hoby Brenner, Jim Wilks and Stan Brock were in their 11th season as teammates with the Saints.
But now, given free agency, the salary cap and other realities of the modern NFL, to have this many players on the same side of the ball for this long is, well, as Strief put it, “Something we all appreciate.
“It’s just a cool deal.”
Yes it is.
Just how different would the history of this franchise be without them?
It started with a totally unexpected run to the 2006 NFC Championship game — the Super Bowl victory three years later and all of the ups and downs since then.
The Saints’ 87-57 regular-season record since 2006 is second best in the NFC and seventh overall. In the nine years before 2006, the Saints were 50-88.
The Saints have been to the playoffs five times since ’06. They made one playoff appearance in the previous nine years.
And since 2006, the Saints have scored 4,274 points — 2,898 of them coming on 483 touchdowns, most of which occurred with all four on the field.
There’s no telling how many hours together they’ve spent in practices, meetings and or just hanging out. Dozens of teammates have come and gone. Strief and Evans, who line up on the right side together, have talked about how they communicate silently on the field. So have Brees and Colston.
Individually, they have all been high achievers.
Brees has gone from damaged goods to one of the most prolific passers in NFL history.
Evans has gone to six straight Pro Bowls, one shy of Hall of Famer Willie Roaf’s team mark for linemen, and has only missed two of 154 possible starts, one less than Brees.
Strief has received no such honors, but his teammates have voted him a captain for the past four years, which says a lot.
And Colston has teamed with Brees to become one of the top five quarterback-receiver TD combinations in league history while also becoming the Saints’ most prolific receiver ever.
“They’ve served us well,” said Payton, adding quickly that was an understatement of great proportions.
But while the four can celebrate their good times together, there’s also the knowledge that it won’t last much longer, probably not into 2016.
Colston and Evans both restructured their contracts in the offseason. Otherwise, they likely would have been released.
When the team drafted tackle Andrus Peat in the first round, Strief acknowledged he’d be tutoring his successor.
And while Brees probably isn’t going anywhere right away, his age (37 in January) and scheduled salary cap hit for 2016 ($27.4 million) could make things dicey, especially if this season is not a good one.
“We hope we have years left,” Brees said. “But you never know.
“I think it just makes you really value each and every opportunity.”
Those remaining opportunities, Strief added, represent unfinished business.
After winning the Super Bowl, the Saints looked to be an elite team for years to come.
They probably should have won it all again in 2011, but the 49ers were just a little bit better that day in the playoffs.
Since then, there’s been Bountygate and two losing seasons in the past three years, the last of which has caused a major makeover of the roster.
The team is now generally viewed in the middle of the pack, not near the top.
“Once you’ve been in the Super Bowl, you probably realize what you’re missing out on,” Strief said.
“And none of us, except maybe Drew, is playing for 10 more years.
“So there’s a huge desire to do it again. We want to share that desire with this locker room and with these guys.”
Whether or not that huge desire is realized starts playing out Sunday in Phoenix.
But no matter how it ends up, it’s been a heck of a ride, one they’ve made together.