Michael Lewis and Tyrone Hughes were always meant to go into the Saints Hall of Fame together.
Both men played in exactly 63 games for the Saints, making their marks as electrifying return specialists who turned in one All-Pro season apiece and posted nearly identical statistics in their time in New Orleans. Both players are New Orleans natives, the first two to be tabbed for induction into the Saints Hall of Fame.
And they’ve known each other for years.
When Lewis and Hughes got together this week to be present for the Saints Hall of Fame announcement, they revived an old, playful argument. Hughes tells Lewis he’s better, citing his 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine and the era he played; in response, Lewis jokingly challenged Hughes to a race right now.
In truth, the two best return men in Saints history have plenty of respect for each other.
“I used to watch this guy,” Lewis said. “Somebody I could look after and see the things that he did. You know, when I started playing, he had a lot of records that were up there that his name was on that I wanted. Couldn’t get them all.”
The pair will be formally inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame in conjunction with a Saints game this fall, along with SMG executive vice president Doug Thornton, who will be given the Joe Gemelli Fleur de Lis award for his contribution to the Saints and the region. Thornton played an instrumental role in the reconstruction of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.
The funny thing is that if Lewis had taken a more traditional path to the NFL, he and Hughes might have been competing for the title of the NFL’s best returner.
“We’re about the same age,” Lewis said. “He’s about a year or so older than I am. He was playing back then; I was working, so it was a little different.”
Hughes is 45, almost two full years older than Lewis, 43. Hughes played at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans; Lewis played at Grace King in Metairie. Despite the relatively small gap in age and an equally small gap in geographical proximity, though, Hughes and Lewis don’t remember knowing about each other in high school.
Lewis first remembers learning about Hughes after the Saints drafted the older player out of Nebraska in 1993.
At the time, Lewis was still in the early stages of the well-documented journey that would take him from driving a Budweiser truck — out of an office based only a building away from the Saints facility on Airline Drive — through the ranks of the arena leagues and finally to the NFL in 2000.
The two didn’t meet until after Hughes had finished his four-year Saints career.
“You know what, I was playing in the RFL, the Regional Football League they’d started, and I met Tyrone at City Park,” Lewis said. “I think he was playing with Chicago at the time. From that day forward, we kept running into each other and became friends.”
Hughes knew a great return man when he saw one.
A few years later, after his career ended and he’d moved back to New Orleans, Hughes took a special interest in Lewis’ first training camp with the Saints.
“When he first got here, he was having issues catching the ball,” Hughes said. “I actually called and contacted (coach) Jim Haslett, because I knew of his potential. I’d contacted Haslett to come work with him. Of course, (Haslett) said no. Finally, he got it down, got it together, and he did a hell of a job.”
Lewis ended up breaking many of the records Hughes set and turning in a very similar time in New Orleans.
In his time with the Saints, Hughes returned 229 kicks, averaged 25 yards per return, scored three touchdowns and added 116 punt returns, 9.1 yards per return and two scores; Lewis returned 243 kicks with the Saints, averaged 24.3 yards and scored three touchdowns, and he outdid Hughes a little by averaging 10.4 yards per return on his 142 punt-return chances.
In tandem, the two set the standard all other Saints return men have to match.
“Before me, there was a gap, then they had Melvin Gray,” Hughes said. “After me, Morton came in for a while, went to the Jets — Chad Morton — and there were a couple of other guys, but nobody who you could actually see had the speed and the vision. ... When I saw Michael had that, I said, it’s just a matter of him learning to set things up and be patient.”
Maybe it’s better that the two are too old to race anymore. If they set up in a foot race, one of the two might end up finishing ahead of the other.
Lewis and Hughes were meant to enter the Saints Hall of Fame together.