Tyrone Hughes had a hard time composing himself as he began his acceptance speech, his voice cracking. Michael Lewis was much calmer on the outside.
That was one of a few noticeable differences between two native New Orleanians whose remarkably similar careers as electrifying kick returners led to their inductions to the Saints Hall of Fame on Friday. The ceremony happened at the Grand Ball Room of the Chateau Golf and Country Club in Kenner.
Hughes, a St. Augustine product who attended Nebraska before playing for the Saints from 1993-96, was a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in his rookie year. He returned three kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns with New Orleans, setting a single-game NFL record in 1994 that still stands with 304 kickoff return yards versus the Los Angeles Rams.
“I played the game because it was fun,” he said. “I didn’t play with aspirations of going to the NFL, even in college. I started at the bottom, but as Drake said in his song, ‘I started from the bottom and now I’m here.’ ”
If Hughes started from the bottom, Lewis would have needed an elevator just to get to that level after never going to college and not even playing high school football while he attended Grace King in Metairie.
Only two years younger than Hughes, he started his NFL career at age 29. In six full years with the Saints from 2001-06, he returned three kickoffs for touchdowns and one punt for a score, earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 2002.
While Hughes said his parents would have made him go to college whether he played football or not, Lewis had it different. His odyssey took him to four minor football leagues and his now-famous job as a beer truck driver with a base right next to the Saints facility before the team signed him.
“My grandfather raised me, and I knew I was going to work somewhere,” he said. “That’s all I knew. He said one thing a man does is take care of his family.”
While Lewis’ career with the Saints was unlikely, Hughes said he came close to missing a chance to play in New Orleans, too. Watching NFL fifth-round draft picks go by on the ESPN ticker in 1993, he received a phone call from the Cincinnati Bengals saying they would take him with their next selection.
“I was like, great, no problem,” he recalled. “I hang up the phone and am like, my God, I don’t want to go to Cincinnati.”
Seconds later, he saw the Saints had picked him.
Hughes and Lewis are the fourth and fifth special teams players to enter the Saints Hall of the Fame and the first who are not placekickers.
“It was really a validation of our accomplishments,” Hughes said. “To have both of us go in is even better.”
Hughes had 67 tackles and four interceptions as a defensive back. Lewis made 28 receptions for 553 yards as a wide receiver.
But they made themselves special on returns. Hughes is one of 33 players in NFL history to return two kickoffs for touchdowns in one game. Lewis is one of only 13 to return a punt and a kickoff for a score in the same game.
“You have all the wide receivers and quarterbacks who get all that glory, and you’re only out there for so many plays,” Lewis said. “For the Saints to do what they did and put us in the Hall of Fame, it shows you that it’s also about special teams as well.”
Hughes said he “cried like a baby” when he learned he would be inducted. Lewis said he was calmer then, too, but it was clear how much the honor meant to both of them.
Former Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, whom Lewis introduced when Brooks went into the Hall of Fame last year, returned the favor on Friday, saying Lewis embodied New Orleans in the way he walked, talked and exhibited a passion for life.
Lewis’ response: “The first time I saw him, I was like, ‘Man, who is this slim, skinny dude with the big ol’ feet and the big shoes?’ ”
Former teammate J.J. McCleskey introduced Hughes.
SMG executive vice president Doug Thornton also entered the Saints Hall of Fame, getting the Joe Gemelli Fleur de Lis award for his contributions to the Saints and the region. Thornton played a pivotal role in the renovation of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after Katrina, riding out the storm in the facility and overseeing the tireless work to get it ready for the Saints’ home opener against Atlanta in 2006.
“One thing allowed us to open that building on Sept. 25, 2006, and that was unity,” Thornton said. “Despite our diverse interests, everybody put that aside for nine months and focused on one thing.”