Deuce McAllister's reaction last summer, on hearing that newly retired New Orleans Saints lineman Zach Strief would be his new play-by-play man for Saints games on WWL Radio, was fear.
“I told Zach, I told WWL, I told everybody, 'I’m scared about this,' ” said McAllister, the former Saints running back who does color commentary for the radio station.
After all, Strief had no experience with play-by-play broadcasting. Just one year out of uniform, he'd have to make an exceptionally fast, perhaps even unprecedented, transition.
After a season working together, however, McAllister said that fear has given way to appreciation for the unique perspective that two former teammates bring to calling games, and confidence they'll continue to improve their on-air chops.
For his part, Strief acknowledges that making the leap from player to play-by-play announcer has been a demanding, sometimes humbling test. He also says it’s precisely what he needed.
After hanging up his pads, he’s found another challenge that’s absorbing, high-profile and still tied to the team he loves. It’s made a difference beyond his career prospects.
“Retiring means in one day going from ‘You’re one of the best in the world at this’ to ‘You can’t do it anymore,’ ” said Strief, now 35. “There's a lot of stress that comes with that, and a lot of guys struggle with it.”
In football, there's a relentless compulsion, and constant coaching, to go the extra step and outperform the opponent. Strief has seen how losing that pressure overnight can leave former players with a void, sometimes a dark one.
“When it’s over, how do you replace that?" he said. "With play-by-play, I found something that takes skill, commitment, dedication, passion, just like football."
Add the particular season Strief has covered, with its early nail-biters, runaway victories and fans' hopes for the coming playoffs, and there have been no dull moments for a retired Saint moving to an altogether new calling.
Many athletes build careers in broadcasting after their playing days end, but they usually start as color commentators, analysts or talk-show hosts. In these jobs, their insight and experience on the field can help illuminate the game for fans.
Rarely do athletes jump into the play-by-play role, narrating the unpredictable action as it unfolds and essentially leading the broadcast.
“For former players, being the color guy is right in their wheelhouse, it's what they know,” said Scott Alexander, a veteran sports broadcaster and host of "Prime Time Sports with Scott Alexander." “For play-by-play, you’re quarterbacking the whole game experience for your listeners. It’s always about research and delivery. If you care about your craft, you have to be ready.”
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'People are listening'
Broadcasters Pat Summerall and Frank Gifford, star NFL players from the 1950s, each became play-by-play announcers only after working for years as color commentators.
More recent examples followed suit. Dave Logan, a former player for the Cleveland Browns, became play-by-play announcer for the Denver Broncos after six years as a color commentator. Jimmy Cefalo, a former Miami Dolphin, and Steve Raible, a former Seattle Seahawk, both had the same route to become play-by-play announcers for their old teams.
Pairing Strief with McAllister added another wrinkle to the broadcast experience, with both color and play-by-play handled by former teammates covering their old team.
Strief took the job knowing he’d immediately be up for scrutiny from an especially discerning local audience. But he’s relished every minute of it, even when, looking back at his early outings, he knew his delivery sounded stilted, and that his timing was sometimes off.
“Play-by-play is a skill you have to learn by doing it live,” said Strief, explaining that practicing with Saints game tape can only do so much because he knows the outcome. “And when you’re learning, people are listening.”
Strief has tried to use the criticism to make himself better.
“I’ve heard plenty of criticism as a player. People think you suck, and they tell you all about it,” he said. “What I’ve always tried to do is absorb it and use it.”
The technical learning curve isn't the only challenge for Strief. He's also being compared to his predecessors.
“Hokie Gajan was Louisiana,” Advocate columnist Scott Rabalais wrote upon his passing.
And Henderson? He truly was the “voice of the Saints” for a whole generation of fans, who hung on his every word with hope, no matter how forlorn in many seasons.
Some of his calls live on in Saints lore: “Hakim drops the ball!” from the critical play in the Saints' first playoff win in 2000; “Pigs have flown!” when the Saints made the Super Bowl in 2010; and “Get ready to party with the Lombardi, New Orleans!” when the team took home the Vince Lombardi trophy as Super Bowl champions that year.
'Those are my boys'
Former teammate or not, McAllister was uneasy about working with the green play-by-play announcer. After all, he had only started his own radio gig in 2016, and called his first two seasons with the polished, highly experienced Henderson at his side.
"I didn’t want to let the fans down and have them think it’s just two guys up here who don’t know what they’re doing,” McAllister said.
Today, McAllister and Strief both say they doubt they'll ever meet the standard set by Gajan and Henderson. But after their first broadcasting season together, they believe they bring something else to the experience, thanks to their common bond to the Saints.
"What we give you is more what you’d hear in the locker room, because we've been there,” said McAllister. “Breaking down specific plays, the comments, that’s what you hear when players are talking and the media isn’t necessarily around. Whatever you hear, that’s what we naturally, authentically feel at the time."
Strief does nothing to disguise his allegiance to the Saints.
He calls the plays as he sees them and smothers the urge to “drop f-bombs” on blown coverage or a sack of Drew Brees. But his connection to the team is an advantage, he said, something that can perhaps make up for his lack of broadcast experience.
“I can’t call the games the way Jim did. There will never be another Jim, no matter how much experience someone brings,” Strief said. “But maybe what I can do is match the intensity that fans are feeling at home. I mean, those are my boys out there.”
When Strief’s new role was announced in July, Saints coach Sean Payton jokingly put him on notice that he was “officially now a member of the media, along with Deuce. And you'll be treated accordingly."
In fact, Strief maintains a strong rapport with the team.
“No relationship I have in this city is more important than what I have with that team. Every opportunity I’ve had has come out of their building,” Strief said.
He still has access to the Saints training facility and visits frequently, sitting in with coaches and catching up with staff, talking with players in the locker room. He flies with the team to away games and chats with players en route.
“I’m not the guy the newer players look at and say, ‘I know he played, but who is he?’ ” he said. “At least not yet.”
Becoming a fan
Strief lives in Covington with his wife Charlotte and their not-quite-1-year-old, Rhey. He is a partner in Port Orleans Brewing Co., an Uptown craft brewery opened in 2017 by a group of local businessmen. He spends a couple of days a week tending to brewery business, and when he’s in the taproom, the 6-foot-7-inch former Saint is hard to miss.
Port Orleans was part of Strief’s long-term plan to transition away from football, but he knew he needed more on his plate.
Ending a pro sports career can be a fraught experience, typically coming at an age that would be considered early midcareer in other fields and auguring a dramatic shift in lifestyle, income and public attention.
Football has been Strief's life, from his early days growing up around Cincinnati. Drafted out of Northwestern University by the Saints in 2006, he spent his entire 12-year pro career in New Orleans, earning a Super Bowl ring along the way.
Strief announced his retirement last year after missing most of the 2017 season with injuries. Regardless, he knew he was “mentally ready to retire from football” and at peace with the decision.
Still, he said, “it’s very daunting at the moment to say I’m going to retire from the only real job I’ve ever had.”
After his first regular season in the broadcasting booth, Strief feels that he now has a new perspective on the game. After a lifetime as a player, he’s learning what it means to be a fan, and specifically a Saints fan.
“I have more compassion now for how a fan feels watching and not being able to go out there and make an impact as a player,” said Strief. “That’s why we scream our heads off as fans. It’s all you can do.”
He has his own reasons for praying the Saints make the Super Bowl, rattling off the names of younger players who joined the team after that fateful game in Miami in 2010. He wants them to experience the sport’s ultimate victory, too.
Along the way, though, he’s also watching as another Who Dat.
“I get to see the game so differently now,” Strief said. “It makes you understand why people are so invested in the Saints. What else do you do during the week that’s like this? It’s so fun to watch. It’s such a blast.”
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