Three days before Sunday’s playoff showdown against the Carolina Panthers, the New Orleans Saints signed a new recruit: Harry Connick Jr.
The New Orleans-born entertainer inked an honorary one-day contract Thursday, then hung out with the team at its Airline Drive facility. Footage of Connick’s gridiron adventure is scheduled to air on his TV talk show, “Harry,” on Jan. 15.
Beyond providing fodder for the show, being a Saint for a day fulfilled a childhood fantasy.
“It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Connick said during a brief news conference following Thursday’s practice.
During his day at the Saints facility, he alternately wore a Saints warm-up suit and a black-and-gold No. 67 jersey — Connick was born in 1967, the same year as the Saints — emblazoned with “Connick Jr.” In the equipment room, he was fitted with shoulder pads, a helmet and cleats.
A clip posted on the Saints’ Twitter account showed him briefly bro-hugging quarterback Drew Brees. During practice drills, running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram attempted to tear the ball from Connick's grasp — unsuccessfully, he claims.
But mostly, he watched the action from the sidelines. Seemingly to his disappointment, he took no hits. “I was hoping to get a chance to stand back there and at least feel what it feels like, but I didn’t,” he said.
Perhaps that was for the best. Music, not sports, was Connick’s focus at Jesuit High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Can't see video below? Click here.
Still, he aspired to be a punter. That ambition may have been tempered Thursday when he stood in for Saints punter Thomas Morstead and caught a long snap delivered at full speed. The ball nearly “ripped my right nipple off,” Connick said.
That injury aside, he pronounced himself ready to step in during Sunday's playoff game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome: “I’m so prepared. If they need me, I’ll do it, for sure. I’m ready to go.”
He attended three Saints games this season, all of them away games, including the match-up against the Miami Dolphins in London. “That’s a lot for me, with my schedule. It was good I got to go to three,” he said.
He first said he wasn’t sure if he’ll be able to attend Sunday’s game, given his work obligations in New York and the possibility of a massive snowstorm disrupting travel in the Northeast.
But at Thursday’s practice, he committed.
“When I got down to the field, Mark Ingram came up to me and said, ‘Are you coming Sunday?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am. I’ll be there.’ ”
Connick is not the Saints’ only celebrity musician fan. Jimmy Buffett, who was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and grew up in Mobile, Alabama, attended the Saints’ first regular season home game at Tulane Stadium in 1967.
In early 2010, he flew his own plane from the South Pacific island of Bora Bora to New Orleans to attend the NFC Championship game that sent the Saints to the Super Bowl. A buddy of Saints coach Sean Payton, Buffett is often spotted on the sidelines during home games.
Country star Kenny Chesney, another Payton pal, has worked out with the team — he played wide receiver at his Tennessee high school — and performed at the Saints’ Super Bowl victory party.
How does Connick’s fandom stack up to Buffett’s and Chesney’s?
They might be big fans, but “they’re not bigger fans than I am,” Connick declared.
His fandom is “as intense as it gets, going back to the fact that I was born in ’67 and the Saints started in ’67. There’s been this amazing relationship that my family’s had with the Saints, and going to the games as a kid at the Dome.”
After Hurricane Katrina, Connick said, the Saints helped New Orleans get back on its feet by “giving us all of that hope.”
His devotion to the team is not based on wins and losses.
“I love the Saints, win or lose," he said. "New Orleanians, we love the Saints, and we’ve loved them since they started. The fact that they’re in the playoffs now obviously is a great feeling. But it’s an unbelievable team, one of the best teams we’ve ever had.”
Before key games, he has posted videos of his own fight songs meant to get fans fired up. The videos may not have helped his TV ratings in the opposing teams’ hometowns, however.
“Hopefully, Atlanta likes me as a person and not as a Saints fan. Because if you’re from Carolina or Tampa Bay or Atlanta, they’re not going to like me very much around football season,” he said.
That said, “I’ve been hearing a lot of positive response (to the videos). I didn’t think it was going to go over as big as it did. But I’m going to come up with a new one for Sunday’s game.”
He predicts a 28-21 Saints victory, in part because star rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore is slated to play. Lattimore was injured when the Saints beat the Panthers twice in the regular season.
Having Lattimore on the field is “going to be a big game-changer," Connick said. "It’s going to change (Carolina quarterback) Cam Newton’s whole outlook, knowing that that guy’s back there. And our running game is so strong.
“It’s weird to beat a team three times in a season, but I think we’re gonna do it.”
Even without honorary No. 67 on the field.