The Saints locker room was clearing out after the recent loss at Carolina, and tackle Zach Strief was trying wearily to make his exit.
“Zach, can I ask you something while you’re walking out?”
The 10-year veteran heaved a sigh showing fatigue, not to mention despondency over seeing his team falling to 0-3 that seemingly deflated his entire 6-foot-7, 320-pound body.
“Sure,” Strief said, stopping instead of continuing to walk. “What do you need?”
And then, after being asked about how guard Senio Kelemete played in making his first start that day, Strief praised the third-year backup, saying it was as if he had been playing alongside him for five years.
That just happens to be the length of time Strief has manned the right side of the New Orleans offensive line with six-time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans. However, Strief said it in a way that didn’t seem like a knock on the injured Evans, either.
Every team, regardless of sport, needs a go-to quote guy, the player who is willing to speak frankly even in the most adverse circumstances when others might be absent from the locker room during media availability, refuse to talk when they are there or respond in clichés.
In football, it’s usually an offensive lineman. Must be a thinking man’s position.
That’s why you so frequently read a Strief quote, see him on TV or hear him on radio, either during the week or after a game.
A search found the words “Zach Strief” combined with “said” turned up in more than 1,300 local newspaper stories since 2006. And he wasn’t even a starter for his first five seasons after which he inherited both his position and unofficial team spokesman spot from Jon Stinchcomb, whom Strief often cites as his mentor.
That Strief was a communications major at Northwestern makes him a natural media magnet.
“I rarely enjoy it,” Strief confessed. “But I’ve always felt that in a hard situation, as long as I talk, as long as I’m being asked questions, there are fewer other guys in the room that have to answer them.
“You guys are going to keep asking questions until you get what you need. So if I can give you an honest answer at a time we don’t need any more distractions, that’s one less interview for somebody else to have to worry about.”
Well, glad to know how you really feel about us, big guy.
But actually, Strief’s willingness to talk when others may not — and be up front about it — is greatly appreciated.
That’s why Strief was voted the Jim Finks Good Guy Award, which goes to the player who most consistently cooperates with the media, last year. The Saints even listed it among the 2014 honors in the media guide.
“Zach can say something without giving away trade secrets,” WWL Radio sports director Kristian Garic said. “But he’s always also been an honest, standup guy.
“What impresses me is that, even if you’re not asking a question the right way, he’ll see through it and give you an answer.”
Strief’s candor does not extend to his calling out teammates by name, although last season when things started going sour in the final month, he was the first to talk about how there needed to be more professionalism on the team.
That diplomacy is a reason why Strief says he is not interested in a career in broadcasting after his playing days are over.
“I don’t have the desire to be negative about people in a situation I truly don’t understand,” he said.
Similarly, Strief said he has regretted the few times when he let his postgame emotions get the best of him because he doesn’t want to be perceived as negative voice, although the time in an ESPN The Magazine interview he said Drew Brees got more hugs from Sean Payton on a single series than he’d received in nine years earned him two from his coach the next day.
Still, Strief’s hardly a house man. You don’t get voted team captain four years running or serve as a player rep to the NFLPA by being that.
“The guys elected Zach because they have a ton of respect for him, not just as player, but as a person,” Brees said. “A guy who is going to represent the team when asked the tough questions about a number of different things is going to be one of the guys.”
Strief’s honestly extends to his future with the team as well.
When the Saints took tackle Andrus Peat with the 13th pick in the draft this spring, Strief acknowledged the reality of the situation.
“He’s taking my job eventually,” Strief said. “At some point that’s happening, so my job is to make that time take as long as possible.
“And that’s how I approach it. At the same time I’ll be doing everything I can to help him do just that.”
Strief also acknowledges how difficult it’s going to be to keep himself, Evans and Marques Colston, all of whom were drafted by the Saints 10 years ago, together after this season. That Peat is getting his first start Sunday in place of injured Terron Armstead and Strief has struggled to protect Brees is likely hastening that event.
But that’s down the road.
For now, Strief, who has not missed a snap this season, is appreciating how last Sunday’s overtime victory against Dallas has given everyone a little extra pep in their step preparing for Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
And in turn, that’s made things easier for him.
“If you ever notice, when things are going well, I’m usually out of the locker room pretty quick,” he said.
Don’t go so soon, Zach.
We need you — in good times and bad.