July 9, 2010

From The Big Ten To The Big Easy

By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine

New Orleans is on its knees after Hurricane Katrina rampages through the region in August 2005. Folks there are praying for a miracle. The city's beloved Saints dixie out of The Big Easy, NFL orphans driven from a battered Louisiana Superdome.

In February 2006, Terry Malone receives a call for help from an old friend, Sean Payton. Payton, the Saints' new head coach, asks him to join a Crusade. Would he come to help lift the spirits of those devastated by the hurricane? Would he come to resurrect not only a professional sports franchise, but a proud city?

Malone must make a life-changing decision. For nine seasons, he has had his dream job, coaching at Big 10 Michigan near his birthplace of Redford, Mich. He, his wife, Ann, and their four kids—Kara, Patrick, Ryan and Natalie—are happy living close to family and friends. After 22 years on the college-coaching merry-go-round, Malone resides in a comfort zone. Now he is being asked to move into a war zone.

"We had to uproot everything,'' recalls Malone, now the Saints' tight ends coach. "The region is a mess. The Saints, coming off a horrid 3-13 season, are nomads. No home to play in, no permanent place to practice at. Yet something is telling me that something special would happen there.''

There was dire need: A city and its team needed to be bailed out. "The kids were not happy, but understood our reasons. We do everything as a family," notes Malone.

His Holy Cross teammates called him Moses, after the hard-working Hall of Fame NBA center, Moses Malone. A 6-foot-3, 225-pound tri-captain, Terry Malone served as the Crusaders' spiritual leader whose clever pass-catching and fierce blocking could part defenses, if not seas. His teammates believed Malone would lead Holy Cross to the Promised Land, the fledging NCAA Division 1-AA playoffs.

Malone missed his first season, sidelined in the fall of 1978 with mononucleosis. As a 22-year-old senior, he delayed his June graduation in order to exercise his NCAA eligibility to play another season. Inspired by head coach Rick Carter and assistants Mark Duffner, Frank Novak and Dan Allen, he had established a clear career path: coaching football.

The Crusaders posted an impressive 8-3 record in 1982, igniting a resurgence of Holy Cross football under Carter and Duffner. "I graduated in the top 10 of my class,'' observes Malone, wryly noting only nine others received their diplomas in December.

Since then, Malone's career climb has been steady in the rough-and-tumble profession of coaching. Carter invited Malone back to coach at Mount St. James in 1985 after two seasons as a graduate assistant at the University of Arizona. The next season he jumped to Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he remained for 10 seasons. In 1996, he joined Dan Henning's staff at Boston College. Alas, Henning was fired and Malone hit the road again.

This is where fate sashayed in. Malone hooked on with the University of Maryland, where he met another aide, Sean Payton. Malone was there only a month, Payton just five weeks. Malone received an attractive offer from the University of Michigan and accepted. Payton got an unexpected chance to join the NFL Eagles and flew off. But during that brief encounter, Malone and Payton formed a lifetime friendship.

"Moving back to Michigan turned out to be my biggest blessing. My father was being treated for cancer during my first season there (1997)," Malone says. He recalls Michigan's final regular-season game against Ohio State. "We were in the tunnel before the game. My dad, surrounded by our family, touched the Michigan banner for good luck. We won and went on to play in the Rose Bowl. The whole family assembled again in Pasadena to celebrate our victory over Washington State (21-16)."

Paul Malone, a semipro warrior for the Troy (N.Y.) Bulldogs, had watched with pride as his son Terry coached undefeated Michigan to the National Championship. Along for that joyous ride was Terry's uncle Tony Malone '59, a Holy Cross performer under Dr. Eddie Anderson.

The following fall, Paul Malone died.

There would be no instant cure for the New Orleans Saints, a team flat on its back. Nobody had used the Super Dome since it served as a refuge for 26,000 folks escaping the hurricane's wrath, which took 1,836 lives and caused $81 billion in damages.

The Saints have had flashes of success since their birth in 1967.

Payton, an imaginative football mind with a legendary work ethic, would assemble a staff and roster with a similar mindset.

"Sean knew he had to rebuild the attitude in the locker room,'' Malone says. "He wanted players and coaches of high character who would invest themselves in winning."

Payton acquired Drew Brees, an exciting quarterback with a quick arm. "Drew is a great player and unbelievable leader on the field and in the community," Malone observes. The Saints drafted Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. "Piece by piece we put a shattered organization back together,'' Malone explains.

On Monday Night Football, the nation watched the Saints' glorious return to the Super Dome as they stunned Atlanta, 23-3, for its third victory of the 2006 season. "In that place, a scene of such tragedy and suffering, that uplifting emotion will never be matched again," Malone says.

The Saints were on the march. They added role players. By the start of the 2009 campaign, Malone's corps included Jeremy Shockey and former Patriots tight end David Thomas.

New Orleans' offense dazzled as the Saints became America's darlings. In the playoffs, they crushed the Arizona Cardinals (45-14), then somehow held on to defeat Brett Favre and his Vikings, 31-28 in overtime. Then they would face the incomparable Payton Manning, a son of New Orleans, and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

"It was a far greater emotional experience than I had anticipated,'' Malone says.

Perched in a coaches' box, he contributed to a chorus of coaches calling for instant changes in the Saints' game plan. Two moments, he declares, will stand out forever: first, "The Ambush," an on-sides kick to open the second half that would shift the game's momentum; second, a crucial two-point conversion pass, at first ruled incomplete by the officials.

"We had practiced that on-sides kick for two weeks and it always worked,'' recounts Malone. "Sean decided to risk it, totally his call. I had returned to the coaches' box, watching The Who at halftime, with my stomach in knots, wondering if 'The Ambush' would work."

Rookie Thomas Morstead kicked a spinner to the left. It bounced off Colts' Hank Baskett, and, after a wild scrum, the Saints' Chris Reis hugged the ball at the Colts 42-yard line. The recovery sparked New Orleans to score a go-ahead TD. The tide had turned.

With 5:42 left, Brees threw a 2-yard TD pass to Shockey, making it 22-17. The Saints went for a two-point conversion. Brees fired low to Lance Moore on the goal-line. The ball came loose. The officials ruled the pass incomplete.

With their bird's eye view, Malone and his fellow coaches screamed into their headsets for Payton to "throw the flag'' and demanded a review of the play. The replay resulted in the officials overturning the call. Pass good, Saints up for good, 24-17.

The alertness of Malone and other assistants had been a key to preserving the Saints' victory.

Across America Saints' fans rejoiced. The Saints were Super Bowl Champions. Finally.

Together, the Malone family celebrated another national title. This time Terry's dad has the perfect seat, watching from high above with other Saints.

Today Terry Malone looks back at his good fortune. He says Holy Cross inspired him to greatness. That he learned his passion for the game from Coach Carter. And he learned another great lesson from Coach Carter's tragic death, triggered by a deep depression. "I love the game, but I do not take football or myself or too seriously. I count my blessings."

Holy Cross, Malone adds, gave him a tremendous opportunity. "Even a chance to make mistakes and discover a lot about ME. I give thanks to (President Emeritus) Fr. (John) Brooks and others who insisted that we learn to speak, to write, to think and to problem-solve. I walked away with a solid foundation and the tools to make tough decisions and deal with whatever may come."

Since leaving Holy Cross, he says nobody has called him Moses. He is simply Terry Malone, a devout husband, a loving father of four, a man who continues to help a community in need and, at 50, a hard-working coach who waded through flood waters to reach football's Promised Land.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

John W. Gearan ’65 was an award-winning reporter and columnist for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Rhode Island.