- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
It was 1994, a transitional time in Chapel Hill. Mack Brown had been hired as coach six years earlier, and after winning a single game in each of his first two seasons, he had guided the Tar Heels to the upper echelon of the ACC. Saturday became a starter during his freshman year, and over his final 37 games North Carolina went 28--9, including 21--3 in the final two seasons. "We were lucky to get him," says Brown, who left for Texas in '98. "He was so tough. And so smart. And he loved to play football."
Brown's roster was flush with future NFL players, particularly on defense. From 1996 through '99 eight Tar Heels defensive players were taken in the first two rounds of the draft, including three first-rounders in '98: tackles Greg Ellis and Vonnie Holliday and linebacker Brian Simmons. All three were classmates of Saturday's and faced him every day, as did Saturday's roommate, Nate Hobgood-Chittick, a defensive tackle who would play three years in the NFL and win a Super Bowl with the '99 Rams.
"Jeff kicked our asses all over the practice field," says Hobgood-Chittick, now a retirement specialist and financial planner in Los Angeles. "I could count on one hand the number of times I beat him in a one-on-one drill, and if it happened, I celebrated." As a senior, Saturday was named first-team All-ACC. But while many players in the Tar Heels' program prepared to move on to the NFL, the same issues that had made Saturday a lightly recruited high school player surfaced again.
In March 1998, Saturday worked out for NFL scouts and executives at North Carolina's pro day. It didn't go well, and afterward Saturday headed to Eastgate BP, a gas station with 12 pumps and three service bays, where he had worked for owner James Spurling since summer of his sophomore year in Chapel Hill. "The day the pro scouts were in town, Jeff comes walking into the store," says Spurling, now 54 and director of North Carolina's Kenan Memorial Stadium and the Tar Heels' football center. "I say, 'How'd it go?' Well, Jeff starts getting choked up and says, 'I guess I'll be pumping frickin' gas and fixing tires for the rest of my life.' He was really upset. The scouts told him he was too short and his arms were too short to block those big pass rushers. I told him, 'Shoot, man, you can't quit because of what one guy says.' Jeff tells me it wasn't one—it was all of 'em who said that."
Former offensive lineman Ernie Williamson, who played with legendary tailback Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice on the Tar Heels' 1946 Sugar Bowl team and was a fund-raiser for the university until his death in 2002, was also at the station that day. "Ernie was what we call an every-day customer," says Spurling. "He had coffee at Eastgate BP every morning." Williamson, 75 at the time, pulled Saturday outside, and the two sat on a wooden bench and talked for the better part of three hours.
Saturday wasn't drafted. The Ravens signed him as a free agent but cut him before the finish of minicamps. His career seemingly kaput, Saturday returned to North Carolina and took a job managing an electrical supply store in Raleigh. Hobgood-Chittick, also undrafted, landed on the Indianapolis roster during the '98 season. Late that fall he went to Colts president Bill Polian and told him about Saturday.
"I had no footing at all with that franchise, so I stood outside Polian's door in my dirty sweats, saying a prayer," says Hobgood-Chittick. "I walked in and said, 'There's a guy selling electrical supplies in Raleigh right now who whipped all those first-round draft choices at North Carolina every day.' Polian looked at me and said, 'I love it. Let's get him in here for a workout.'"
The spring of 1999 was an odd time for the Colts franchise. Jim Mora was in the second of his four seasons as coach in the playoffs? era. Indy had drafted bespectacled Arkansas All-America guard Brandon Burlsworth in the third round in '99 and saw him as a long-term starter, but he was killed in an automobile accident 11 days after the draft. Saturday, who had been invited to minicamp, got reps at guard and, in offensive line coach Howard Mudd's words, "wired" veteran defensive tackle Ellis Johnson.
Saturday made the Colts' roster in '99 and played 11 games at guard. After a season-ending playoff loss to the Titans, he approached Mudd and explained that his apartment lease was ending and he didn't know if he should renew it. "Hell, you're not going anywhere," Mudd said, and then he told Polian to pencil in Saturday as a starter for the next 14 years, which turned out to be an exaggeration by only two.
Last March, Saturday went to dinner in Green Bay with coach Mike McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen. It was awkward, like a first date. Saturday had been in one place for 13 years, and the Packers seldom recruit unrestricted free agents. "About halfway through the meal everybody gets quiet," says McCarthy, "and then Jeff says, 'Guys, I don't know what to say, I've never been on one of these things.' Hell, I didn't know what to say either."