NEW ORLEANS — Tyrone Hughes and Michael Lewis, a pair of New Orleans-area natives who became All-Pro return men in the NFL, have been elected to the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame.
Hughes and Lewis, whose pending inductions next fall were announced Tuesday, took different paths to pro football before enjoying similar NFL careers with their hometown team.
"When I started playing, he had a lot of records up there that his name was on that I wanted," Lewis said of Hughes' punt and kick return marks. "I couldn't get them all. ... I just couldn't do some of the things that he did."
Hughes starred at St. Augustine High School and Nebraska, where intermittently he played both offense and defense, before New Orleans drafted him as a return man and defensive back in 1993.
Lewis attended Grace King High School, but didn't play football there and never went to college. After high school, Lewis worked regular jobs and enjoyed flag football as a hobby until a friend persuaded him to try out for an arena football team in Baton Rouge, launching a pro football career that also included a stint in NFL Europe with Dusseldorf.
Lewis, who also played receiver, earned the nickname "beer man" because he drove a beer delivery truck before making the Saints on a try-out basis in 2000 at age 29.
"That's what I was. I was a beer man. I drove a beer truck. That's what I did. And I'm happy for it," Lewis said, adding that he embraced the nickname and the connection it continues to give him with fans.
"It's just a guy that actually had a regular, normal job, working 9 to 5 like everybody else and not giving up on his dream," Lewis said.
Hughes said he didn't expect to even play college football until he started receiving scholarship offers as a high school senior.
He added that he didn't envision playing in the NFL when he began his college career, but that by the time he was drafted, he had little doubt that he would succeed as a returner.
"I started on the playground being a punt and kick returner. I was used to it. That was one thing I was not nervous about and didn't have to learn," Hughes said. "It was harder to learn defensive back.
"I asked (then-head coach) Jim Mora one time — I said, 'Well, why can't I be a receiver? Why did you guys draft me as a defensive back?' He said, 'Tyrone, to be honest, we didn't think you could catch.'"
Hughes, who played four seasons for New Orleans, returned two punts for touchdowns and averaged 9.1 yards per punt return. He scored three touchdowns on kickoffs, averaging 25 yards per return. Hughes' 304 kickoff return yards against the Los Angeles Rams in 1994 — including two touchdown returns — remain an NFL single-game record.
Lewis, who was with the Saints from 2000-2006 before playing a final season in San Francisco, had his best season in 2002, when he set an NFL record for combined kick and punt return yardage with 2,432. He also set a franchise all-time records with 5,903 kickoff return yards and 1,482 punt return yards, in each case breaking records previous held by Hughes.
SMG executive Doug Thornton, who spearheaded the rebuilding of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, has received the Hall of Fame's Joe Gemelli Fleur de Lis award for his contributions to the franchise.
Thornton, who stayed in the dome during the storm and for five days afterward as conditions deteriorated for tens of thousands of increasingly desperate evacuees, said even he initially questioned whether New Orleans — never mind its iconic stadium — could be rebuilt when he first saw the damage and flooding from a helicopter on his way to the state capital.
"I don't mind telling you that I cried all the way to Baton Rouge that day," Thornton said.
The roof, ripped open, had to be replaced. Workers wore hazardous-material suits with respirators to begin rehabilitating the interior, damaged by water, mold and even raw sewage in certain areas.
The dome re-opened on Sept. 25, 2006, hosting a sellout crowd whose full-throated energy pervaded the stadium and symbolized the community's resilience as the Saints took a famous victory over Atlanta.
"I get emotional just standing here thinking about it," Thornton said, his eyes watering. "It meant so much to so many people.
"What I'm most proud of is the fact that we had so many men and women on this job who sacrificed so much, and it meant so much to them and they knew that they were part of history," Thornton added. "That's what brought this project along, that sense of purpose."