November 17, 2011

Some of the Hornets biggest fans happen to work right across the street from the Hive. During the winter months when the NFL and NBA regular seasons overlap, its common to see numerous New Orleans Saints players watching from the New Orleans Arena seats, fervently supporting the citys professional basketball franchise.

Listed at 6-foot-7, 320 pounds, offensive lineman Zach Strief is one of the NFC South-leading Saints longest-tenured current players, spending his entire six-year NFL career in the Crescent City. The starting tackle also now lives year-round here, giving him unique insight into the experience of being a New Orleans professional athlete.

The personable Ohio native joined after a recent practice to discuss his enjoyment of basketball, the unique story behind his popular No. 64 jersey and his present and future plans in the city of New Orleans. The word around this locker room is that you are an excellent basketball player, one of the best on the entire Saints roster. Where do you rank yourself among your teammates in terms of basketball skill?
Strief: In terms of skill? Im probably low on that totem pole. But I do have a post-up game. If Im playing against someone who doesnt know how to defend a low-post game, I really dont have to be that good. I mean, Im 6-foot-8. If I can make a four-foot hook shot, then Im going to score some points. For the most part, I learned (growing up) how to play basketball, while most guys in here just kind of play basketball. So I take advantage of that.

We used to go to Lusher Charter School to play (basketball) a couple years ago and thered be big groups of us there, about 20 to 25 guys. Wed pick teams and play for maybe five hours. So Ive played basketball with a lot of these guys.

One guy Ive never played against is Jimmy Graham, but I never will play against him, because he knows how to stop everything that I know how to do. He would ruin my reputation. [smiles] Hes such a fluid athlete, so big and strong, that you could probably put him on an NBA team and be able to find a role for him. I could definitely see him being able to rebound and defend, almost like a Dennis Rodman-type guy. Among the teams offensive linemen, who is the best overall athlete?
Strief: (Guard) Carl Nicks. Its not me. Im actually probably the worst overall athlete on the offensive line. [laughs] You seem to be one of the bigger fan favorites on the Saints, probably a rarity in the NFL for offensive linemen, who dont generally get much attention from the media and dont compile statistics like other positions. What do you think are the reasons behind that?
Strief: I think its twofold. For one, Ive tried to be as involved in the community as I can be since Ive been here. This is a place that really appreciates that. In a lot of places, things like that can go completely unnoticed, which is fine. But I think people here appreciate it because they have so much pride in their city and they love to see other people come here and also appreciate it. Also, my wife is from here. So that has increased (the connection) even more, because people know that Im going to stay here and be a lifelong resident.

The other part of it, weve had a package on offense where I lined up as a tight end. So they announced in the Superdome my number 64 (on the PA system) and say that Im eligible. It became almost like an inside joke among fans and took on a life of its own. All those things together created it which is awesome. Its a cool deal for me. Apparently there are a number of fans who wear No. 64 jerseys with ELIGIBLE as the name above the number on the back, instead of STRIEF. What do you think is the ratio of No. 64 jerseys that read STRIEF compared to those that read ELIGIBLE?
Strief: I guarantee you there are more out there that say ELIGIBLE than say STRIEF on the back. I think the only people wearing ones with STRIEF are my family and friends. [smiles] I get pictures of the ones with ELIGIBLE all the time, because people send them to me.

I actually feel kind of bad, because we dont run that (formation) anymore with me lining up as an eligible receiver. So there are people out there with jerseys that have become kind of throwbacks now. [laughs]

I also saw a story on, I think it was this year, where they wrote about the top five Saints jerseys for a real fan. And number one on the list was the 64 ELIGIBLE jersey. They said in the article that if you have to ask what it means, then youre not a real fan. [smiles] I thought that was really cool.

Alex Wong/Getty Images With how relatively small New Orleans is and the fact that youve lived here year-round for a couple years, how frequently do you interact with fans in your daily life? NOLA is also much smaller geographically, so you probably see familiar faces more often than in some larger U.S. cities.
Strief: Ive heard people describe it as that Saints and Hornets players are more accessible. I think part of it is the relationship that the team has with the city. People embrace you here in a different way. Its not like theyre just fans. They genuinely are happy to have you in their city. It feels more personal. Because of that, people in the community are more willing to approach you, because its like you are a guest of their city. I think both us and the Hornets have done such a good job of bringing the right type of character guys in, the right people. It works out very well, because most of the players are approachable people to begin with. There was a New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company TV commercial that aired frequently featuring you and former teammate Heath Evans last year. Whos the better actor?
Strief: Me, for sure. Definitely me. [smiles] Evans is now a broadcaster for NFL Network. Do you have any interest in broadcasting after your career is over?
Strief: Yes, I think I would enjoy it. I think I would be comfortable doing it. Its a hard thing to break into, but Heath has done such a great job of doing that. Im sure he did a lot while he was still playing to set that up, but he went from playing (last year) to hes actually on NFL Network now. That doesnt happen generally. There is usually more of a period where youre waiting for your chance.

But knowing the way this city is and that Im going to stay here, there might be an opportunity for me to be a former player who goes on to do local television stuff. Id be more interested in covering New Orleans than national stuff. Aside from acting, you displayed one of your other off-the-field talents when you wrote a cookbook titled When Youre the Biggest Guy on the Team! What gave you the idea to write it?
Strief: The idea of a cookbook was originally a way to raise money for my foundation. It kind of made sense, coming to New Orleans to play here, with it being such a food town. It was a way for me to introduce myself to that industry here. It really worked well and has gotten a lot of attention. Ive met a lot of the restaurant (owners) and chefs here, and thats a great group of people to know in New Orleans, because they kind of run the city. Speaking of your foundation, which is called the Dream Big Foundation, what are its main objectives?
Strief: The name of the foundation is kind of self-explanatory and a play on words, in that Im a pretty big guy. But its also about asking children to dream as big as possible. Thats something that has worked especially well in New Orleans, because there are impoverished areas, where people dont grow up thinking that they can go outside of where they are from. A majority of kids (who benefit from the foundation) grow up in Central City, blocks from St. Charles (Avenue), the Superdome and the French Quarter, but have never been there in 20 years. Theyve never left their area.

The idea is to get kids to realize that there is more out there than what is directly in front of them. We have an opportunity to reach out to them to see that there is more for them. I think thats an empowering message.

I never thought in a million years I would ever play in the NFL. I didnt even play football until I was in high school. In fact, the thought of playing in college never crossed my mind. You look back and realize that you can accomplish anything you work hard for. I think sometimes kids need to understand that from the get-go.

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