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T-Bob Hebert

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T-Bob: Saints grooming one tough player in Tim Lelito

With Saints Center Brian de la Puente signing with the Bears a couple days ago, it would appear that for the fourth time in the Sean Payton era the Saints are preparing to break in a new snapper.  The lead dog for this spot is Tim Lelito, who made the team last season as an undrafted rookie free agent and backed up both guards and the center as the team’s interior swing man.

Lelito started two games last year in place of an injured Jahri Evans and while he struggled at times, he got better the more live reps he took part in.  However, today I would like to talk about Lelito’s mental toughness, which after last season cannot be questioned.

Tim Lelito played his college ball at Division II Grand Valley State in Michigan.  Go ahead…  try and name another Division II school.  Remember, this is the level below Nicholls St, Northwestern St, and McNeese. The jump in the level of competition that Lelito faced during OTAs and camp is hard to fathom. You maybe would face one legitimate NFL guy during your time at Grand Valley St, and then all of a sudden you’re battling it out against the likes of Akiem Hicks and Broderick Bunkley on a day to day basis?  That is absurd.  Lelito showed an impressive ability to raise his level of play in order to win one of those coveted 53 man roster spots.  As challenging as making the team was, Lelito had no way of knowing even greater obstacles awaited down the road.

It's week 4, and Jahri Evans has just informed Lelito that he will be the starter against the Arizona Cardinals.  This switch brought Evans' 122 consecutive game start streak to a halt, and thrust Lelito out of the pan and into the fire.  If you thought making the team was hard, imagine knowing that your first NFL start will find you filling in for a four-time Pro Bowl guard going against a 3-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle in Darnell Dockett.  I find it hard to imagine what his mindset must have been like before kickoff.  

The biggest crowd he played in front of at GVS was maybe a few thousand people, and yet, Lelito found himself about to take the field as a starter with Drew Brees in front of 70,000 people while battling against a 3-time Pro Bowl NFL veteran.   Needless to say, the stakes were much higher than anything he experienced in college.  To make matters worse, Lelito tweaked a muscle in his leg on the second play of the game, but he didn’t let it slow him down.  Tim ended up playing 79 total plays that day, including special teams and while he gave up three sacks.

All things considered, I came away pretty impressed.  He showed true toughness and grit by not getting discouraged when things went poorly.  The Saints went on to soundly beat the Cardinals 31-7.  This first start could have made an impressive story in and of itself, yet once again, Lelito’s road was only going to get more challenging in his second start.  

It’s the Saturday night before the Saints play the 49ers in the 'Dome in an all-important battle between two of the NFC’s best.  That's when Lelito was hit with personal tragedy as he was informed that his grandmother had passed away.  Lelito was closer to his Grandma than most; in fact, his grandmother actually adopted him and raised him as her own.  For most people, this would be enough to go to the coaches and explain that you need some time off. However, Tim Lelito is not most people.  He didn’t tell anyone and went out and played the next day, fulfilling his special teams and short yardage duties as the Saints won 23-20.  

However, during the win, Jahri Evans got injured, which meant that Lelito was informed on Monday that he was expected to start just three days later on a Thursday night battle with division rival Atlanta.  This is where I believe Lelito’s ability to control his mind comes to the forefront.  Lelito participated in the team walkthrough Tuesday before flying Tuesday night back to Michigan for the funeral Wednesday morning.  After the funeral, Lelito flew to Atlanta to meet up with the team arriving around 9 PM Wednesday night.  He spent the next 24 hours cramming for the game and making sure he had all the last second adjustments understood and ready to put into action.  So here is Tim Lelito preparing for just his second start in the NFL that has huge implications on the Saints divisional chances and will take place in the extremely hostile environment that is Falcon country.

Once again, there is no way that Lelito had ever played a game in such a hostile environment with so much crowd noise, and he had just suffered a tragic personal loss, yet despite all of this Lelito somehow managed to block out all the extraciricular problems focus on the task at hand.  Tim played well (only giving up one sack) and more importantly the Saints got a big win 17-13.

I don’t know about you, but if I had lost someone that close to me the week of a game I don’t expect I would have been able to step up and perform like Lelito did.  He may or may not be the answer for the Saints center vacancy, and you can question his technique, performance, etcetera once the preseason starts; however, one thing I will never question with Tim Lelito is his mental toughness.  He’s got that in spades.

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Locations : AtlantaMichigan
People : Brian de la PuenteDrew BreesTim Lelito

04/08/2014 3:58PM
T-Bob: Saints grooming one tough player in Tim Lelito
Please Enter Your Comments Below
04/08/2014 5:35PM
great write up!
Look forward to more of these!
04/08/2014 5:49PM
Good stuff!
Nice write up T-Bob. I knew this story but you still brought heart to it. Lelito deserves the shot and I think he is a good bet.
04/09/2014 11:02AM
Lelito lives for football
I have to say that I agree with you. I noticed Lelito during the preseason last year. I also noticed that the line still held in the absence of Evans. The Saints knew that they had a future starter last year. It seems to me that the line improved late in the season after losing Coach Kromer. Hopefully that trend carries over to this year.
04/09/2014 2:59PM
Tim Lelito
Good Article T-BOB
04/13/2014 3:58PM
Tim Lelito
Great article. Like to see the personal side of a player. He is going to be an asset to the Saints for sure.
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