NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Ambush.
Webster’s dictionary defines it as ‘to attack by surprise from a hidden place.’
But ten years ago in Super Bowl XLIV, the Saints gave the word ‘ambush’ a whole new meaning.
“That play has opened up a lot of doors,” Chris Reis, now a pastor living in Lafayette, Louisiana, said. “It’s been a unique experience going from zero to a hero.”
Thomas Morstead: “It does confirm validity to being accountable to your teammates and doing your job because you don’t know when it’s going to matter and when it’s not going to matter.”
It all began with a challenge from Saints head coach, Sean Payton, who was adamant that his team had to steal a possession from Peyton Manning and the high octane Colts offense. In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, special teams coordinator Greg McMahon devised the surprise onside kick called ‘ambush.’
The plan was simple. Then rookie Thomas Morstead, who had never attempted an onside kick in a college or pro game, would approach the tee like a normal kickoff then turn and kick it to the sideline twelve yards downfield where the Saints had five players to the Colts two. Plus, McMahon and Morstead noticed something about the Colts receiving team.
“The guy all the way to our left, that’s Hank Baskett,” Morstead demonstrated on a TV screen. “And sometimes guys would leave early to try to hedge their bet, and so we used that as an advantage for us.”
“When you put the kickoff return on you saw the left tackle (Baskett) bailing from the preseason games all the way through to the championship game,” McMahon explained. "We saw the same look over and over and over. So, you can tell that was something we were trying to take advantage of.
“Roman is supposed to be recovering this ball,” Morstead explained. “Chris Reis is playing the four position and he is supposed to loop back around in case anything pops out.”
The most difficult part for the players was not showing their hand too early.
“I remember feeling like as I was taking these steps, I was trying to really high-knee it to really sell that I was going to kick this ball,” Morstead said.
“I think all of us were a little paranoid we were going to tip it off in the biggest game of the year, the guttsiest call, we’re going we don’t want to give this away,” Reis explained. “So, Thomas’ approach was paramount.”
“The big thing is two things, you have to be onside because his momentum is going to change right at the tail end and you don’t want to be in front of the kick. You have to be legal,” McMahon explained. “And then certainly you want to make it all look the same as you did on kicks before.”
In a perfect world it would have been easy but what happened next was not perfection. Morstead’s kick went about 13.5 yards instead of twelve. Plus, Hank Baskett wasn’t really fooled.
“He didn’t bail,” Morstead said. “Courtney was supposed to block him and it’s a quick bang-bang deal and hank kind of slipped inside of him. So they’re supposed to be no colts, we should be recovering that ball and we didn’t. So we missed him but obviously the ball is spinning. It’s not an end-over-end ball so it wasn’t an easy thing to read.”
“I’m running towards it not thinking the ball is going to come bouncing off,” Reis said. “I thought I was going to go and spear him and try to grab it away. As I see the ball coming at me, I just throw my hands and body at it, and I’m not a receiver by any means. As you can see it’s kind of see it’s to the side of me, as I’m going down it just kind of slips between my arms and my legs and it’s kind of bang-bang play.”
Once Reis hit the ground, one player came flying in to save the Saints from disaster.
“The unsung hero of the play is Jonathan Casillas,” Morstead said. “He is going to spear Baskett again which doesn’t allow him to get the ball.”
“What Casillas does so well is you have these guys coming in grabbing at it and he just kind of jarred the pack loose,” Reis explained. “What you can’t see is Roman and this other guy are laying on top of me so one arm is pinned and the other arm is holding onto the ball. I’m the most exposed I can be.”
“It jarred the pile a little bit,” Reis continued. “I readjusted my arm and just hold it.”
But that wasn’t the end. One of the most violent battles for a loose football ensued. The scrum went on for what felt like an eternity. Though in real time, it totaled just over a minute.
“63 seconds! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a scrum that long," Reis recalled. “They don’t have scrums like this anymore. You can’t do some of these things that we’re doing here. The referee is right next to Thomas and he is trying to look for the ball. They say ‘blue ball’ I look up and scream ‘I have the ball.’ I have both hands on it, I have the ball right here. My hands and my forearms were burning. Literally, I was physically exhausted after that.”
We know what happened next. The Saints retained possession, went down and scored and eventually became world champions, and ‘ambush’ became the stuff of legend.
For those involved, this time of year always brings a nostalgic feel about being part of history.
“Anytime I watch the Super Bowl you can’t help but think about ‘hey man we did down to Miami and won.' I think this is a play just the whole mentality I thought Sean did a great job of we have to go in there aggressive and we emptied the barrels man, we were coming after them.”
"So many people’s life history so many people that were Saints fans for generations, when they see me they know where they were, they know the family members they were watching the game with. It’s one of the highlights of a lot of people’s family history. Everybody knows where they were, who they were with and how they felt. And to be a part of that, such a positive memory is pretty cool.
“It is life changing. It has been life changing. Not just the fame, the 15 minutes of fame that people recognize me. The fact that every year I’m interviewed or I get called or its one of the top plays in Super Bowl or Saints history or NFL history. To be a part of a play like that is humbling.”
And all agreed, as the years go by they gain a greater appreciation of just how special that 2009 Saints team truly was.