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pakowitz 04-18-2003 04:55 PM

Conwell finds N.O. is his kind of town

Tight end, wife won over by tour of area

Friday April 18, 2003

By Jeff Duncan
Staff writer

Like many out-of-towners, Ernie Conwell and his wife, Andrea, thought New Orleans was about one thing -- actually, three things.

"Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, Mardi Gras," he said.

For devout Christians such as the Conwells, that isn't the ideal environment in which to raise their four children.

But Conwell, a veteran tight end, saw a different side of New Orleans during his free-agent visit last week. He saw a city where regular people lead daily lives the same way they did in St. Louis, a city with safe, family-oriented communities, a city with more to offer than just beads and multi-colored mixed drinks.

But Andrea still had reservations.

"The only two times she had been to New Orleans was for the Super Bowl (XXXVI) and for the Monday night game (against the Saints) in 2001," Conwell said. "That was her only perspective of the city. She'd never been outside the French Quarter."

Conwell expressed his concerns to Saints coach Jim Haslett during a phone call last Saturday. Haslett convinced Conwell to give the area a second look, this time with Andrea.

The Conwells flew to New Orleans late Saturday night. The next day Saints officials, donning their finest Chamber of Commerce hats, treated the couple to a nine-hour tour of the city and its surrounding suburbs.

Haslett, General Manager Mickey Loomis and tight ends coach Bob Palcic led the couple on a tour through Destrehan and Mandeville. They introduced the Conwells to families in the neighborhood and showed them the schools, churches and restaurants in the outlying communities before bringing them to the airport for a return flight to St. Louis.

Twelve hours later, on Monday morning, Conwell called Haslett to tell him he wanted to play for the Saints.

"It was probably the toughest decision that I have made in my life," Conwell said. "We labored over it for days. After lots of prayer and consideration, my wife and I had a lot of peace in our hearts about New Orleans. We knew it was the right decision."

Conwell's signing was considered a coup for the Saints. Many around the league believed Conwell would stay in St. Louis, where he played the first seven years of his career. He is a close friend of Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, and the Conwell family is well established in the St. Louis community.

But Conwell said the hospitality of the Saints' coaches and the New Orleanians they met during their visit made the decision an easy one.

"It was a smart decision on the team's behalf to bring my wife down here, because, face it, during the season, players' wives are like single parents," Conwell said. "The trip was enlightening for us. The type of unity and chemistry you see in the staff and the organization from the top on down was what we were looking for."

The Saints have been in search of a productive receiving tight end for the past five seasons. Conwell, who had 74 receptions and six touchdowns the past two seasons, was considered by many to be the top tight end on the free-agent market.

"Ernie's a good person, a true Christian and a good football player," Haslett said. "We're trying to accumulate good football players, guys that want to win and do it the right way. We think he's a perfect fit for our team."

It helped that the Saints' five-year, $8.5 million offer contained substantially more guaranteed money than the four-year deal the Rams offered.

The average per year of $1.7 million is slightly more than the Rams' offer -- about $1.6 million a season. But the Saints' signing bonus of $2.1 million is nearly $1 million more than the Rams' original offer. In addition, Conwell earns about $1.1 million more in the first two years of the Saints' contract than he would have with the Rams.

"I was a little disappointed with how things were going (in St. Louis)," Conwell said. "Obviously if things were done differently there, then the door never would have opened for free agency and I never would have ended up in New Orleans. But everything worked out the way it was supposed to work out."

A minor arthroscopic procedure on his right knee will keep Conwell sidelined for about six weeks and prevent him from participating in the May 2-4 minicamp. But otherwise, Conwell is ready.

ssmitty 04-18-2003 06:57 PM

Conwell finds N.O. is his kind of town
notice what haslett says there, smitty

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